New Pennsylvania Policy Imposes Solitary on Death Row Inmates


The American Civil Liberties Association (ACLU) has brought a class action law suit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) to fight their blanket policy of housing all inmates with death sentences in solitary confinement. As the ACLU reports, these inmates are to be kept in solitary until they are executed or released, without any consideration for “exemplary conduct, demonstrated self-improvement, or aging beyond a point that criminality commonly occurs.”

The solitary isolation rooms are 8-by-12 feet; about the size of a parking space. They are kept illuminated at all times. The prisoners are fed three meals a day in their rooms. They are sometimes allowed to go into another solitary room for exercise, but only a few times a week. Prisoners are also not allowed to touch any visitors. Moreover, they cannot participate in any recreational or educational programs, nor any communal religious activities.

There is a lack of reliable information and transparency when it comes to gathering data on prisoners held in solitary confinement in the United States. Estimates suggest that 80, 000 to 100, 000 incarcerated people are held in some form of solitary confinement. According to the ACLU, 156 men are currently sentenced to death in the commonwealth, and 80% of those have been held in solitary confinement for more than a decade.

Solitary confinement has long been proven to cause adverse psychological and physiological effects. Hallucinations, hypersensitivity, insomnia, paranoia, distortions of perceptions, fear, rage, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a higher risk of suicide are all named symptoms of such isolation. These symptoms are worse for vulnerable populations, such as people with mental health issues who make up a third of the prisoners in isolation. Even incarcerated persons who have been convicted of severe crimes do not deserve inhumane treatment and do not deserve to lose their human rights.

Under international human treaties, solitary confinement is defined as torture. The UN Committee Against Torture holds a continued stance of condemnation for the practice. In the US itself, the isolation of prisoners for extended periods of time has been criticized. In Davis v Ayala, 135 S. Ct. 2187, 2210 (2015), Justice Kennedy states that, “Research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price.”

Moreover, the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishments. As legal scholars have argued, prolonged and isolated confinement constitutes a “cruel and unusual” punishment. The DOC’s blanket solitary confinement also arguably violates the right to due process, as codified in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

The class action law suit seeks to represent the 156 male inmates currently on death row as well as to obtain a permanent injunction to ban mandatory solitary for such inmates. The 5 plaintiffs named have already been on death row for at least 19 years each. The lawsuit further argues against the Pennsylvania DOC policy by claiming that prisoners should be treated based on prison history and age, not just the severity of their sentence.

The Pennsylvania DOC maintains that they are taking initiatives to allow more “out-of-cell” time for prisoners in solitary confinement. However, there is no evidence that these changes have been implemented as of yet. As such, solitary confinement continues to be a critical problem for all incarcerated people in the US. The Pennsylvania DOC policy only compounds an already existing problem without hope of a solution anytime soon.

This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA or PBSC.