A federal class-action lawsuit filed Thursday morning by the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Project and three law firms seeks to move death row inmates into the general prison population, arguing that their current conditions are degrading, inhumane, and a violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments.
Gov. Wolf has placed a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania — where 156 men remain on death row, which is both a figure of speech and a literal place in two state prisons where death-sentenced inmates are held in isolation for 22 to 24 hours a day. Eighty percent of them have been in solitary for more than a decade.
“These folks have been sentenced to death. They haven’t been sentenced to a lifetime of psychological torture,” said Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
He noted that other states, such as Missouri, have stopped holding death-sentenced inmates in solitary, and that at least four other states are moving such inmates out of isolation.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections said it was reviewing the lawsuit.
“The Department of Corrections has undertaken initiatives to reduce violence in its prisons and thereby reduce the use of segregated housing,” DOC spokeswoman Amy Worden said in an email. “As part of the department’s 2018 administrative segregation restructuring measures, the department is already undertaking changes that will allow more out-of-cell time in capital case housing units.”
Currently, all inmates with serious mental illnesses in restricted housing, including capital case inmates, are allowed additional time out of their cells for therapeutic treatment services.
Pennsylvania reinstituted the death penalty in 1978, and the decision to hold inmates in solitary was challenged in a class-action lawsuit, Peterkin v. Jeffes, in the 1980s. A federal court found that the conditions were acceptable.
“In the intervening time, there has been a sea change in the scientific understanding of solitary confinement and increasing recognition by the courts that this crosses constitutional boundaries when it is prolonged,” said Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center.
He said inmates he has visited in death-row solitary exhibit familiar symptoms: memory loss, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts or actions. “They didn’t begin their time in solitary with mental health issues, but now are on the mental health roster,” he said. “It’s a trajectory of despair and hopelessness.”
Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that inmates in Pennsylvania may not be kept in solitary after their sentences have been vacated.
One death row inmate, Robert Lark, was in isolation for years, though he had been granted a new trial. He was moved into the general population after a jury again found him guilty last year but sentenced him to life in prison rather than death.
Only three people in Pennsylvania have been put to death since the penalty was reinstated. The future of the death penalty in Pennsylvania is likely to be a campaign issue in the governor’s race. Scott Wagner, a York County Republican running to unseat Wolf, has promised to reverse the moratorium “within 48 hours.”
Philadelphia’s new district attorney, Larry Krasner, pledged during his campaign not to seek the death penalty, though more recently he said, “You never want to say never.”)
Walczak said the ACLU met with Pennsylvania corrections officials last year and urged them to reconsider conditions for death-row inmates. “They told us they weren’t in a position to make any changes,” he said. “That’s why we’re here today.”