In Harrisburg, Pa. at Graterford and Greene state prisons, five inmates on death row have sued, challenging the policy of solitary confinement. They were assisted by the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Studies Project and three law firms. The inmates involved in the suit are Ronald Gibson (49), Jermont Cox (46), Anthony Reid (50), Ricardo Natividad (49) and Mark Newton Spotz (46). All of the aformentioned inmates have spent between 15 and 27 years on death row. The lawsuit requests the prisons terminate mandatory solitary confinement. This ruling could affect the 156 men currently on death row at the prisons.

Only three people have been executed by Pennsylvania since 1976, and these three individuals gave up their appeals voluntarily.

As of now, according to the lawsuit and prisoner testimony detail, death row inmates are kept in cells the size of a parking space for 22 to 24 hours a day. They change cells roughly every three months. The Morning Call’s Mark Scolforo notes, “The men may not participate in prison vocational, recreational or educational programs, nor can they join in any communal worship.” Additionally, outdoor exercise is permitted for no more than two hours.

The case argues that the current conditions of solitary confinement for death row inmates violates the eighth and 14th amendments. The eighth amendment concerns cruel and unusual punishment. The 14th concerns equal protection under the law.

The lawsuit says the following about the current policy: “The devastating effects of such prolonged isolation are well known among mental health experts, physicians and human rights experts in the United States and around the world. It is established beyond dispute that solitary confinement puts prisoners at risk of substantial physical, mental and emotional harm.”

Scolforo says the Corrections Department spokesperson “said officials have begun making changes that will let death row inmates have more time outside of their cells. She said all death row inmates with serious mental illnesses are currently permitted time out of their cells to receive therapeutic treatment services.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes that the lawsuit says the following: “These restrictions, taken in [total], deprive death-sentenced prisoners of virtually all meaningful human contact. Indeed, on weekdays when no exercise is permitted and on most weekends, a few words exchanged with an officer as a food tray is delivered or removed may be the only human contact that a death-sentenced prisoner experiences—if he experiences even that.”

Governor Tom Wolf (D) has placed a moratorium on the death penalty in the state of Pennsylvania three years ago. He said he felt Pennsylvania had “a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive.” This moratorium will remain until a study of capital punishment commissioned by the state senate is finished. The Philly Inquirer staff writer Samantha Melamed feels that the future of the death penalty will be a factor in the governor’s race, citing that York County’s Scott Wagner (R) has promised, “within 48 hours,” to reverse the moratorium.

The Abolitionist Law Center’s Bret Grote said, “They didn’t begin their time in solitary with mental health issues, but now are on the mental health roster. It’s a trajectory of despair and hopelessness.”

Legal Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Witold “Vic” Walczak said, “These folks have been sentenced to death. They haven’t been sentenced to a lifetime of psychological torture.”

Walczak continues, “We stand by the description of conditions in the complaint. Whatever the [Department of Corrections] may be doing is either in the planning or not-yet-operational stage. Any lessening of restrictions is welcome, but this is one of the most severe systems of isolation in the country so they’ve got a long way to go.”

Halle Nelson is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies with minors in deaf studies and English literature. ✉ @Halle_N_Nelson.

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