The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania (DRN) filed a federal lawsuit today challenging the unconstitutional treatment of prisoners with serious mental illness in solitary confinement, known as Restricted Housing Units, in state correctional institutions.
The network, designated under federal law to protect the rights of people with disabilities, said the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections confines about 800 men and women with mental illnesses in horrific conditions with inadequate mental health treatment. The lawsuit alleges that the department is aware that such confinement exacerbates their mental illness, but does not adequately take their mental health into account before disciplining them by placing them in solitary confinement for extended periods of time. The lawsuit alleges the state’s mistreatment of these prisoners, who make up about 33% of the total RHU population, violates their rights under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Prisoners in RHUs are locked down at least 23 hours a day in cells as small as 80 square feet – the size of an average home bathroom. Often prisoners are punished for violations of prison rules that are a result of the symptoms and manifestations of their mental illness.
Prisoners confined to RHUs have only the most minimal contact with other human beings. Prolonged isolation exacerbates the symptoms of mental illness. As a result, often prisoners with mental illness refuse to leave their cells for the limited recreation time or for medical treatment. Others experience sleeplessness, hallucinations, and paranoia. Still others engage in head banging, injure themselves by cutting or attempted hanging, and sometimes are successful in suicide attempts. Frequently, these symptoms are regarded as prison rule infractions, which prison officials punish with still more time in the RHU.
Despite knowing the psychological pain the RHU imposes, DOC fails to provide prisoners with mental illness in solitary adequate mental health services. Prisoners receive, at best, very brief cell-front contacts from mental health staff. However, many prisoners need far more extensive treatment, which is not provided.
The American Psychiatric Association as well as the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (the accreditation entity for jails and prisons) advocate against housing prisoners with serious mental illness in segregated units like the RHU without an evaluation by mental health professionals to determine whether such placement would be harmful. They further urge that such confinement should last only a few weeks at most and that adequate mental health services be provided to prisoners whatever the setting. While other states’ corrections officials have adopted these standards, Pennsylvania’s have not.