Suit claims Pa. prison system inflicts cruel, unusual punishment on mentally ill

    The Disability Rights Network is suing the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, claiming that housing seriously mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement is unconstitutional.


    In the lawsuit, the advocacy organization claims about 800 Pennsylvania prisoners with severe mental illnesses are incarcerated in “restricted housing units,” where they dwell in small, single cells for at least 23 hours a day, with the lights on the entire time. The suit calls this cruel and unusual punishment.

    Robert Meek, a lawyer with the Disability Rights Network, says his organization has visited about half of Pennsylvania’s prisons, and found inmates do not receive adequate mental health care.

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    “The alleged treatment provided by mental health staff is practically non-existent,” said Meek. “They walk by, say ‘how are you doing’ and keep on walking. In some cases, people are just so ill that they can’t even respond to that kind of thing.

    “And other people won’t respond. They are concerned that their private lives will be exposed to anybody in ear shot,” he said.

    Meek says seriously mentally ill prisoners typically end up in restricted housing units because they have broken prison rules — often because of their mental illness.

    “Making a noose out of a sheet in their cell, they’ll get written up for destroying public property,” explained Meek. “I have seen reports where people were beating their heads against the screen in their door, and they get written up for refusing an order to stop beating their head against the door.”

    This type of confinement exacerbates mental illness, said Meek, adding that he has seen prisoners smeared with feces and covered in self-inflicted wounds.

    Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections would not comment on the suit, but officials said that of the state’s 51,300 prisoners, about 20 percent are known to have mental health issues.

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