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Precedential Settlement Eliminates Solitary Confinement on Pennsylvania’s Death Row

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC) has agreed to operate a Capital Case Unit (CCU) “as a general population unit that exclusively houses prisoners sentenced to death.” That change in conditions is part of a settlement agreement to a lawsuit that challenged death row prisoners’ conditions of confinement.

The agreement was announced on November 18, 2019. It resolves a lawsuit brought by the ACLU in January 2018, which alleged violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments from placing death row prisoners in solitary confinement for years or decades on end.

“The use of long-term solitary confinement on anyone is torture,” said Amy Fettig, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “The conditions Pennsylvania’s DOC was subjecting people on death row to — spending their entire lives in a tiny, filthy cell without any normal human contact, congregate religious services, sufficient access to exercise, sunshine, the outdoors, or environmental and intellectual stimulation — weren’t just deeply unconstitutional; they were horribly inhumane.”

Under the settlement, death row prisoners will be able to use the phone on a daily basis for 15 minutes, have contact visits, have at least 42.5 hours of out-of-cell activity a week — to include congregate meals and services, law library time, work assignments, and indoor and outdoor time — and they will not be subject to strip searches or physical restraints unless required by emerging security issues.

Prisoners will also be allowed to purchase property available to the general population, and the frosted-over cell windows will be replaced with transparent windows.

The agreement provides for attorney fees and costs to class action attorneys as determined by the district court, as well as fees for the monitoring stage of the agreement. The settlement was hailed as a monumental achievement in the fight against solitary confinement.

“Despite decades spent in inhumane isolation, our clients have organized and persevered in this historic achievement for the move went to abolish solitary confinement in Pennsylvania,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “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. We are proud to represent them.” See: Reid v. Wetzel, USDC, M.D. Pennsylvania, Case No. 18-CV-0176. 

 

Related legal case

Reid v. Wetzel