Five inmates on Pennsylvania’s death row filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the state department of corrections and the superintendents who oversee the two prisons where those sentenced to die reside, arguing that being held in almost exclusively solitary confinement violates the Constitution, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. The lawsuit seeks class action status to represent the 156 male inmates currently on death row and a permanent injunction to ban mandatory solitary for those sentenced to capital punishment. The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, says inmates are given just two hours each day on weekdays out of their 8-by-12-foot cells to exercise. The ACLU says the practice violates due process rights and the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.
The complaint alleges that many of the inmates serving on death row at the state correctional institutions suffer from mental illness because of their isolation. On weekends, they can go for as many as 70 hours without being out of their cells, where lights remain on 24 hours each day. Death row inmates cannot participate in any prison programming, forcing them to spend “almost all of their time idle and alone in their cells.” They are not allowed to participate in any communal religious worship. “These restrictions, taken in [total], deprive death-sentenced prisoners of virtually all meaningful human contact,” the suit says. The lawsuit cites research that shows that solitary confinement for any lengthy period of time can cause “substantial physical, mental and emotional harm,” and can cause a decline in inmates’ cognitive capacities and ability to communicate effectively. “Solitary confinement is psychological torture,” said the ACLU’s Witold Walczak. “No human being should be placed in a cage and deprived of human contact for days, much less decades.”