Wednesday, November 20, 2019

PA settles with ACLU regarding solitary confinement for death row inmates

After nearly two decades in death row solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania state prison, Jimmy Dennis could no longer endure the humiliation of being strip-searched and shackled to move between the cage of his 8-by-12-foot cell, the cage of a work station in the law library, the cage of the small, fenced-in exercise yard, and the cage of a stall in the secure visiting room, where his daughter would cry when she saw him in handcuffs and chains on the other side of a glass barrier.
So, in 2008, he stopped leaving his cell.
 “I went for years with no shower, no library, no nothing,” said Dennis, who was released from prison in 2017 after a federal judge found that he was wrongly convicted of killing a teenage girl for her gold earrings in 1992 because prosecutors withheld key evidence. But he still has not recovered from the trauma. “It’s like chipping away at your soul on so many different levels, and you feel like you’re literally suffocating in your own skin.”
The Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections has agreed to sweeping changes that will allow the 136 people sentenced to death to enjoy many of the same rights as those in the general population: to be out of their cells 42.5 hours a week or more, to use the phone at least 15 minutes each day, and to have contact visits with family who have, in many cases, not hugged their loved ones in decades, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer.
To settle a civil-rights lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Project, and two law firms on behalf of those housed on death row, the department also agreed to provide resocialization assistance as well as physical and mental health evaluations.
“This settlement brings Pennsylvania out of the penological dark ages and makes it a national leader in treating all incarcerated persons humanely,” Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, Susan McNaughton, said the proposed settlement “formally memorializes many of the reforms that the DOC had already instituted.”
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