Tom Wolf, governor of Pennsylvania, has placed a moratorium on the death penalty in the state. However, 156 inmates are still on death row and are held in their cells for 22 to 24 hours every day. Around 80% of these inmates have been in solitary confinement for over a decade. A few law firms throughout the state see this as inhumane and are working to bring an end to the inmates’ isolation.
This morning, the Pennsylvania ACLU, the Abolitionist Law Project of Pittsburgh and three other law firms filed a lawsuit seeking to integrate death-sentenced inmates into general population because “the conditions are degrading, inhumane and a violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. ACLU of PA legal director Witold “Vic” Walczak said, “These folks have been sentenced to death. They haven’t been sentenced to a lifetime of psychological torture.”
Walczak noted that Pennsylvania should follow the lead of North Carolina and Missouri, which no longer hold death row inmates in “The Hole.” Furthermore, four other states are in the process of doing the same thing.
According to the Inquirer:
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’s 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.”
We’ll keep you posted on what comes of this lawsuit.