Pennsylvania inmates sue state corrections department over ‘torturous’ solitary confinement conditions News
jraffin / Pixabay
Pennsylvania inmates sue state corrections department over ‘torturous’ solitary confinement conditions

A group of five Pennsylvania inmates sued the state’s Department of Corrections and its employees, according to a Tuesday announcement from the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. The lawsuit, filed last week, alleges severe mental health consequences stemming from the use of solitary confinement in Pennsylvania prisons.

The class action lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, makes claims against the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Fayette. Defendants also include the leadership of SCI Fayette, such as its superintendent, Tina Walker. As recently as August, SCI Fayette housed almost 2,000 state inmates, which is 90 percent of its operating capacity.

Specifically, the lawsuit targets the Security Threat Group Management Unit (STGMU) at SCI Fayette. According to the complaint, it is unknown how inmates are placed into the STGMU, and thus inmates cannot challenge their placement. The complaint alleges one individual’s placement in the STGMU “ha[s] led to torturous conditions, causing severe psychological decompensation, trauma-induced anxiety, cognitive decline, abject hopelessness and depression, and frequent suicide attempts by those trapped in the unit.” Additionally, the plaintiffs claim people in the STGMU face solitary confinement in a cell for 22 hours per day without access to mental health treatment, fueling negative mental health outcomes including suicide attempts.

Because of this, the lawsuit seeks to halt the STGMU from placing individuals in this “torturous” solitary confinement. Highlighting these conditions, the complaint explains, “[The inmates] have virtually no contact with others, except when they are taken to the extremely small outdoor yard cages, surrounded by other incarcerated individuals who may be experiencing extreme emotional distress or psychosis.”

The plaintiffs seek relief under the US Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, claiming their due process rights were violated because a placement in the STGMU does not require a hearing. There is also a claim for a violation of the US Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, asserting that the solitary confinement conditions threaten the lives of the plaintiffs because they are at a higher risk of harm due to their mental health conditions. Finally, there are claims under the American Disabilities Act because SCI Fayette placed plaintiffs in solitary confinement due to their psychiatric disabilities and under the Rehabilitation Act by not providing accommodations to plaintiffs’ mental health disabilities.

The complaint also highlights the disparate impacts isolation in the STGMU has on the general prison population because the majority of inmates in this program are Black and Latinx.

This is not the first time this particular federal court has received a complaint against a Pennsylvania correctional institution. In 2020, Allegheny County inmates sued Allegheny County Jail personnel over harm against people with mental health disabilities stemming from the use of solitary confinement in place of proper mental health treatment.