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October 04, 2023

'Torturous' solitary confinement conditions in a Pa. prison are unconstitutional, federal lawsuit claims

Inmates say being locked in small, windowless rooms exacerbates mental illness and violates the U.S. Constitution

A Pennsylvania prison's practice of holding inmates in solitary confinement is inhumane and unconstitutional, according to a federal lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

Originally filed last fall and amended last week, the suit represents five inmates at Fayette State Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in La Belle, Pennsylvania. It claims that the "torturous conditions" of solitary confinement in the correctional facility exacerbate mental illness among inmates who are forced to endure it.

In addition to punitive and compensatory damages, the lawsuit demands an end to solitary confinement for inmates with mental health conditions. Mental illness is already pervasive among U.S. prison inmates, with 54% of state inmates and 45% of federal inmates having existing mental health conditions, according to the American Psychological Association. Mental illness often is made worse by inadequate mental health treatment in U.S. correctional facilities. 

Solitary confinement at the prison involves being locked in a small, windowless room for about 22 hours a day with lights on at all times, the lawsuit alleges. The suit claims these conditions exacerbate prisoners' mental health issues. 

The experience of enduring solitary confinement has allegedly induced insomnia, hallucinations, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation among inmates. According to the suit, some of those held in solitary confinement at the prison have attempted suicide, flooded their cells with toilet water and written on walls using their own blood.

Inmates placed in solitary confinement at the prison are denied access to behavioral therapy and addiction counseling they would normally receive, the lawsuit claims. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue the prison's mental health treatment is "grossly inadequate." 

The lawsuit's plaintiffs want the courts to ban the use of "secret evidence" that they say is sometimes used to justify placing an inmate in solitary confinement and limits an inmate's ability to appeal the decision. The suit argues that this violates their constitutional rights to due process and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment

This isn't the first time that the practice of solitary confinement has been challenged in U.S. courts. In January 2023, death row inmates in Texas sued the state over "brutal" solitary confinement conditions, with some prisoners being held in isolation for over 20 years. 

Then in April, a federal lawsuit claimed a mentally ill man died when he was locked away in isolation for 20 days inside an Indiana jail. The same month, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision was sued over its excessive use of solitary confinement.