Hundreds of mentally-ill inmates in Pennsylvania languish for months and even years in isolated cells, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Monday that said the "Dickensian" practice only exacerbates their condition.
The federal lawsuit accuses state prison officials of punishing the mentally ill for head-banging, hallucinations and other psychotic behaviors instead of getting them needed medical care.
About one-third of the 2,400 inmates kept in restricted custody across the state suffer from serious mental-health problems, according to the suit. They spend 23 hours a day in small, windowless cells, and have little contact with other human beings.
A few have been held in solitary for more than a decade as punishment for various infractions, leading some to attempt suicide, advocates said.
"They don't know what time it is, or what day it is. They have no feedback loop with reality," said Robert W. Meek, a lead attorney with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, which filed the suit in Harrisburg against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
The agency had not yet seen the lawsuit and had no immediate comment, spokeswoman Sue McNaughton said.
Similar lawsuits have been filed across the country in recent years, in states including Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico, some through the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.
"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 Pennsylvania lawsuit said.
The ensuing behavior becomes the subject of further rule violations that warrant more time in solitary, Meek said. These inmates also spend more time in prison because they do not have access to education, counseling and other services that help inmates win parole.
"The result is a Dickensian nightmare, in which many prisoners, because of their mental illness, are trapped in an endless cycle of isolation and punishment," the lawsuit said.
Prison officials in several states are moving mentally-ill inmates from segregated housing into regular units and rehabilitation programs. Although the programs and mental health care costs money, officials estimate that solitary confinement can cost three times as much as standard housing.
"Now that we've got it up and running, to look at it through the rearview mirror, we wonder why didn't we do this 10 years ago," Assistant Secretary Dan Pacholke of the state's Department of Corrections told The Seattle Times last year.