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Friday, May 31, 2013
Justice Department Finds Pennsylvania State Prison’s Use of Solitary Confinement Violates Rights of Prisoners Under the Constitution and Americans with Disabilities Act

Today, the Justice Department issued a findings letter detailing the results of its investigation into the use of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Cresson in Cambria County, Pa.  The department found that Cresson’s use of long-term and extreme forms of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness, many of whom also have intellectual disabilities, violates their rights under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

Though the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections now intends to close Cresson, many of the prison’s problematic policies and practices relating to the use of solitary confinement appear indicative of what is occurring statewide.  For this reason, in its findings letter, the department also notified the governor that the department is expanding the investigation to include all prisons in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to determine whether these other prisons also engage in the unlawful use of prolonged and extreme isolation of prisoners with serious mental illness and intellectual disabilities.  Secretary John Wetzel and his staff at the Department of Corrections have fully cooperated during the course of this investigation and the department looks forward to working collaboratively with them in the coming months.

In addition to finding that Cresson routinely resorts to locking prisoners with serious mental illness in their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, for months or even years at a time, the department also found that Cresson often denies these prisoners basic necessities and subjects them to harsh and punitive conditions, including excessive uses of force.  The department concluded that Cresson’s misuse of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness leads to serious harms, including mental decompensation, clinical depression, psychosis, self-mutilation, and suicide. 

The department also found that Cresson came to rely on solitary confinement as a means of warehousing many of its prisoners with serious mental illness because of deficiencies relating to its mental health program.  Those systemic deficiencies include a disorganized and fragmented mental health program, marginalization of mental health staff, and disciplinary procedures that result in the punishment of disability-related behaviors and the placement of actively psychotic prisoners into harsh solitary confinement.  The department also found an oversight system that does not analyze suicides and other critical data. 

“We found that Cresson often permitted its prisoners with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities to simply languish, decompensate, and harm themselves in solitary confinement for months or years on end under harsh conditions in violation of the Constitution,” said Roy L. Austin Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.  “These practices have serious public safety consequences because many of these individuals are returned to the community.  We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with the Department of Corrections during the expanded investigation to bring an end to these practices.”

“The findings in this case are disturbing and expose a serious disregard for the health and safety of prisoners with serious mental illness,” said David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  “We are dedicated to ensuring that prisoners throughout the Commonwealth are treated humanely and receive the appropriate mental health treatment in an effort to enhance their successful reintegration into the community upon release.”

The department initiated this investigation in December 2011 under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), which prohibits a pattern or practice of deprivation of constitutional rights of individuals confined to state or local government-run correctional facilities.  During the course of the investigation, the department made additional findings under the ADA.  The investigation also provided information to the department that justified an expanded investigation under CRIPA and the ADA. 

The expanded investigation will focus on allegations that prisons throughout the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections subject prisoners with serious mental illness and intellectual disabilities to prolonged periods of isolation under conditions similar to those found at Cresson.  Through this investigation the department will seek to determine whether the other prisons in the Commonwealth engage in a pattern or practice of the inappropriate use of prolonged isolation on prisoners with serious mental illness and intellectual disabilities in violation of the Constitution and federal law.  

This investigation was conducted by attorneys with the Special Litigation Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  The Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office will be partnering again to conduct the expanded statewide investigation.  Additional information about the Civil Rights Division is available on its website at www.justice.gov/crt. 

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