Class-action lawsuit: Pennsylvania's mentally ill inmates stuck in isolation

| Monday, March 11, 2013, 2:00 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — Hundreds of mentally-ill inmates in Pennsylvania languish for months and even years in isolated cells, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Monday that says the “Dickensian” practice only exacerbates their condition.

The federal lawsuit accuses state prison officials of punishing the mentally ill for head-banging, hallucinations and other psychotic behaviors instead of getting them needed medical care.

About one-third of the 2,400 inmates kept in restricted custody across the state suffer from serious mental-health problems, according to the suit. They spend 23 hours a day in small, windowless cells, and have little contact with other human beings.

A few have been held in solitary for more than a decade as punishment for various infractions, leading some to attempt suicide, advocates said.

“They don't know what time it is, or what day it is. They have no feedback loop with reality,” said Robert W. Meek, a lead attorney with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, which filed the suit in Harrisburg against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

The five state prisons in Allegheny, Fayette, Greene, Indiana and Westmoreland counties had 546 people in restricted housing units in February, according to the state Department of Corrections. The department didn't have a breakdown on how many of those inmates are mentally ill.

The corrections agency had not seen the lawsuit and had no immediate comment, spokeswoman Sue McNaughton said.

Similar lawsuits were filed across the country in recent years, in states including Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico, some through the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.

“Prolonged isolation under these extremely harsh conditions exacerbates the symptoms of the prisoners' mental illness, which can include refusing to leave their cells, declining medical treatment, sleeplessness, hallucinations, paranoia, covering themselves with feces, head banging, injuring themselves and prison staff, and suicide,” the Pennsylvania lawsuit said.

The ensuing behavior becomes the subject of further rule violations that warrant more time in solitary, Meek said.

“The result is a Dickensian nightmare, in which many prisoners, because of their mental illness, are trapped in an endless cycle of isolation and punishment,” the lawsuit said.

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