Lawsuit Exposes “Unconstitutional, Torturous” Conditions in a Pennsylvania Prison Unit… and Other News on Solitary Confinement This Week

Seven Days in Solitary for the Week Ending 10/4/23

by | October 6, 2023

This week’s pick of news and commentary about solitary confinement:

A lawsuit originally filed by incarcerated people pro-se documents severe constitutional and human rights violations by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in a unit called the Security Threat Group Management Unit (STGMU) at State Correctional Institution Fayette. The lawsuit alleges that 30 to 40 mostly Black and Latinx men are warehoused in the indefinite solitary confinement unit due to “secret evidence” of gang affiliations, in direct violation of due process rights. Several of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit spoke about the appalling conditions in the unit, which drove many of them to attempt suicide numerous times. T Montana Bell, one of the plaintiffs, said his time in the unit “deteriorated me into into a shell of who I used to be” and called the unit “torture in its highest form.” The lawsuit demands that the unit be closed immediately and the plaintiffs be provided compensation for the violation of their rights. | The Appeal

A panel of experts convened by the UN Human Rights Council after the murder of George Floyd released a report last week detailing practices in U.S. prisons and jails that are racist and “an affront to human dignity.” Specifically, the report cited testimonies from incarcerated Black women who had been shackled during childbirth and incarcerated Black men forced to pick cotton in the field “plantation style” while free white men oversaw them on horses. The report likened the conditions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola to “a contemporary form of slavery.” Former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez said, “Our findings point to the critical need for comprehensive reform.” | Reuters | Read the report: UN Human Rights Council

A lawsuit filed last Friday by Columbia Legal Services claims that the Washington Department of Corrections punishes people in solitary confinement based on false positives produced by unreliable drug field tests. The suit claims that in violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, people have been sent to solitary confinement for months based on innocuous items testing positive for synthetic drugs, such as greeting cards sent straight from the distributor and manila envelopes purchased directly from the WADOC themselves. The compounds tested with the kits are not only found in illicit drugs but are also found in several legal substances. Other states, such as Massachusetts and New York, have also confronted the abuse of similarly “highly unreliable” field tests as a means of arbitrary punishment. | Reason

An employee working at the Scotland Correctional Institution in Laurinburg, North Carolina, wrote an email sounding the alarm about dangerously hazardous conditions at the prison, according to NC Newsline. The email described staggering levels of overcrowding, heinous denial of medical and mental health care, abuse of disabled people, heightened use of solitary confinement, and more. Due to the inaccessibility of parole, the state ends up holding a much higher number of people in its custody than both the physical prisons and the staff have capacity to handle. The employee described incarcerated people on suicide watch sleeping in 5-by-5 “holding cages.” Because of the severe overcrowding, the employee said countless people are “being held in solitary confinement for no reason at all.” Five people died at the facility between January and April of this year. | NC Newsline

The Wisconsin State Journal interviewed 70-year-old solitary survivor and activist Talib Akbar, who has been working to bring attention to the torturous nature of solitary confinement by traveling with a life-size replica of a solitary cell. Akbar was sent to solitary ten times throughout his time in prison, the longest of which lasted nine months. Akbar served his time in Wisconsin, a state that reports holding 889 people in solitary with 281 held in solitary for a month or more. “I have a deep passion for talking about solitary confinement and the wrongs of it and what it does to a person,” Akbar said. “Solitary confinement is torture.” | Wisconsin State Journal

Kwaneta Harris, an incarcerated journalist in solitary confinement and a 2023 recipient of a Ridgeway Reporting Project grant, wrote about the peculiar and profound dynamics of parenting rats in Texas women’s prisons. Harris writes, “In here, an entire industry exists monetizing rodents. Rats are treated as children. They’re adopted, not purchased.” The women behind bars in Texas desperately long for the daily experience of parenting their children, a right they are effectively denied during their time in prison. The women still face the challenge of caring for their rodent “child” while being forced to work unpaid prison jobs at the threat of solitary confinement. On top of that, if a correctional officer finds the rodent, they will not only punish the woman but they will kill the rodent in front of everyone—a devastating blow to the parent. | Mangoprism

Next month, Antoinette Frank is set to testify before Louisiana’s state parole board as part of an effort to get clemency for all 57 people sentenced to death in the state. As the only woman on Louisiana’s Death Row, Frank has spent 27 years in solitary confinement. Attorneys for Frank are relying on new evidence of severe childhood physical and sexual abuse by her father to convince the board to grant her clemency. | The Guardian

Accomplished prison writer John J. Lennon describes the history of prison journalism and the many challenges faced by incarcerated writers interested in becoming freelance journalists. Amid the recent renaissance of prison journalism, New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision attempted to institute a “Creative Arts Projects” directive, under which incarcerated journalists and potential publishers would have had to receive approval from officials before publishing pieces. The policy, which was temporarily rescinded after a major outcry, prohibited incarcerated journalists from negatively portraying police or prison employees and required all proceeds from published pieces to be donated to nonprofits for victims. | Esquire

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