Inmates with mental illness in Pennsylvania prisons are being cruelly and unusually punished through lengthy and repeated stints in solitary confinement, according to a lawsuit filed today by the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and the American Civil Liberties Union.
According to the lawsuit filed in the Middle District of U.S. District Court, about 22 percent of all state prisoners are classified as having serious mental illnesses. Such prisoners make up about 33 percent of those assigned to restricted housing, according to the lawsuit.
That generally means they spend 23 hours a day in a constantly lit single cell.
The "horrific conditions" in restricted housing make mental illnesses worse, according to the complaint, which cites psychiatric studies.
The result is a cycle of lengthy and repeated prison terms that damage people and cost taxpayers, said Robert W. Meek, an attorney with the Disability Rights Network.
"Inmates with serious mental illness always serve their maximum time because they cannot keep themselves together enough to make parole," he said. "Those people hit the street in a very bad situation, and the likelihood of their recidivism is high -- extremely high."
A Department of Corrections spokeswoman said the agency had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment.
According to the lawsuit, restricted-housing prisoners "are denied adequate mental health care and prohibited from working, participating in educational or rehabilitative programs, or attending religious services. They have only the most minimal contact with other human beings, except when they are assigned a cellmate, who may be psychotic or violent."
The results for some of the estimated 800 mentally ill prisoners now in restricted housing include "refusing to leave their cells, declining medical treatment, sleeplessness, hallucinations, paranoia, covering themselves with feces, head banging, injuring themselves and prison staff, and suicide."
Mr. Meek said his organization in 2005 started talking about the issue with Department of Corrections deputy secretaries, attorneys, psychologists and psychiatrists.
Not long after, the department created Secure Special Needs units for mentally ill prisoners who violate rules but they only include a total of 140 beds statewide, Mr. Meek said.
"They do know how to treat people," he said, but haven't provided enough services.
The lawsuit names Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and calls for a federal court injunction to ensure that prisoners get adequate mental health care.
Mr. Meek said similar lawsuits in New York and California have brought reforms and that plaintiffs recently won a liability verdict in an Indiana case which could also lead to improvements.
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter: @richelord.