The 156 death row inmates in Pennsylvania state prisons go to sleep every night the same way they wake up: in an 8-by-12 foot cell illuminated by artificial light around the clock. On weekdays, they are allowed out of their cells for a maximum of two hours to exercise in a small, enclosed space. They leave their cells thrice a week to take showers and are occasionally allowed to go to the law library. Every once in a while, a death-sentenced prisoner gets a visit with clergy or a family member – without being able to touch them. On weekends, they cannot leave their cells at all. For most of their lives, they sit alone in a suffocating cage the size of a parking space.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday filed a lawsuit challenging these conditions, alleging that the Pennsylvania prison system’s mandatory solitary confinement for death-row inmates is unconstitutional, as it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
“The fact that, for these prisoners, solitary confinement is automatic and permanent until either the prisoner is executed, or dies of natural causes, or has his death sentence overturned is very different from the way solitary confinement is used for all other prisoners,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “For all other prisoners, you earn your way in and you earn your way out. You serve your punishment, and, if you behave, you can come back to the general population.”
The plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit have been held in solitary confinement between 16 and 27 years, under a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections policy that mandates solitary confinement for all prisoners with death sentences. This has been common practice in prisons across the country for a long time, Fathi noted, but “in recent years, an increasing number of states are moving away from that and treating death-sentence prisoners just like anyone else, making an individualized decision on how they’re housed.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit have been held in solitary confinement between 16 and 27 years.
Sixty-one percent of 2,802 death-row inmates in state prisons across the country spent more than 20 hours per day in isolation last year, according to a survey of state corrections officials by the Marshall Project. At least one state, Arizona, has since changed its policy, eliminating automatic isolation for its 118 condemned inmates. The Copper State joined California, Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, all of which changed their policies in recent years to allow death-row inmates more time outside of their cells, according to the Marshall Project.
The ACLU raised the issue of mandatory and indefinite solitary confinement with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections last year and offered proposals to modify the policy. The department rejected the suggestions in June, according to the lawsuit, and “determined to continue to administer its current capital case housing policy.” The department did not immediately return a request for comment.
Eighty percent of the state’s current death-row inmates have been held in continuous solitary confinement for more than 10 years, which is higher than averages in other states, said Fathi. The internationally recognized Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2015, prohibit solitary confinement for a period longer than 15 consecutive days.
The disastrous psychological and physiological effects of prolonged isolation are well-documented. It can lead to hypersensitivity to stimuli, delusions, hallucinations, and panic attacks. Prisoners’ lack of interaction with other people can lead to paranoia, anxiety, nervousness, and depression.
“Plaintiff Mark Newton Spotz, who has been held in continuous solitary confinement in SCI Greene for 21 years, describes his experience as ‘psychological torture,’ where prisoners are ‘treated like animals’ and forced to ‘depend on everybody for everything,’” according to the lawsuit. “He feels ‘trapped in [his] cell’ – and his ‘mind is like a popcorn machine.’”
“He feels ‘trapped in [his] cell’ – and his ‘mind is like a popcorn machine.’”
The U.S. Supreme Court commented on how solitary confinement can be detrimental to mental health in 1890, noting that some prisoners subject to confinement “became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy referred to that opinion in a 2015 ruling, writing, “Research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total-isolation exact a terrible price.”
Solitary confinement is generally used as a punitive measure against prison rule-breakers and based on an individualized assessment. In the lawsuit, filed in a U.S. district court in Pennsylvania, the ACLU says the same standard should be applied to death row. The plaintiffs asked the court to find that Pennsylvania’s practice is unconstitutional, stop state prisons from subjecting prisoners to indefinite solitary confinement without opportunity for review, and create a plan within 30 days that provides for an individualized placement procedure for death-sentenced inmates.
Anthony Graves was exonerated in 2010 after spending 12 years in mandatory solitary confinement as a death-row prisoner in Texas and now works with the ACLU of Texas. He described his prolonged isolation in an interview with The Intercept: “If you imagine what hell could be, that’s what solitary confinement is,” he said. “Every day. Every hour of the day. Day in and day out. It’s a system designed to break your will to live.”
He suffered from post-traumatic stress and feelings of abandonment and loneliness after his release, he said, but was able to eventually adjust due to a strong support system he had. Most prisoners who spend years in isolation, however, struggle to reintegrate into society.
“I’m the exception, not the rule,” Graves said. “People like me are not supposed to cope.”