Pennsylvania Sued for Cruel and Unusual Punishment of Prisoners with Mental Illness

HARRISBURG, Pa., March 11, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania (DRN) filed a federal lawsuit today challenging the unconstitutional treatment of prisoners with serious mental illness in solitary confinement, known as Restricted Housing Units, in state correctional institutions.


The network, designated under federal law to protect the rights of people with disabilities, said the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections confines about 800 men and women with mental illnesses in horrific conditions with inadequate mental health treatment.  The lawsuit alleges that the department is aware that such confinement exacerbates their mental illness, but does not adequately take their mental health into account before disciplining them by placing them in solitary confinement for extended periods of time.  The lawsuit alleges the state's mistreatment of these prisoners, who make up about 33 percent of the total RHU population, violates their rights under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Prisoners in RHUs are locked down at least 23 hours a day in cells as small as 80 square feet, and have only the most minimal contact with other human beings.  They receive mental health counseling through their food slot or the crack between the side of their cell door and frame.  Despite knowing the psychological pain that such isolation inflicts on prisoners with mental illness, the state fails to provide them with adequate mental health services.

Robert W. Meek, attorney for DRN, said, "This is a vile and inhumane way to treat people with mental illness.  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."

DRN is represented in this lawsuit by its own legal staff; Covington & Burling LLP; Kairys, Rudovsky, Feinberg, and Messing LLP; the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project; and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.  The case, Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania v. Wetzel, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

More information, including a copy of the complaint, can be found at:

Robert W. Meek, Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania,, (215) 238-8070 ext. 206
David L. Kornblau, Covington & Burling, (212) 841-1084
Sara Mullen, ACLU of Pennsylvania,, (215) 592-1513 ext.122

SOURCE Covington & Burling


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