Third Circuit Court of Appeals to Hear Argument in Challenge to 33 Years of Solitary Confinement on Death Row

On Tuesday, October 22nd at 10:00 a.m. in The Albert Branson Maris Courtroom, (19th Floor, U.S. Courthouse, 6th & Market Sts., Philadelphia, PA), a panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals Federal Court will hear argument in Ernest Porter v. Pennsylvania DOC, a case challenging 33 years of solitary confinement on death row as violating the 8th and 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Porter has been held in solitary confinement since 1986 despite having a perfect disciplinary record in DOC custody. His death sentence was overturned in 2003, but he has yet to be resentenced due to ongoing appeals by the Commonwealth and himself regarding his death sentence and guilt-phase claims in his criminal case. The PA DOC is arguing that his ongoing appeals require his being buried in conditions that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor referred to as a “penal tomb.”

In 2017, the Third Circuit held in Williams v. Secretary, that incarcerated people whose death sentences have been vacated had a liberty interest in removal from solitary confinement that entitled them to due process rights to challenge their isolation and be released to the general population of the prison. Despite that ruling, Porter remains in the capital case unit.

Porter filed suit in 2017 arguing that his indefinite solitary confinement which began in 1986 constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment, and that the Third Circuit’s 2017 ruling entitled him to due process protections under the 14th Amendment. The Federal District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania granted defendants summary judgment, throwing out Porter’s suit and leading to his appeal to the Third Circuit.

Porter is represented by the Abolitionist Law Center and Daniel Greenfield of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern School of Law. Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, will be arguing for Mr. Porter.

MEDIA RELEASE: District Court Grants Preliminary Injunction to Release Darrick Hall from Solitary


February 23, 2018

PHILADELPHIA – The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has granted Darrick Hall’s preliminary injunction against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Darrick has been held in solitary confinement on death row for the past 24 years. In spite of his death sentence being vacated in 2014 and overwhelming evidence of the devastating mental health consequences of solitary confinement, the DOC continued to hold him on death row in an open grill cage, subjected to humiliating strip searches and a dog leash he is tethered to every time he leaves his cell. In ruling that Darrick is entitled to an immediate review of his placement in solitary confinement, Judge J. Curtis Joyner wrote, “[i]ndeed, we are somewhat perplexed as to why Mr. Hall remains housed in the Capital Case Unit and why efforts have yet to be undertaken to transition him to General Population.” The Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad Law Project, and Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center represented Mr. Hall in this matter.


Jamelia Morgan, Abolitionist Law Center, 650-387-8582,

Kris Henderson, Amistad Law Project, 215-310-0424,

Maggie Filler, Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, 857-284-1455,

Preliminary Injunction Ruling – Hall v. Wetzel

Preliminary Injunction Order – Hall v. Wetzel

MEDIA RELEASE: ACLU and Abolitionist Law Center Sue Pennsylvania to End Mandatory and Permanent Solitary Confinement for Prisoners Sentenced to Death


January 25, 2018


Alexandra Ringe, American Civil Liberties Union, 212-549-2582,

Andrew Hoover, ACLU of Pennsylvania, 717-236-6827 ext. 213,

Bret Grote, Abolitionist Law Center, 412-654-9070,

HARRISBURG — The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Abolitionist Law Center, Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feiberg & Lin LLP, and Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP filed a class-action lawsuit against the commonwealth of Pennsylvania over its unconstitutional practice of holding prisoners sentenced to death in mandatory, permanent solitary confinement. These prisoners spend 22-24 hours a day in their cells alone, conditions proven to damage mental health and worsen existing mental illness. Today’s suit seeks an end to this practice, which violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

“Solitary confinement is psychological torture. By automatically imposing that torture on every prisoner facing a death sentence, Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is acting as if the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment doesn’t exist,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “No human being should be placed in a cage and deprived of human contact for days, much less decades.”

Of the 156 people sentenced to death in Pennsylvania, nearly 80 percent have spent more than a decade in solitary confinement. Each cell is about the size of a parking space.

“The cells that hold Pennsylvania’s prisoners with death sentences are designed to make seeing another human being just about impossible, let alone interacting with one,” said Bret Grote, legal director at the Abolitionist Law Center. “Those conditions cause psychological damage within days, let alone decades. Doling out a severe punishment like this as a matter of course is shameful as well as against the law.”

Anthony Graves spent 12 years in solitary confinement in Texas while facing a death sentence. He was wrongfully convicted and exonerated. “Solitary confinement is like living in a dark hole. People walk over the hole and you shout from the bottom, but nobody hears you. You start to play tricks with your mind just to survive,” said Graves, who is the author of Infinite Hope, a memoir, and is the Smart Justice Initiatives Manager at the ACLU of Texas. “I saw the people living on death row fall apart. I saw guys who dropped their appeals and elected to die because of the intolerable conditions.”

Multiple studies have shown solitary confinement’s dangers to mental health, including increases in self-harm and suicide. In 2015, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in his concurrence to Davis v. Ayala, “[R]esearch still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price.”

“Across the country, prison officials are recognizing that solitary is a tool to be used only in extreme emergencies and only for short periods of time,” said Amy Fettig, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and director of the Stop Solitary Campaign. “They have become far less reliant on solitary without sacrificing prisoner or staff safety. It’s time for Pennsylvania to take note.”

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The five plaintiffs are represented by Witold J. Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; David Fathi, Amy Fettig, and Desiree Sholes of the ACLU’s National Prison Project; Bret Grote and Jamelia N. Morgan of the Abolitionist Law Center; Jonathan H. Feinberg and Susan M. Lin of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP; and Wilson M. Brown, Barry Gross, Mira E. Baylson, and Mark D. Taticchi of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.


For the complaint and information about Reid v. Wetzel, visit

Other resources:

ACLU of Pennsylvania

ACLU Stop Solitary Campaign

Abolitionist Law Center

Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feiberg & Lin LLP

Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP