KRMFL, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the ACLU National Prison Project, the Abolitionist Law Center, and Drinker Biddle & Reath filed a complaint in federal court yesterday demanding that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections cease its practice of automatically placing death row inmates in solitary confinement.
The complaint points to the voluminous evidence demonstrating the devastating mental and physical effects of extended solitary confinement, and argues that the DOC’s policy fails to reflect evolving standards of decency and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The legal team further argues that death-sentenced inmates’ inability to challenge their confinement or otherwise to receive individualized consideration violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
According to the complaint, death-sentenced inmates spend 22-24 hours per day alone in their parking-space-sized cells with the lights on. Family visits are exclusively non-contact, and it is not uncommon for an inmate to go days without a single human interaction. While some other states allow death-sentenced inmates to reenter the prison’s general population, Pennsylvania maintains its practice of automatically housing all death-sentenced inmates in segregated housing.
One survivor of solitary confinement described the experience for Mother Jones: “Life in the vacuum of a cell is spirit-killing, mind-altering, and the zenith in human cruelty…. Deprived of the frame of reference that social interaction provides, you lose the sense of yourself as part of a larger whole, the context in which your existence has meaning. You struggle to keep your sanity because in the vacuum of that cell, where there is no meaning, your mind tries to create meaning out of nothing, and this can lead you to confuse fantasy with reality.”
Of the 156 people sentenced to death in Pennsylvania, nearly 80 percent have spent more than a decade in solitary confinement.