[Ppnews] US DOJ Documents Torturous Treatment of Prisoners with Mental Illness in Pennsylvania Solitary Confinement Unit

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jun 10 11:41:58 EDT 2013

  U.S. DOJ Documents Torturous Treatment of Prisoners with Mental
  Illness in Pennsylvania Solitary Confinement Unit

June 10, 2013


            Guest Post by the Human Rights Coalition

/Editors' Note: The following article is reprinted from a special 
edition of the PA Prisons Report <http://hrcoalition.org/node/287>, a 
publication of the Human Rights Coalition 
<http://hrcoalition.org/about>. HRC is a Pennsylvania-based "group of 
prisoners' families, ex-prisoners, and supporters" which believes that 
"the prison system reflects all inequalities in our society, and it does 
not work in its current incarnation." Among its activities is a campaign 
to end solitary confinement <http://hrcoalition.org/node/238>in 
Pennsylvania's prisons. /

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

On Friday May 31, the United States Justice Department issued a report 
on its 18-month investigation of the Pennsylvania Department of 
Corrections' (PADOC) prison in Cambria County, State Correctional 
Institution (SCI) Cresson, finding that the solitary confinement of 
people with serious mental illness and intellectual disabilities is in 
violation of both the U.S. Constitution's 8th Amendment and the 
Americans with Disabilities Act. The announcement came in a findings 
the results of its investigation of SCI Cresson by attorneys with the 
Justice Department's Special Litigations Section of the Civil Rights 
Division, working in partnership with the U.S. Attorney's Office in the 
Western District of Pennsylvania. The letter also notified PA governor 
Corbett that both agencies are expanding their investigation to include 
all 28 prisons under the control of the PADOC.

The investigation, launched in December 2011, set out to find whether 
SCI Cresson was violating the constitutional rights of prisoners to be 
free from cruel and unusual punishment by subjecting mentally illl 
prisoners to the psychologically damaging conditions of long-term 
solitary confinement and depriving them of mental health care.

SCI Cresson, built in 1987, housed the PA Department of Corrections' 
second-largest Secure Special Needs Unit (SSNU), a type of solitary 
confinement unit used for the isolation (and on paper, the treatment) of 
mentally ill prisoners. In January 2013, the PA DOC announced its 
intention to close the prison--three months after members of the 
investigation team met with PA DOC leadership and Cresson Superintendent 
Kenneth Cameron to discuss concerns about information received during 
the investigation. As of April 2013, the SSNU had been emptied and the 
prison held less than 400 prisoners (down from approx.1600).

*Warehousing the Mentally Ill*

The Department of Justice's (DOJ) letter, briefly summarized in a press 
release <http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2013/May/13-crt-631.html>, 
catalogs a long list of human rights violations that will be familiar to 
readers of the /Prison Report/, centering on conditions of extreme 
isolation coupled with additional cruel and degrading punishments 
inflicted by staff, presided over by a prison administration that not 
only ignored wrongdoing by prison staff, but also actively prevented 
seriously mentally ill prisoners from receiving treatment.

The DOJ found that "Cresson routinely locks prisoners with serious 
mental illness in their cells for roughly 23 hours per day for months, 
even years, at a time. At Cresson, the prolonged isolation is all the 
harder for many prisoners with serious mental illness to endure because 
it involves harsh and punitive living conditions and, often, unnecessary 
staff- on-prisoner uses of force." The report noted that placement of 
mentally ill prisoners in the prison's solitary confinement units was 
intentional; not the consequence of a failure to identify those who are 
most vulnerable to such psychologically destructive conditions, but as a 
matter of systematic and deliberate practice.

The resulting harms have been catastrophic: "Cresson's practice of 
subjecting prisoners with serious mental illness to prolonged periods of 
isolation under the conditions described in this letter has resulted in 
harm, including trauma, bouts of hysteria and extreme paranoia, severe 
depression, psychosis, serious self-injury and mutilation, and suicide." 
Corroborating this conclusion is the fact that although less than 10% of 
the prison's total population is held in solitary confinement, during 
the previous year and-a-half, 2 of the 3 suicides and 14 of the 17 
suicide attempts at SCI Cresson occurred in these units. Both of the 
suicides in the solitary units (which HRC reported on shortly after they 
happened) occurred after requests for mental health care were ignored by 

(Links to HRC reports on the 2 suicides in Cresson's solitary units: "In 
Memory of Brandon Palakovic" <http://hrcoalition.org/node/235> and 
"Prison staff scramble to cover up circumstances of suicide at SCI 
Cresson." <http://hrcoalition.org/node/140#McClellan%20suicide>)

In one of the more graphic examples of self-harm described in the DOJ 
report, one prisoner was said to have "tore open his scrotum with his 
fingernail while housed at the RHU after experiencing isolation and a 
lack of adequate treatment there for three months. In the three days 
preceding this incident, BB cut his arm with a staple, smeared feces on 
himself while complaining of hearing voices, and tore off a fingernail. 
After the incident involving BB injuring his scrotum, he told staff that 
'mental health won't listen to me so I'm pulling my nuts out.'"

A prisoner who has spent more than 7 of the last 12 years in solitary 
confinement in PADOC prisons told the DOJ that "isolation makes me want 
to rip my face off." Emphasizing the seemingly endless duration of 
indefinite isolation, another prisoner stated that confinement in the 
SSNU "feel[s] like it will last the rest of [your] life."

*Torment and Punishment*

Among the most disturbing of the investigation's findings is the degree 
to which dehumanizing and harmful treatment of prisoners at Cresson was 
normalized and incorporated into the routine operations of the prison. 
Though the SSNU was supposedly intended for the treatment of seriously 
mentally ill prisoners, by policy and practice unit staff were 
encouraged to react to behavior symptomatic of severe mental illness 
with "aversive" measures intended to punish. Shouting, throwing feces, 
or banging one's head into the wall were consistently responded to with 
violence by prison staff. The routine use of full-body restraints for 
extensive periods of time (avg 10.5 hours), using tasers on prisoners 
who were already fully restrained, forcing prisoners to sleep on cold 
concrete without a mattress, denial of food, exercise, visits and 
reading materials, were all regular tools of SCI Cresson staff.

Readers of the /Prison Report/, former prisoners, and family members 
will recognize these as regular tools of staff at most or all PA DOC 
prisons. Punishment of those with mental health needs results in a 
predictable cycle of dysfunction wherein psychological decompensation is 
exacerbated by violent repression. This recurring cycle is a phenomenon 
that is noted in virtually every human rights report, academic or 
clinical study, court case, or government report assessing conditions of 
solitary confinement across the country during the past 30 years. The 
DOJ report described the cycle of dysfunction as follows:

"At Cresson, prisoners with serious mental illness are often subjected 
to a toxic combination of conditions that include: prolonged isolation, 
harsh housing conditions, punitive behavior modification plans, and 
excessive uses of force. These conditions, intended to control these 
prisoners' behavior, serve only to exacerbate their mental illness. 
Frequently, these conditions combine to do serious harm in the following 
way: a prisoner with serious mental illness is placed in isolation with 
inadequate mental health care, causing him to decompensate and behave 
negatively; staff respond by subjecting the prisoner to harsher living 
conditions, denying him stimuli, and/or using excessive force against 
him; the prisoner's mental health continues to deteriorate, and he 
begins to engage in self-injurious conduct (e.g., banging his head hard 
and repeatedly against a concrete wall, ingesting objects, or hurling 
himself against the metal furnishings of his room) or attempts to kill 
himself; staff eventually respond by placing him in the MHU -- a unit 
where a limited amount of treatment is provided; as soon as the prisoner 
begins to stabilize, he is returned to isolation, and the prisoner's 
mental health again spirals downward."

Noting that Cresson views "serious mental illness [as] intentional 
misbehavior that must be punished rather than treated," the DOJ found 
that prison staff responded to "behaviors mostly or entirely derivative 
of mental illness" by deprivations such as "forcing the prisoner to 
sleep on cement slabs without a mattress; denying the prisoner access to 
warm food and instead giving him nothing but "food loaf" to eat; denying 
access to reading materials; denying the prisoner access to the caged, 
exercise pens; denying the prisoner access to showers; and restricting 
or eliminating the prisoner's already limited ability to make phone 
calls or engage in non-contact visits with loved ones or friends."

The culture of abuse on display at Cresson included tasering and 
pepper-spraying suicidal prisoners and leaving their arms and legs 
strapped to a concrete slab or bed for more than 10 hours at a time. In 
one incident, prison guards responded to an act of self-harm by placing 
the prisoner in four-point restraints, and tasering him with "a handheld 
electronic body immobilization device" when he requested that a mattress 
be placed on the metal bed prior to his being strapped down. He remained 
strapped down for nearly 15 hours. Another prisoner was placed in a 
restraint chair after slamming head first into his cell door, and was 
tasered seven times and pepper-sprayed in the face twice during the 
24-hour period he was in the restraint chair.

In some instances prisoners were double-celled in the solitary 
confinement units with violent, predatory prisoners, including one case 
where a diagnosed schizophrenic poured boiling water on another 
prisoner, who was himself a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic suffering 
from post-traumatic stress disorder and with an IQ of 48. The boiling 
water caused blistering of the skin.

The DOJ concluded that Cresson lacks a "functioning residential 
treatment unit," and that the SSNU does not "even resemble" a treatment 
unit. When prisoners in the isolation units are provided out-of-cell 
therapy, "the therapy is generally provided to the prisoner while he 
sits in a small cage roughly the size of a telephone booth." According 
to the DOJ, one of the major causal factors of these conditions are 
staffing shortages that make it impossible for mental health 
professionals to provide necessary care.

Instead of any semblance of the residential treatment unit or 
programming, the DOJ found a prison where the sick torture the sick, and 
the endless depths of isolation are punctuated only by guard violence, 
self-mutilation, suicide attempts, and death.

*What's Next?*

The impact that the release of the DOJ/US Attorney's Office 
investigation findings will have remains unclear. Because conditions at 
Cresson appear to be indicative of systemic patterns throughout the PA 
DOC, the DOJ has now taken the unprecedented move of expanding the 
investigation to include all solitary confinement units of the state's 
prison system. However, the office of the DOJ tasked with the 
investigation--the Special Litigations Section of the Civil Rights 
Division--/does not have the power to prosecute/, and under the 
controlling statute--the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act 
(CRIPA)--the PA DOC is allowed the opportunity to voluntarily remedy the 
unconstitutional conditions found by the DOJ. Failure to do so means 
that the DOJ will be permitted--but not required--to file a lawsuit in 
federal court to enforce the Constitution.

At this time, it appears that all PA DOC staff complicit in the abuse, 
torture, and negligent treatment of severely mentally ill prisoners at 
SCI Cresson have not in any way been held accountable for their actions 
by either PA DOC or law enforcement agencies--in fact, the opposite has 
occurred: the prison's chief psychologist James Harrington, who presided 
over the atrocities in Cresson's "treatment units," was recently 
promoted to the newly created position of Regional Chief Psychologist, 
in charge of overseeing the mental health services of seven PA DOC prisons.

/Coming tomorrow: Statement by Renee Palakovic, mother of Brandon 
Palakovic, a young man who committed suicide while imprisoned at SCI 
Cresson in July 2012./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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