Imagine an ordinary parking space. Now add walls and a ceiling made of thick concrete, closed off by a solid steel door. The lights are always on, so it’s never dark. You eat there, you sleep there. You are alone. Three times a day an officer slides a food tray through a slot. There is a toilet. A few times a week, if you’re lucky, you’re taken to a small cage where you can “exercise,” alone. If you are visited by family or clergy, you are not allowed to touch them. You cannot participate in any vocational, recreational, or educational programs or any form of communal religious worship or prayer.
This is life for a prisoner on Pennsylvania’s death row.
The policy of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is to house all prisoners with death sentences in solitary confinement until they are executed or released. One prisoner has been in solitary for over 35 years. Of the 156 men currently sentenced to death in the commonwealth, almost 80 percent have been held in solitary confinement for more than a decade.
Under the DOC’s policy, these prisoners remain in solitary confinement until “death do us part” — via execution or natural causes — or the sentence is overturned or they are exonerated. There is no way to escape the isolation for exemplary conduct, demonstrated self-improvement, or aging beyond the point that criminality commonly occurs.
Today, the ACLU’s National Prison Project, ACLU of Pennsylvania, Abolitionist Law Center, and cooperating counsel from law firms Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of five named plaintiffs, men held in solitary confinement for between 16 and 27 years, against the Pennsylvania DOC to end the policy. The long-term isolation — and its extreme physical, emotional, and psychological consequences — are an unnecessary, cruel, and inhumane punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The devastating effects of prolonged isolation are well known among mental health professionals and human rights experts in the United States and around the world. Prolonged solitary confinement causes painful, severe, and, sometimes, irreversible harm. A substantial body of literature over the last 200 years documents distinctive patterns of physiological and psychological harm when individuals are placed in long-term solitary confinement. The risk of self-harm, self-mutilation, and suicide is much higher for individuals in solitary confinement. Even healthy adults, if subjected to very short periods of isolation, display impaired neurological functioning.
We understand the cruelty of solitary confinement, which is why we must fight to end it.
Corrections experts also agree that there is no reason to automatically and permanently hold all prisoners facing death sentences in solitary confinement. Two states, Missouri and North Carolina, have allowed these prisoners into general population for years, without disciplinary or other serious problems. According to The Marshall Project, corrections officials in North Carolina found that those sentenced to death have better behavioral records than average inmates and rarely commit violence, in part because they are not isolated in their cells all day.
Isolation does not make prisoners or prison staff safe. It just inflicts cruelty. Other states, including Virginia, Colorado and Arizona, have significantly reduced the isolation of prisoners facing the death penalty.
The tide is turning across the nation on solitary confinement, in part because there is no valid penological reason to isolate prisoners sentenced to death. There is nothing unique about Pennsylvania’s prisons or its death-sentenced prisoners to prevent humane treatment. Any prisoner, regardless of sentence, may “earn” time in isolation for severe or persistent misconduct, but experts uniformly agree that such isolation must be finite and brief.
While U.S. constitutional law is still evolving, respected American jurists have joined the chorus challenging the use of prolonged solitary confinement. Justice Anthony Kennedy noted, “[R]esearch still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price.” In describing a case in which a death-sentenced prisoner had been held in isolation for 25years, Justice Kennedy told a House Appropriations Subcommittee that, “This idea of total incarceration just isn’t working. And it’s not humane. . . . Solitary confinement literally drives men mad.”
Pennsylvania's DOC should see the writing on the wall and end mandatory and permanent solitary confinement for state prisoners on death row. Pennsylvania needs to join Missouri, North Carolina, and other states in abolishing this inhumane policy. If the DOC refuses, we and a few federal judges should be able to help them along.