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Lawsuit Filed Against Solitary Confinement of 800 “Seriously Mentally Ill” Prisoners in Pennsylvania

On March 11, 2013, the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania (DRNP) filed a lawsuit against John E. Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, charging that the confinement of prisoners in Restricted Housing Units (RHUs) amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” of those diagnosed as “seriously mentally ill.” The suit seeks an end to long-term segregation of such individuals and seeks an order that DOC prisoners “receive constitutionally adequate mental health care.”

According to the lawsuit, prisoners in the RHUs are “locked in extremely small cells for at least 23 hours a day on weekdays and 24 hours a day on weekends and holidays.
Typically, the lights are on in the cell all the time. The prisoners are denied adequate mental health care and prohibited from working, participating in educational or rehabilitative programs, or attending religious services.”

Prisoners in the RHU are generally held alone, notes the complaint, though even in cases when prisoners are assigned a cellmate, this may be “as deleterious to their mental health as solitary confinement” if the cellmate is “psychotic or violent.”

Placing people in such conditions can create a “Dickensian nightmare,” in which prisoners “are trapped in an endless cycle of isolation and punishment, further deterioration of their mental illness, deprivation of adequate mental health treatment, and inability to qualify for parole.”

The lawsuit provides profiles of 12 men housed in the RHU, which serve to illustrate the widespread use of solitary confinement against prisoners who have been diagnosed as having “serious mental illnesses.” A man identified as “Prisoner #1” is described in the lawsuit as having been diagnosed with a delusional disorder with paranoid features and a borderline intellectual disability. Initially placed in a Special Needs Unit, in which prisoners receive psychiatric treatment, he was frequently put in the RHU following incidents precipitated by delusions. Despite expressing suicidal thoughts before and during his confinement in the RHU, he remained in the RHU until he committed suicide by hanging on May 6, 2011.

“Prisoner #8” is a 28-year-old man at State Correctional Institution-Green (SCI-Green) who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a psychotic disorder, a paraphilia and a personality disorder. According to the lawsuit, he claims to receive “messages from the television and from dead people.” The complaint states that he has expressed suicidal ideation and has been placed in the RHU after being deemed by the Department of Corrections a “danger to himself and others.”

The lawsuit charges that Wetzel “knows or is deliberately indifferent to the fact that the DOC’s treatment of prisoners with mental illness, including the practice of segregating them for long periods of time in RHUs, can cause grave harm to their mental health.”

While it is unclear what DSM-Axis I mental disorders fall under the scope of “serious mental illness,” the lawsuit argues that the current disciplinary system within Pennsylvania prisons fails to “consider a prisoner’s serious mental illness and the impact of isolation in assessing whether to sanction the prisoners.”

Pennsylvania prisoner Ricardo Noble, who has spent over five years in the RHU, has written to Solitary Watch about the nature of life in the isolation units: “In the RHU life is intense. Especially in the beginning weeks or months. As time passes your mind begins to become clouded with mixed emotions, anger, guilt, hate, paranoia, hopelessness, loneliness, and other frustrations. Some who fail to productively channel their frustrations tend to take it out on those closest to them (mainly other prisoners) or even themselves because they can’t lash out on the ones (the Administration) who can affect change of the physical aspects of their harsh condition.”

Approximately 1/3 of prisoners in the RHUs, which as of February 28, 2013 housed 844 prisoners in long-term Administrative Custody and an additional 1,417 in shorter term Disciplinary Custody, have been described by DRNP as “seriously mentally ill.” The DRNP cited the position of the American Psychiatric Association, which in December 2012 declared that “prolonged segregation of adult inmates with serious mental illness, with rare exceptions should be avoided due to the potential harm to such inmates.”

The lawsuit, which seeks “appropriate declaratory and injunctive relief to stop the constitutional violations described above and to ensure that DOC prisoners receive constitutionally adequate mental health care,” is Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania v. Wetzel, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Penn.), Case No. 1:13-cv-00635-JEJ. The prisoner plaintiffs are represented by DRNP, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firms of Covington & Burling LLP and Kairys, Rudovsky, Feinberg and Messing LLP.

This article was originally published by Solitary Watch (, and is reprinted with permission.

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Related legal case

Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania v. Wetzel