Mentally ill people in Pennsylvania’s prisons are held in solitary confinement for long periods of time, denied adequate mental health care, held in harmful conditions, and are punished for exhibiting the symptoms of mental illness, claims a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania (DPN) filed the lawsuit on March 11, 2013.
“This is a vile and inhumane way to treat people with mental illness. As one judge put it, solitary confinement for a person with mental illness is like an airless room for an asthmatic. Pennsylvania should give these prisoners beds in units designed to help people with mental illness, not devastate them,” said Robert W. Meek, attorney for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania.
There are approximately 800 prisoners with mental illnesses incarcerated in the state. Many are held in solitary confinement in Restricted Housing Units (RHU) – some as small as the average home bathroom.
People with mental illnesses form approximately 33 percent of the RHU population in Pennsylvania’s prisons.
The lawsuit alleges the following:
- The placement of prisoners with serious mental illness into solitary confinement in RHU violates their rights under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
- Mentally ill prisoners are held in solitary confinement in RHU for at least 23 hours a day with minimal contact with human beings
- Prolonged isolation worsens the symptoms of the prisoners’ mental illness, causing prisoners to refuse medical treatment or to leave their cells
- Prisoners who are isolated experience paranoia, hallucinations, problems sleeping
- Some prisoners exhibit self-harming behavior such as head banging, cutting, and attempted suicide
- Prisoners who display the symptoms of their mental illness are punished for violating prison rules
- The Dept. is aware that this type of confinement exacerbates the symptoms of mental illness, yet still disciplines prisoners by placing them in solitary confinement for long periods of time
- Mental health care is inadequate with only brief cell-front contacts with mental health staff instead of the extensive treatment needed
The American Psychiatric Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care advocates that prisoners with serious mental illnesses be evaluated by mental health professionals to assess whether solitary confinement would be harmful. If the prisoner is confined, the placement should only last a few weeks, during which the prisoner would receive health care treatment. Other states have accepted these standards but Pennsylvania has not.
DRN is seeking an injunction requiring the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to:
- stop violating the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners with mental illness who are held in Pennsylvania’s RHU
- Establish a disciplinary process that takes into account the prisoners’ mental state
- Provide mentally ill prisoners with constitutionally adequate mental health care
- Institute protection measures for these prisoners
More information is available on the DRN website.