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Death Row Inmates Sue Over PA’s Solitary Confinement Policy

Marc Levy
Pictured is a row of cells at Pennsylvania's State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill in Camp Hill, Pa.

Pennsylvania is being sued by five inmates for a blanket policy that keeps all death row prisoners in solitary confinement.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Abolitionist Law Center are arguing in federal court that the treatment is cruel and unusual.

The commonwealth has 156 prisoners on death row — and according to the filing, 80 percent of them have been there more than a decade.

They’re likely to stay there for a long time — Gov. Tom Wolf instated moratorium on capital punishment when he took office in 2015, and even before that, the state hadn’t executed anyone since 1999.

“There’s no individual assessment, there’s no opportunity to ask for review of the housing in solitary,” ALCU Legal Director Vic Walczak said. “You’re in there until death do us part.”

Walczak called the practice “inhumane psychological torture,” citing a Justice Department Study that concluded solitary should only be used in limited cases — for punishment or the protection of other inmates.

“Solitary confinement is cruel, inhumane, and unnecessary,” he said. “There is no rational reason to keep someone in automatic and permanent solitary just because of their sentence.”

Death row inmates in Pennsylvania typically spend 22 hours in their cell every day, though the Corrections Department noted, those with mental illnesses get extra time out for treatment.

It’s on the harsher end of policies nationwide.

Of the 31 states that still have capital punishment, the commonwealth is one of 20 that allow inmates less than four hours outside their cell per day.

The state Corrections Department didn’t elaborate on the reasons for the policy.

WESA will be surveying Pennsylvania candidates for federal and state office for the 2022 general election — tell us which issues are most important to you.