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Pennsylvania outlaws solitary confinement for death row inmates

Pennsylvania inmates on death row will no longer face solitary confinement.

The ACLU reached a settlement in its class action lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections that allows death row inmates to be held in the same manner as general population inmates, the ACLU announced Monday.

The lawsuit — filed in January 2018 — claimed solitary confinement violated inmates’ Eight and 14th Amendment rights. The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment promises “equal protection of the laws.”

“The use of long-term solitary confinement on anyone is torture,” said Amy Fettig, deputy director of the National Prison Project. “The conditions Pennsylvania’s DOC was subjecting people on death row to — spending their entire lives in a tiny, filthy cell without any normal human contact, congregate religious services, sufficient access to exercise, sunshine, the outdoors, or environmental and intellectual stimulation — weren’t just deeply unconstitutional; they were horribly inhumane.”

The settlement brought the state “out of the penological dark ages and makes it a national leader in treating all incarcerated persons humanely,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The state DOC said in a statement they began reviewing housing and general conditions of confinement of death row inmates “several years ago.” Inmates’ opportunities for activities like talking on the phone, exercise and visitation were expanded “over a year ago.”

“Within the capital case units, inmates’ routines are now similar to general population inmates, only confined to their specialized unit,” the DOC statement read.

Death row inmates now have “more access to phone calls, contact visits as opposed to non-contact visits, more time out of their cells and are no longer escorted by staff as they move about the capital case housing units,” the statement read. They can also eat their meals with other capital case inmates and can exercise with other inmates.

“The proposed ACLU settlement agreement announced today formally memorializes many of the reforms that the DOC had already instituted,” the department said.

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