SCRANTON — A statewide organization that represents rights of the disabled has filed a federal lawsuit against the state prison system, alleging mentally ill prisoners have been wrongly subjected to horrid conditions in solitary confinement that have exacerbated their symptoms.
The suit, filed Monday by the attorney Robert Meek of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, claims the state has provided woefully inadequate care for mentally ill inmates statewide, causing them to act out in ways that result in them being unduly placed in solitary confinement — known as restrictive housing units (RHU).
The suit details cases of 12 inmates, but was filed on behalf of approximately 800 mentally ill inmates the group alleges have been subjected to unconstitutional confinement. It seeks to force the state to provide better mental-health treatment and to develop a disciplinary system that takes into account an inmate’s mental illness.
“This is a vile and inhumane way to treat people with mental illness,” Meek said in a press release. “As one judge put it, solitary confinement for a person with a mental illness is like an airless room for an asthmatic. Pennsylvania should give these prisoners beds in units designed to help people with mental illness, not devastate them.”
Conditions in the RHU’s are “horrific,” the suit states, with inmates being confined to an 80-square-foot cell — the size of an average bathroom — for 23 hours a day. The cells have limited to no natural light and no fresh air.
Those conditions cause the inmates mental-health issues to worsen, which leads to additional infractions and additional stints in isolation. The suit notes the case of one inmate who received so many disciplinary actions that it exceeded the court-imposed maximum sentence by several years.
Many of the inmates in the 12 cases cited attempted suicide, with one inmate being successful.
The filing of the suit was applauded by Barry Dyller, a civil-rights lawyer from Wilkes-Barre who has filed numerous prison rights suits, including one against the State Correctional Institution at Dallas in connection with the 2009 suicide of Matthew Bullock.
Bullock, who had a long history of serious mental illness, was found guilty of third-degree murder but mentally ill for the 2003 strangulation death of his girlfriend, Lisa Hargrave, and the couple's unborn child.
Dyller said Bullock had been housed in the RHU for prolonged periods and was subjected to repeated harassment by guards, who allegedly encouraged him to kill himself. He hung himself in his cell on Aug. 24, 2009.
That case, filed in federal court, was settled in 2011.
“Anyone who does civil rights work knows about the horrendous conditions – conditions that are more horrendous than can be imagined,” Dyller said. “I'm absolutely thrilled to see this lawsuit.”
The 12 cases cited in the Disability Rights Network suit involve inmates who were incarcerated at the State Correctional Institutions in Cresson, Green, Smithfield, Graterford and Muncy. Cresson, Smithfield and Greene were each home to three inmates; Muncy had two inmates and Graterford one.
The suit does not identify the inmates, their home towns or the county from which they were committed. Bullock's case is not among those cited, Meek confirmed.