The Lead

‘A form of torture’: Lawmakers, advocates seek to reduce use of solitary confinement

By: - February 3, 2020 2:17 pm

Pennsylvania state Reps. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware, and Jeanne McNeill, D-Lehigh, pose outside a solitary confinement cell replica in the state Capitol on Monday. Captial-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison.

Calling the practice torturous and degrading, a group of Pennsylvania lawmakers, clergy and prison reform advocates gathered in the state Capitol Monday to call for new laws limiting solitary confinement of prisoners across the state.

The event took place the same day that advocates erected an 8×12 foot solitary confinement cell in the Capitol. Outfitted with just a sink and a bed, advocates said the replica shows the conditions inmates face when they spend months or years in so-called “restricted housing units.”

“Solitary confinement is a form of torture,” said Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, a sponsor of a Senate bill putting new restrictions on solitary confinement sentences. “It warehouses people with problems rather than addressing them before releasing people back to society.”

Secluding inmates is a common disciplinary tool in American jails and prisons, despite evidence that prolonged isolation causes depression, psychosis, and suicidal ideation. 

Solitary confinement is generally reserved for inmates who pose a danger themselves or others. But critics of the practice say it can be liberally doled out as a punishment for minor infractions, and that prisoners have no way to appeal a solitary confinement sentence. 

Confined inmates are also subjected to frequent strip-searches when they leave their cells to shower or eat, said Doug Hollis, a formerly incarcerated person who says he spent 30 days in isolation.

 “It’s a humiliating experience,”Hollis said. “You’re stripped of your dignity… whatever the reason [for being there], it’s dehumanizing and wrong.”

In Pennsylvania, 85 percent of inmates in solitary confinement were sent there for failing to obey an order, according to a news article shared by the state Department of Corrections. 

A 2018 report by The Appeal, a non-profit criminal justice news site, found that some of the more than 100 inmates in solitary confinement in Pennsylvania had been held in seclusion for months or years. 

Bills in the House and Senate seek to limit solitary confinement sentences in state, county and juvenile correctional centers by requiring prisoners to receive hearings within 72 hours of being sent to isolation. 

If a hearing officer decides the sentence is justified, the inmate — who must be represented by a lawyer — must receive a subsequent review every 15 days until they are released. 

The bills also prohibit the use of solitary confinement for prisoners who are pregnant or recently gave birth, LGBTQ inmates, and prisoners under the age of 21 or over the age of 70.  

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections settled a federal lawsuit last year by agreeing to end solitary confinement for inmates on death row.

Legislatures in states such as New York, meanwhile, have debated ending the practice entirely.

Rep. Tina Davis, D-Bucks, said Monday that a full ban on solitary confinement would be difficult to pass in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature. 

One prison reformer also said a well-regulated solitary confinement system could remain a last-ditch form of punishment prisoners who don’t respond to other forms of discipline.

John Hargreaves, volunteer director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society said, “If we want a chance of this bill passing, we can’t take away a lever for the Department of Corrections to deal with misconduct as they see fit.” 

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.