Settlement Reached to End Permanent Solitary Confinement for People Sentenced to Death in Pennsylvania

November 18, 2019 10:00 am

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HARRISBURG, Pa. — The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Abolitionist Law Center, and counsel Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP announced a settlement today in a class action lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections. The suit, which was filed in January of 2018, claimed that Pennsylvania DOC’s automatic, irrevocable practice of holding all people sentenced to death in permanent solitary confinement violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

In the settlement, the department agreed to house people who have been sentenced to death in the same manner as the prisons’ general population.

“The use of long-term solitary confinement on anyone is torture,” said Amy Fettig, deputy director of the National Prison Project. “The conditions Pennsylvania’s DOC was subjecting people on death row to — spending their entire lives in a tiny, filthy cell without any normal human contact, congregate religious services, sufficient access to exercise, sunshine, the outdoors, or environmental and intellectual stimulation — weren’t just deeply unconstitutional; they were horribly inhumane.”

The department will still house people who are sentenced to death in specific prisons, but has agreed to reforms to offer the rights and privileges afforded to people in other state facilities, including:

  • At least 42.5 hours out-of-cell activity every week, including yard and outdoor time, law library time, congregate meal time, treatment or counseling meetings, congregate religious worship, work assignment, and phased in contact visitation;
  • Permission to use the phone on a daily basis for at least 15 minutes per usage;
  • Incarcerated people will not be subjected to strip-searches, shackling, or other restraints, unless security measures are required in response to a temporary, emergent situation;
  • Contact visits with family, lawyers and religious advisors; and
  • Resocialization assistance for individuals psychologically damaged by long periods in solitary confinement to help them in the transition to living in a general population setting, as well and physical and mental health baseline evaluations due to years of neglect.

“This settlement brings Pennsylvania out of the penological dark ages and makes it a national leader in treating all incarcerated persons humanely,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We are grateful that Governor Wolf and Secretary Wetzel have agreed to stop using permanent solitary confinement and to adopt humane policies to govern Pennsylvania’s capital units.”

“Despite decades spent in inhumane isolation, our clients have organized and persevered in this historic achievement for the movement to abolish solitary confinement in Pennsylvania,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “They have set a powerful precedent for ending solitary confinement of capital case prisoners — and eventually the death penalty as a whole — across the country. We are proud to represent them.”

Pennsylvania currently has 136 people on death row, making it the fifth largest row in the country. The state hasn’t carried out an execution since 1999 and currently has a moratorium on the death penalty.

More information about the lawsuit, Reid et al. v. Wetzel, including a copy of the settlement agreement, is available at this link:


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