On January 25, 2018, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the ACLU’s National Prison Project, the Abolitionist Law Center, and cooperating counsel filed a federal lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for its policy of housing inmates sentenced to death in solitary confinement, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

This treatment -- 22-24 hours a day inside a cell about 8 feet by 12 feet -- is automatically and permanently imposed on all prisoners sentenced to death. It is not triggered by violations of prison rules or a need for protective custody, and there is no procedure for prisoners to challenge their placement in solitary. Of the 156 people sentenced to death in Pennsylvania, nearly 80 percent have spent more than a decade in this form of solitary confinement.

On November 18, 2019, the plaintiffs' counsel announced a settlement with the Department of Corrections to end the practice. On April 9, 2020, that settlement was approved by a federal court. The department will still house people who are sentenced to death in specific prisons but has agreed to reforms to offer the rights and privileges afforded to people in other state facilities, including: 

  • At least 42.5 hours out-of-cell activity every week, including yard and outdoor time, law library time, congregate meal time, treatment or counseling meetings, congregate religious worship, work assignment, and phased in contact visitation;
  • Permission to use the phone on a daily basis  for at least 15 minutes per usage;
  • Incarcerated people will not be subjected to strip-searches, shackling, or other restraints, unless security measures are required in response to a temporary, emergent situation;
  • Contact visits with family, lawyers and religious advisors; and
  • Resocialization assistance for individuals psychologically damaged by long periods in solitary confinement to help them in the transition to living in a general population setting, as well and physical and mental health baseline evaluations due to years of neglect.


Witold J. Walczak (ACLU of Pennsylvania); David Fathi, Amy Fettig, and Desiree Sholes (ACLU, National Prison Project)

Pro Bono Law Firm(s)

Bret Grote and Jamelia N. Morgan (Abolitionist Law Center); Jonathan H. Feinberg and Susan M. Lin (Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP); Wilson M. Brown, Barry Gross, Mira E. Baylson, and Mark D. Taticchi (Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP)

Date filed

January 25, 2018


United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania