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45 Years of Impact Spotlight

Fighting Against Abuse and Failure to Provide Treatment for People with Disabilities who are Incarcerated

Disability Rights Pennsylvania is committed to the fair treatment of individuals with disabilities while they are incarcerated and detained in state and county correctional facilities. This includes providing incarcerated individuals with appropriate health and mental health services, using diversionary treatment units for individuals with serious mental illness, and ensuring individuals with disabilities are housed in a manner that does cause disability-related harm.

In 1990, DRP joined a class action lawsuit related to, among other things, mental health programing in state correctional institutions, how individuals with HIV were treated and able to access correctional programs, and the physical and psychological detriment caused by the overcrowding within state correctional institutions. DRP successfully negotiated a settlement agreement which ensured substantive improvements in the availability and types of mental health programing for incarcerated individuals and increased quality control over mental health treatment decisions. The agreement included increasing the number of beds available in therapeutic treatment programs and established specific treatment standards which were then reviewed by an independent peer review committee. The settlement agreement also established the confidentiality of individuals HIV status while incarcerated.

In 2008, DRP, as co-counsel, filed a class action lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia’s Prison System as it was subjecting incarcerated individuals with disabilities to dangerous, unsanitary, severely overcrowded, degrading, and cruel conditions of confinement – namely housing three individuals in cells designed to hold only two. Through DRP’s advocacy, including entering a settlement agreement and then later returning to court to enforce the settlement agreement, the prison population was successfully reduced by one third and ended the practice of housing three individuals in inappropriately sized cells.

In March 2013, DRP filed a class action on behalf of incarcerated individuals with serious mental illness who were confined in the Restricted Housing Units (RHUs) of the state correctional institutions. Individuals in RHUs remained isolated in their cells for 23 hours per day with little, if any, human interaction or mental health programing. DRP successful settled this lawsuit, and the settlement agreement established a diversionary treatment program for incarcerated individuals with serious mental illness. These individuals are now diverted away from the RHUs and provided a housing program where mental health services and staff are available. The diversionary program also offers 40 hours a week of out of cell activities – including individual and group therapies.