Jon Campisi Mar. 12, 2013, 3:13pm

The state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has joined the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania in a lawsuit challenging what the attorneys call the unconstitutional treatment of prisoners with serious mental illnesses who are held in solitary confinement.

The main allegation in the lawsuit, which was filed at the federal District Court in Harrisburg against John Wetzel, who is the secretary of the state Department of Corrections, is that the 800 or so men and women with disabilities who are incarcerated experience “horrific conditions with inadequate mental health treatment.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys claim that the Corrections Department is aware that long periods of solitary confinement exacerbates the prisoners’ mental illnesses, but that the department nevertheless places the inmates in solitary for at least 23 hours each day in cells as small as 80 square feet.

The result is what the suit terms a “Dickensian nightmare,” in which many prisoners with disabilities are trapped in an “endless cycle of isolation and punishment,” leading to a further deterioration of their illnesses, deprivation of adequate mental health treatment and an inability to qualify for parole.

The cells in which the prisoners are placed are referred to as Restricted Housing Units, or RHUs, and the act of placing the mentally ill in such temporary living conditions violates the plaintiffs’ rights under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the complaint states.

While in the RHUs – they are there 23 hours a day on weekdays and 24 hours a day on weekends and holidays – the mentally ill prisoners are prohibited from working, participating in educational or rehabilitative programs, and cannot attend religious services, according to the suit.

The complaint also alleges that during this period of time, the inmates have only the most minimal contact with other human beings, except when they are assigned a cellmate, who may be psychotic or violent, “which can be as deleterious to their mental health as solitary confinement.”

“Prolonged isolation under these extremely harsh conditions exacerbates the symptoms of the prisoners’ mental illness, which can include refusing to leave their cells, declining medical treatment, sleeplessness, hallucinations, paranoia, covering themselves with feces, head banging, injuring themselves and prison staff, and suicide,” the complaint reads. “Frequently, these symptoms are regarded as prison rule infractions, which prison officials punish with still more time in the RHU.”

Wetzel, the Corrections Department secretary, “knows or is deliberately indifferent” to the fact that the department’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners can cause the inmates great harm, yet he has done nothing to correct the problem, the lawsuit alleges.

“This is a vile and inhumane way to treat people with mental illness,” Robert W. Meek, an attorney with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization that advocates for mentally ill Pennsylvanians, said in a statement. “As one judge put it, solitary confinement for a person with mental illness is like an airless room for an asthmatic.

“Pennsylvania should give these prisoners beds in units designed to help people with mental illness, not devastate them.”

The lawsuit alleges that despite knowing the psychological pain that the RHU imposes on mentally ill prisoners, the Department of Corrections fails to provide such prisoners with solitary adequate mental health services.

The prisoners receive, “at best,” brief cell-front contact with mental health professionals the suit states, even though many of the prisoners need “far more extensive treatment.”

The suit tells the stories of a handful of inmates in particular who have been adversely affected by the DOC’s policies, including the tale of an inmate who hanged himself in the RHU in early May 2011.

The lawsuit states that before pursuing litigation, Disability Rights Network personnel toured at least a dozen RHUs housing prisoners with mental illness, and that the DRN conducted various meetings with DOC officials, but that despite the efforts, the unconstitutional and unlawful policies have persisted.

“Defendant’s policies, practices, and procedures systemically violate the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners with mental illness,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to put a stop to the practice of housing the mentally ill in RHUs.

The named plaintiff in the suit is the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania.

In addition to the ACLU of Pa., attorneys from the Philadelphia civil rights firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Feinberg and Messing also joined in the litigation.

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