We Abolished Death Row Solitary Confinement in Pennsylvania!

This morning we filed a motion for preliminary approval of a settlement agreement that permanently ends solitary confinement for all death-sentenced people in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC).

Up to now, every person sentenced to death in Pennsylvania has been forced to live in austere conditions of isolation that have been recognized as torture by the UN and the human rights movement around the world. Pennsylvania hasn’t executed a prisoner since 1999 and currently has a moratorium on executions, so many prisoners on Death Row have been living in solitary for decades. The last three executions were of people who had “volunteered” by giving up their appeals, quite possibly to escape the torturous conditions. Today, we have achieved a legally enforceable agreement to ensure that the 136 people living with death sentences can await a full adjudication of their cases without the added cruelty of solitary confinement being imposed on them.

According to the settlement, the DOC will still house people who are sentenced to death in specific prisons, but has agreed to offer the rights and privileges afforded to people in other state facilities. These changes are likely the most sweeping set of reforms to a capital case unit in the country: 

  • 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.

Despite decades spent in inhumane isolation, our clients have organized and persevered in this historic achievement for the movement to abolish solitary confinement in Pennsylvania. They have set a powerful precedent for ending solitary confinement of capital case prisoners —  and eventually the death penalty as a whole — across the country. Many of our clients have been able to embrace loved ones for the first time in decades in recent months because of this settlement. 

Lots of gratitude to ALC President Jamelia Morgan, whose work on this was critical in driving the case, and to our co-counsel at the ACLU of PA, ACLU National Prison Project, Susan Lin of the Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin law firm, and Drinker, Biddle, & Reath.

Most of all, thank you to the Plaintiffs and class representatives who organized their own legal representation and pushed for this: Anthony Reid, Ronald Gibson, Mark Spotz, Jermont Cox, and Ricardo Natividad. We are proud to represent them.

Finally, your support is what makes this work possible. If you’d like to ensure more victories like this in the future, please DONATE to the Abolitionist Law Center.


More information about the lawsuit, Reid et al. v. Wetzel, is available at this link: https://www.aclupa.org/en/cases/reid-et-al-v-wetzel

Media Release: Emergency Petition Filed For Young Woman Placed In Solitary Confinement During Her Birthday

On Monday the Abolitionist Law Center along with the law office of Timothy P. O’Brien and attorney Jules Lobel, filed an emergency petition against the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania to remove a young woman from solitary confinement housing after spending more than 70 days – including her birthday – in the restrictive housing unit at ACJ since February, resulting in severe mental health crises and three suicide attempts.

The ALC and co-counsel are representing Kimberly Andrews, a 20-year-old woman awaiting disposition on misdemeanor cases who has been in solitary confinement off and on since February of 2019, despite having known mental health issues. While at the ACJ, Ms. Andrews has tried to self-harm at least three times due to the decompensation associated with the placement in solitary confinement and harsh prison conditions within the restrictive housing unit. Ms. Andrews suffers from known mental health disorders including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and oppositional defiance disorder. Instead of receiving access to treatment and waiting for the adjudications of her case, Ms. Andrews has undergone repeated dehumanizing encounters with abusive ACJ staff.

For instance, on one occasion Ms. Andrews spent at least 8 consecutive hours in the restraint chair, strapped in so tight that it caused bruising around her wrists and shoulder areas. She was again deprived food, water, bathroom breaks, or any ability to move her limbs. Staff returned at one point to loosen the strap on her right wrist, as it was cutting into her flesh. Ms. Andrews asked for her inhaler, but her request was denied; no other medical checks were conducted.

 

The treatment of Ms. Andrews highlights the inability of the ACJ to create policies and procedures to ensure the safety and security of those incarcerated with medically diagnosed disorders. Ms. Andrews has been able to successfully interact in general population and was able to have a job when briefly removed from solitary confinement. Despite previous attempts to resolve this situation, Ms. Andrews remains in solitary confinement where she continues to struggle to acclimate based on her health history and continues to self-harm as a result.

 

She has been kept in solitary confinement for over 70 days by Defendants at the jail, although she has not been either charged with or convicted of any violent conduct by officials at the jail. She has a history of mental illness, which is greatly exacerbated by her placement and retention in isolation. She has attempted suicide three times since being placed in solitary confinement.

The petition is asking the court to grant Ms. Andrews as temporary restraining order which would prevent her from being placed in solitary confinement as well as prevent specific ACJ staff from contacting her due to their denial of medical treatment and triggering conduct. The ACJ spent more than $200,000 on bedding, replacing sheets with anti-suicide blankets due to the number of suicide and suicide attempts in the facility.

 

Andrews v. Harper – Complaint-As Filed

Brief in Support of TRO-as Filed

Motion for TRO-as Filed

Order to Show Cause-as Filed

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

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

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.

CONTACTS: 

Jamelia Morgan, Abolitionist Law Center, 650-387-8582, jamelia@alcenter.org

Kris Henderson, Amistad Law Project, 215-310-0424, ashley@amistadlaw.org

Maggie Filler, Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, 857-284-1455, maggie.filler@macarthurjustice.org

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

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

January 25, 2018

CONTACT:

Alexandra Ringe, American Civil Liberties Union, 212-549-2582, aringe@aclu.org

Andrew Hoover, ACLU of Pennsylvania, 717-236-6827 ext. 213, ahoover@aclupa.org

Bret Grote, Abolitionist Law Center, 412-654-9070, bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org

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 aclupa.org/Reid

Other resources:

ACLU of Pennsylvania

ACLU Stop Solitary Campaign

Abolitionist Law Center

Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feiberg & Lin LLP

Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP

 

 

MEDIA RELEASE: Settlement in Lawsuit that Ended 37-year Solitary Confinement

December 21, 2017: Arthur Johnson, a 65-year-old man in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) at State Correctional Institution Greene, who spent 37 years in solitary confinement before a federal court ordered his release last year, has reached a settlement with the DOC in his case. In exchange for $325,000, including attorney fees and costs, and a guarantee not to return him to solitary confinement based on his previous record, Mr. Johnson has settled his remaining claims in the case.

Mr. Johnson originally filed a lawsuit challenging his long-term solitary confinement in May 2016. Mr. Johnson had been held in isolation since 1979. He sued for violations of his 8th Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment and his rights to procedural and substantive due process.

Conditions of solitary confinement in the DOC involve 23-24 hour lockdown in a small cell. For five hours per week Mr. Johnson is permitted to enter an outdoor cage slightly larger than his cell. He was not permitted contact visits.

On September 20, the Chief Judge Christopher Conner of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted a preliminary injunction ordering the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to begin a “step-down” program to return Arthur Johnson to the general prison population.

In reaching his decision, Judge Conner stated: “For the past thirty-six years, the Department has held Mr. Johnson in solitary confinement—his entire existence restricted, for at least twenty three hours per day, to an area smaller than the average horse stall. Astoundingly, Mr. Johnson continues to endure this compounding punishment, despite the complete absence of major disciplinary infractions for more than a quarter century.”

READ the Preliminary Injunction Ruling.

Mr. Johnson was represented by a team of attorneys from the international law firm of Jones Day, Bret Grote and Dustin McDaniel from the Abolitionist Law Center and Professor Jules Lobel from the University of Pittsburgh Law School.

Bret Grote       bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org                412-654-9070

 

 

Allegheny County Jail to Cease Housing Pregnant Women in Isolation

Agreement Reached in Settlement of a Lawsuit

Brought by Women who Were Housed in Solitary While Pregnant

PITTSBURGH – Allegheny County has settled a lawsuit filed last December by five women who challenged the county jail’s practice of housing pregnant inmates in solitary confinement.

The women are represented by the Abolitionist Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firm of Reed Smith LLP. Four of the plaintiffs spent time ranging from six to 22 days in solitary confinement while pregnant and incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail (ACJ).

“We are grateful that officials in Allegheny County have recognized how harmful it is to keep pregnant women in solitary confinement,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “It’s unfortunate that it took a federal lawsuit for them to recognize this, but we’re pleased the county has agreed to a progressive, comprehensive, and humane policy. People who are incarcerated have a right to basic healthcare needs and to be treated humanely.”

The plaintiffs were typically placed in isolation for minor, non-violent rules infractions, including possession of too many pairs of shoes in one case and possession of a library book in another. During their time in solitary, they stayed in their cells for 23 to 24 hours per day and were rarely given the opportunity to even shower. They were also denied access to proper nutrition for pregnancy throughout their incarceration.

“The women who brought this lawsuit exhibited tremendous courage under harsh and despairing conditions, and through their efforts they have secured important human rights protections for pregnant women at the Allegheny County Jail,” said Abolitionist Law Center Legal Director Bret Grote.

As part of the settlement, officials from Allegheny County have agreed to numerous new policies and accountability measures that are among the most comprehensive and progressive procedures for housing pregnant inmates in the United States. The settlement prohibits the jail from placing pregnant women in restrictive housing except in rare instances where the inmate poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm, and decisions to place pregnant women in restrictive housing must be reviewed by the deputy warden and cleared by a medical professional.

In addition, administrators at the jail will provide appropriate diets for pregnant inmates and will track the distribution of meals, and women who are lactating will be allowed to use a breast pump.

The county also agreed to specific enforcement measures. The federal district court will retain jurisdiction to enforce the settlement agreement’s terms for three years. ACJ will also provide a current list of all pregnant women at the jail to the plaintiffs’ lawyers on request and will provide copies of documents related to the placement of any pregnant women in restrictive housing to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

“Allegheny County has taken an important step in joining the national trend that recognizes there are better alternatives to solitary confinement within our prisons and jails,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, staff attorney for the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “These policy changes will provide a healthier and safer environment for pregnant women detained at ACJ.”

The case is Seitz v. Allegheny County, and the plaintiffs are represented by Sara Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center, Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and David Fawcett and Aleksandra Phillips of the law firm Reed Smith LLP.

More information about the case is available at www.aclupa.org/seitz.

MEDIA RELEASE: Lawsuit seeks end to 19-year solitary confinement on death row

Shawn Bridges remains on death row despite his conviction being overturned in 2013

August 4, 2017: Lawyers for Shawnfatee Bridges, a 40-year-old man held on death row in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) at State Correctional Institution Graterford, filed a lawsuit on August 2nd challenging his perpetual solitary confinement. Mr. Bridges has spent 19 years in solitary confinement on death row.

Mr. Bridges also filed for a preliminary injunction ordering his immediate release to the general prison population, where he would be permitted contact visits with his five children – who he has not hugged in nearly 20 years – and his three grandchildren, who he has never held or embraced. He is challenging his continued isolation as a violation of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment’s procedural due process clause

Originally sentenced to death in February 1998, Mr. Bridges’ conviction and sentence were overturned in 2013.

In February 2017, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark decision that held that the continued solitary confinement on death row of individuals who, like Mr. Bridges, have obtained relief on their death sentence violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Williams v. Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 848 F.3d 459 (3d Cir. 2017).

Despite this ruling, the DOC continues to hold Mr. Bridges in 22-24 hour solitary confinement without any prospect of release to the general population in violation of the Williams decision.

According to the Complaint, for 19 years, nearly half of his life, Mr. Bridges has lived in a cell that “is no larger than 7 feet by 12 feet, smaller than a typical parking space,” where “the lights in his cell [are kept] on 24 hours a day while officers shine flashlights in his face every thirty minutes during night rounds.” These conditions have been imposed despite Mr. Bridges receiving only two minor disciplinary infractions in nearly two decades, neither of which were violent or resulted in any disciplinary custody time. One of the misconducts, for instance, was for making more than the three allowed phone calls per week, which he could only do if staff provided the phone for him.

As a result of the conditions on death row Mr. Bridges is experiencing worsening depression, short-term memory problems, cognitive and concentration difficulties, anxiety, and hopelessness despite the fact that his conviction and sentence were reversed four years ago. These symptoms of long-term, perpetual solitary confinement were warned about by the Third Circuit in the Williams case when it said these conditions can “trigger devastating psychological consequences, including a loss of sense of self.”

Mr. Bridges is represented by the Abolitionist Law Center and Cozen O’Connor law firm.

 

Jamelia Morgan        jamelia@alcenter.org                                                 650-387-8582                       

Bret Grote                  bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org                        412-654-9070

 

Media Release: In Precedential Third Circuit Ruling, Lawsuit Challenging Solitary Confinement Resulting in Suicide Moves Forward

On Friday, April 14, 2017, the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decisions of the Western District Court of Pennsylvania in the case of Palakovic v. Wetzel, ruling that the Palakovics claims challenging the conditions of solitary confinement and deficient mental health care of their late son, Brandon, could move forward into the discovery phase. In a precedential ruling the Court held that the lower court’s June 2015 dismissal of the Palakovics’ Eighth Amendment conditions of confinement and mental health care claims, as well as the February 2016 dismissal of their Eighth Amendment vulnerability to suicide claim, constituted legal error and the case could move forward to discovery.

Read the Opinion.

Renee and Darian Palakovic issued a statement following the ruling:

Knowing that we can move ahead with our case is an incredible feeling and we are extremely thankful to everyone who has worked so hard on Brandon’s behalf. This fight is about him and for him at its core; but, this victory has also set a precedent. Yes, a precedent. The satisfaction we feel knowing that the young man who they felt no compassion for and treated like trash is going to stop them from doing it again or haunt them in a court of law if they dare to do it to another is beyond words. This victory is the sweetest we’ve ever felt.

Read the full Statement of the Palakovics here.

Palakovic v. Wetzel was filed in July 2014 in the Western District of Pennsylvania on behalf of the late Brandon Palakovic by his parents Renee and Darian. The suit claims that Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) Secretary John Wetzel and other officials in charge of the now-defunct State Correctional Institution (SCI) Cresson “created and sustained conditions of solitary confinement that subjected Brandon Palakovic to torture, causing him to take his own life on July 17, 2012, at the age of 23. Defendants transformed [Brandon’s] 16-48 month term of imprisonment into a death sentence.”

In its decision dismissing the original complaint’s Eighth Amendment claims in June 2015 the district court held that the Palakovics were barred from raising claims challenging Brandon’s conditions of confinement and inadequate mental health care, and instead had to bring claims under the Third Circuit’s vulnerability to suicide standard. The Third Circuit, in a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Judge Smith, disagreed: “Here, to the extent Brandon could have brought an Eighth Amendment claim contesting his conditions of confinement while he was alive, his family should not be precluded from doing so because he has passed away. We agree with the Palakovics that their original claim need not have to fit within the vulnerability to suicide framework, and the District Court erred in dismissing it solely for that reason.”

The Third Circuit then recognized that the factual allegations in the original complaint were more than sufficient to state a claim allowing the case to proceed into discovery:

“[W]e first acknowledge the robust body of legal and scientific authority recognizing the devastating mental health consequences caused by long-term isolation in solitary confinement. In our recent decision, Williams v. Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 848 F.3d 549 (3d Cir. 2017), we observed a growing consensus—with roots going back a century—that conditions like those to which Brandon repeatedly was subjected can cause severe and traumatic psychological damage, including anxiety, panic, paranoia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, and even a disintegration of the basic sense of self identity. 18 Id. at 566–67. And the damage does not stop at mental harm: “Physical harm can also result. Studies have documented high rates of suicide and self-mutilation amongst inmates who have been subjected to solitary confinement. These behaviors are believed to be maladaptive mechanisms for dealing with the psychological suffering that comes from isolation.”

. . .

“Considering these factual allegations in light of the increasingly obvious reality that extended stays in solitary confinement can cause serious damage to mental health, we view these allegations as more than sufficient to state a plausible claim that Brandon experienced inhumane conditions of confinement to which the prison officials—Wetzel, Cameron, Boyles, Luther, and Harrington—were deliberately indifferent.”

The Court then went on to rule that the Palakovics mental health care claims, as well as the vulnerability to suicide claims that were dismissed by the lower court could move forward also.

The case sheds light on the life-and-death consequences of solitary confinement, seeking accountability for illegal conditions of confinement that are increasingly recognized as torture.

SCI Cresson was under investigation by the DOJ at the time of Brandon’s suicide for holding prisoners with mental illness and intellectual disabilities in solitary confinement and depriving them of mental health treatment. The DOJ found that SCI Cresson’s use of solitary confinement on the mentally ill and intellectually disabled constituted cruel and unusual punishment

According to a report issued by the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), “despite a history of self-harm and suicide attempts, [Brandon] continued to be placed in isolation, eventually leading to his death.”

Contact: Bret Grote            bretgrote(at)abolitionistlawcenter.org

Lawsuit Filed Challenging County Jail’s Practice of Placing Pregnant Women in Solitary Confinement

PITTSBURGH (December 19) – The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Abolitionist Law Center (ALC), the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project (PILP), and Reed Smith LLP joined forces today in filing claims in federal court challenging the inhumane way officials treat pregnant women held at the Allegheny County Jail. The lawsuit alleges that jail officials routinely place pregnant women in solitary confinement for extended periods of time without justification, knowing full well that this practice can harm the health of the women and their pregnancies.

The lawsuit also seeks to end other restrictions and conditions placed on these women that are dangerous and extremely shortsighted. Pregnant inmates are regularly deprived of nutritional food; needed medications; lack of heat; and even the ability to shower or exercise.

“The conditions of solitary confinement and inadequate nutrition faced by pregnant women at ACJ are causing severe psychological anguish, constant hunger, and putting them and their pregnancies at risk of permanent harm,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “The Constitution does not permit this.”

Four of the five named plaintiffs in the lawsuit have spent time ranging from six to 22 days in solitary confinement while pregnant. Elizabeth Seitz, the lead plaintiff in the case, was placed in solitary confinement for ten days in November when she was seven months pregnant. She spent 24 hours per day in her cell and was permitted to leave her cell to shower only twice in ten days. Ms. Seitz had previously spent 21 days in solitary confinement in October.

“Despite numerous requests for help, ACJ has ignored its duty to safeguard the pregnant women in its care,” said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, staff attorney at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. “This blatant disregard for correctional standards cannot be tolerated.”

Due to the serious risk of mental and physical harm, the U.S. Department of Justice opposes the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women except in very rare situations. Yet Allegheny County regularly places pregnant women in solitary confinement for minor, non-violent rule violations. For example, one of the plaintiffs, Ms. Hendricks, was placed in solitary confinement for nine days for violating rules by having a library book in her possession.

“It is widely recognized that placing pregnant women in solitary confinement is extremely dangerous – for both mother and child,” said David Fawcett, an attorney at Reed Smith who is representing the plaintiffs pro bono.  “The routine and thoughtless use of this practice is a real black mark on our county and must end now.”

Many other groups, like the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, have documented the unhealthy effects of solitary confinement for pregnant women. According to the NCCHC, “[i]nternational standards established by the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders state that pregnant women should never be placed in solitary confinement as they are especially susceptible to its harmful psychological effects.”

“The use of solitary confinement to discipline pregnant women for any offense, much less a minor, non-violent offense, is contrary to both national and international standards,” said Reggie Shuford, ACLU-PA executive director. “Pregnant women in Allegheny County should not be subject to this cruel and inhumane practice.”

The case is Seitz v. Allegheny County, and the plaintiffs are represented by Sara Rose of the ACLU-PA, Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center, Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and David Fawcett of the law firm Reed Smith LLP.

More about the case, including a copy of the complaint, is available at: www.aclupa.org/seitz

###

MEDIA RELEASE: Federal Judge Orders Pennsylvania DOC to Release Arthur Johnson from Solitary Confinement

On September 20, the Chief Judge Christopher Conner of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted a preliminary injunction ordering the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to begin a “step-down” program to return Arthur Johnson to the general prison population.

In reaching his decision, Judge Conner stated: “For the past thirty-six years, the Department has held Mr. Johnson in solitary confinement—his entire existence restricted, for at least twenty three hours per day, to an area smaller than the average horse stall. Astoundingly, Mr. Johnson continues to endure this compounding punishment, despite the complete absence of major disciplinary infractions for more than a quarter century.”

Judge Conner continued: “When he entered Department custody in August 1973, Mr. Johnson was [twenty-one] years old, and his life expectancy was forty-four more years. He has now served over eighty percent of that life expectancy in solitary confinement. The government’s proffered reason for Mr. Johnson’s continued exile—that he is an ‘escape risk’—is unpersuasive and substantially outweighed by the compelling facts presented in support of preliminary injunctive relief. Indeed, it is difficult to conjure up a more compelling case for reintegration to the general prison population. After thirty-six years of isolation, Mr. Johnson deserves the opportunity to shake hands with someone other than his attorneys.”

Mr. Johnson was represented by a team of attorneys from the international law firm of Jones Day, Bret Grote and Dustin McDaniel from the Abolitionist Law Center and Professor Jules Lobel from the University of Pittsburgh Law School. The Jones Day attorneys included Pittsburgh partners Tom Jones and Pete Laun and attorneys Tarah Ackerman and Mark Zheng. Mr. Johnson filed a lawsuit earlier this year asserting that the extreme duration and conditions of his solitary confinement violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Judge Conner’s order followed a two-day evidentiary hearing during which Mr. Johnson, Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel, and numerous other witnesses testified.

Preliminary Injunction Ruling – Johnson v. Wetzel

Preliminary Injunction Order – Johnson v. Wetzel

Contact:

Bret Grote       bretgrote@abolitionistlawcenter.org                412-654-9070

Jules Lobel      jll4@pitt.edu                                                          412-648-1375