Disability Rights Network v. Wetzel

DOC putting mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement in violation of their constitutional rights

Court/Assoc.: U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

Attorneys/Firms: Robert W. Meek, Kelly L. Darr, & Jeffrey M. Skakalski (Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania); David L. Kornblau, Eric Hellerman, & Mari Bonthuis (Covington & Burling LLP); David Rudovsky (Kairys, Rudovsky, Feinberg, & Messing LLP); Angus R. Love & Su Ming Yeh (Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project); Witold J. Walczak & Mary Catherine Roper (ACLU-PA)

The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania (DRN), joined by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, filed a federal lawsuit on March 11, 2013, challenging the unconstitutional treatment of prisoners with serious mental illness in solitary confinement, known as Restricted Housing Units (RHU), 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.

In a January 2015 settlement, the DOC agreed to a complete, statewide overhaul of its policies and practices affecting prisoners with serious mental illness.  Among other reforms, the state agreed to stop housing inmates with serious mental illness in the harsh conditions of solitary confinement in the RHU. New treatment units are to be established to provide appropriate mental health treatment. While there will continue to be secure units for some inmates, even those units will provide significant out-of-cell time both for therapeutic and non-therapeutic activities. These new units and the treatment and programming provided in them are aimed at ensuring that inmates with serious mental illness have the least amount of restrictions placed on them as clinically necessary.

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