(CNSNews.com) - Prolonged use of solitary confinement for prisoners with serious mental illness and intellectual disabilities is unconstitutional and violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division says.
In a "findings" letter issued on Friday, DOJ announced the results of its investigation into the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Cresson in Cambria County, Pa.
“We found that Cresson often permitted its prisoners with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities to simply languish, decompensate, and harm themselves in solitary confinement for months or years on end under harsh conditions in violation of the Constitution,” said Roy L. Austin Jr., Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “These practices have serious public safety consequences because many of these individuals are returned to the community."
In addition to finding that Cresson routinely locks prisoners with serious mental illness in their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day, for prolonged periods, investigators said that Cresson often denies these prisoners basic necessities and subjects them to harsh and punitive conditions, including excessive use of force.
DOJ officials say part of the problem stems from deficiencies in Cresson's "disorganized and fragmented" mental health program. Those problems include "marginalization of mental health staff," the punishment of disability-related behaviors, and "the placement of actively psychotic prisoners into harsh solitary confinement."
“The findings in this case are disturbing and expose a serious disregard for the health and safety of prisoners with serious mental illness,” said David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. “We are dedicated to ensuring that prisoners throughout the Commonwealth are treated humanely and receive the appropriate mental health treatment in an effort to enhance their successful reintegration into the community upon release.”
Although Cresson is slated to be closed, the investigation is not over: The Justice Department has notified the governor that it is expanding its investigation to include all Pennsylvania prisons to see if they also rely on solitary confinement as a means of "warehousing" prisoners with serious mental illness and other problems.
The department began its investigation in December 2011 under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), which prohibits a pattern or practice of deprivation of constitutional rights of individuals confined to state or local government-run correctional facilities. During the course of the investigation, the department made additional findings under the ADA.
According to the Justice Department, the investigation also provided information "that justified an expanded investigation under CRIPA and the ADA."
Holder advocates reform of criminal justice system
Two months ago, in a speech to Al Sharpton's National Action Network, Attorney General Eric Holder called for improvements in the nation's criminal justice system.
"Well over two million people are currently behind bars in this country," Holder said. "As a nation we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts. One in 28 children has a parent in prison. For African American children, this ratio is roughly 1 in 9. In total, approximately 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons every year. Nine to 10 million more cycle through local jails. And 40 percent of former federal prisoners – along with more than 60 percent of former state prisoners – are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release."
Holder also noted the "significant economic burden" of having so many Americans behind bars, including the difficulty that ex-convicts have in getting jobs.
"The Department of Justice is determined to continue working alongside Congressional leaders, judges, law enforcement officials, and independent groups like the American Bar Association to study the unintended collateral consequences of certain convictions; to address unwarranted sentencing disparities; and – where appropriate – to explore ways to give judges more flexibility in determining certain sentences.
"Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason. It is time to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our criminal justice system. Statutes passed by legislatures that mandate sentences, irrespective of the unique facts of an individual case, too often bear no relation to the conduct at issue, breed disrespect for the system, and are ultimately counterproductive. It is time to examine our systems and determine what truly works. We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to rehabilitate, and to deter – and not simply to warehouse and forget."