ACLU court settlement means Pa. will end solitary confinement on death row

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Pennsylvania’s 136 death row inmates will no longer be held in solitary confinement, and will instead house them in the same manner as the general prison population, under the terms of a court settlement announced Monday.

The settlement, between the American Civil Liberties Union, the state branch of the ACLU, the Abolitionist Law Center and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, was part of a class-action lawsuit claiming the decision to hold capital inmates in solitary confinement violated constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment.

“The use of long-term solitary confinement on anyone is torture,” Amy Fettig, deputy director of the National Prison Project, said in a statement. “The conditions Pennsylvania’s DOC was subjecting people on death row to — spending their entire lives in a tiny, filthy cell without any normal human contact, congregate religious services, sufficient access to exercise, sunshine, the outdoors, or environmental and intellectual stimulation — weren’t just deeply unconstitutional; they were horribly inhumane.”

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According to the settlement agreement, the Corrections department will still house condemned inmates in specific prisons. But the agency has agreed to offer capital inmates “the rights and privileges afforded to people in other state facilities.”

These include:

  • “At least 42.5 hours out-of-cell activity every week, including yard and outdoor time, law library time, congregate meal time, treatment or counseling meetings, congregate religious worship, work assignment, and phased in contact visitation;
  • “Permission to use the phone on a daily basis  for at least 15 minutes per usage;
  • “Incarcerated people will not be subjected to strip-searches, shackling, or other restraints, unless security measures are required in response to a temporary, emergent situation;
  • “Contact visits with family, lawyers and religious advisors; and
  • “Resocialization assistance for individuals psychologically damaged by long periods in solitary confinement to help them in the transition to living in a general population setting, as well and physical and mental health baseline evaluations due to years of neglect.”

“This settlement brings Pennsylvania out of the penological dark ages and makes it a national leader in treating all incarcerated persons humanely,” ACLU-PA Legal Director Witold Walczak said. “We are grateful that [Gov. Tom] Wolf and [Corrections Secretary John] Wetzel have agreed to stop using permanent solitary confinement and to adopt humane policies to govern Pennsylvania’s capital units.”

In a statement, Corrections Department spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said the settlement agreement announced Monday “formally memorializes” reforms that the agency has been making over the last several years.

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“While capital case inmates were afforded limited telephone, exercise, law library and visitation opportunities, beginning over a year ago, the [department] started to expand those opportunities. The Department of Corrections continues to keep capital case inmates segregated from general population inmates,” McNaughton said.

“However, within the capital case units, inmates’ routines are now similar to general population inmates, only confined to their specialized unit,” she continued. “Capital case inmates also have more access to phone calls, contact visits as opposed to non-contact visits, more time out of their cells and are no longer escorted by staff as they move about the capital case housing units. They now eat their meals on the unit with others from their housing units, and they are able to exercise with other inmates. The proposed ACLU settlement agreement announced [Monday] formally memorializes many of the reforms that the Department of Corrections had already instituted.”

Pennsylvania currently has the 5th-largest death row population in the country. The state has not executed a condemned inmate since 1999 and has had a moratorium on executions in place since 2015

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.