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January 6, 2015Alerts

Landmark Legal Settlement to Improve Conditions for State Inmates with Serious Mental Illness in Pennsylvania


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Contact: Robert Meek, Managing Attorney x206

Kelly Darr, Legal Director x221

(215) 238-8070


Landmark Legal Settlement to Improve Conditions for State Inmates with Serious Mental Illness in Pennsylvania


Harrisburg, PA – Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania (DRNPA) announced today that it has settled a civil action it filed in 2013 against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) alleging that the state violated the constitutional rights of inmates with serious mental illness in 26 state correctional institutions. Many seriously mentally ill inmates were kept in solitary confinement in so-called restricted housing units (RHUs) for months or even years.  There, they were locked down 23 hours a day, 7 days a week in a cell with little or no access to mental health treatment or other services they needed to maintain their mental stability. In many cases, such inmates were confined to RHUs for actions directly attributable to their serious mental illness.  Often the harsh conditions in the RHU exacerbated the symptoms of their mental illness, causing them to harm themselves and even commit suicide.

DRN, the state-designated non-profit protection and advocacy organization for Pennsylvanians with disabilities, filed the action in federal court in Harrisburg in March 2013, following a lengthy investigation, including a review of thousands of pages of records and interviews with hundreds of prisoners.  Settlement negotiations began soon thereafter, and culminated in the agreement announced today.  In the settlement, DOC has agreed to a complete, state-wide overhaul of its policies and practices affecting prisoners with serious mental illness.  Among other reforms, the state has now 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.

“We are extremely pleased with the settlement.  It guarantees that inmates with serious mental illness in our state will be free of the horrific conditions of the RHU and will receive appropriate mental health treatment and other services.   Now they will be able to maintain their mental stability, take advantage of parole-eligibility programming, and serve their sentences in a way that does not punish them merely for having a serious mental illness,” said Peri Jude Radecic, CEO of DRNPA.  Robert W. Meek, DRN’s lead counsel, added, “This settlement has teeth.  A monitor designated by DRNPA will accurately measure compliance and report on whether the state is fully and effectively implementing the historic reforms announced today.  DRNPA stands ready to ensure that the rights of mentally disabled prisoners will continue to be protected.”

DRNPA was ably assisted in the litigation by the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP; David Rudovsky, Kairys Rudovsky Messing & Feinberg, LLC, Philadelphia, PA; Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Philadelphia, PA; and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, PA.