What's at Stake
The ACLU, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Abolitionist Law Center, Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP filed a class action lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (DOC) for holding death-sentenced prisoners in permanent, degrading, and inhumane solitary confinement. These prisoners have suffered under the DOC’s cruel and baseless policies and practices, confined in solitary until they die by execution, die of natural causes while awaiting execution, or have their capital sentence overturned.
Death-sentenced prisoners in the commonwealth are held in solitary confinement for years, sometimes decades. The plaintiffs in this lawsuit have been held in solitary while awaiting execution for between sixteen and twenty-seven years. Unlike all other prisoners, their placement in solitary is not the result of misconduct or rule violations; it is based solely on their death sentences. At the time of the filing of this suit, there were 156 people in prison with death sentences in Pennsylvania. Almost eighty percent of them have been held in solitary for more than a decade. None of them has ever had a meaningful opportunity to challenge their placement in solitary.
Corrections experts agree that there is no reason to automatically and permanently hold all death-sentenced prisoners in solitary confinement. And it is established beyond dispute that solitary confinement puts prisoners at risk of substantial physical, mental and emotional harm. A death-sentenced prisoner in Pennsylvania is segregated entirely from the general prison population, subjected to indefinite isolation, deprived of mental stimulation, and has access to only limited and sporadic human interaction. Prisoners sentenced to death are confined alone for twenty-two or more hours a day in a small cell the size of a parking space. The devastating effects of such prolonged isolation are well known among mental health experts, physicians, and human rights experts. This lawsuit seeks to protect the rights, health and welfare of death-sentenced prisoners who are currently suffering cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution.