By Matt Stroud and Midge Carter, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Daniel Delker is a Pennsylvania prisoner who has been in solitary confinement since 1973. That’s 44 years.
It’s likely that you’re aware, at least on some conceptual level, of what solitary confinement is — that it’s a punishment, often referred to as “the hole,” restricting a prisoner to a cell for nearly 24 hours per day, with rare opportunities to leave the cell for showering and exercise. In Pennsylvania, they call it the “Restricted Housing Unit.”
It’s also likely that you have some idea of what the effects of such an isolated punishment might entail. Maybe you read Atul Gawande’s 2009 New Yorkerpiece “Hellhole” about the reasons why solitary confinement should be considered psychological torture. Or maybe you read The Washington Post’s July 15 editorialcalling out the federal Bureau of Prisons for continuing to use solitary confinement even though its leaders know solitary confinement equals torture.
But if you’re like us, the idea that someone might find themselves in such a circumstance for 44 years — for longer than Beyoncé and Leonardo DiCaprio have been alive — is mind-boggling. Particularly in Pennsylvania, where the commonwealth’s corrections secretary is lauded, sometimes in high-profile outlets, as a reformer.
What surprised us even further when we started looking into Delker’s case was that he’s one of dozens of people confined similarly — on something called the “RRL,” or the “Restricted Release List” — within Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections. Spelled out in the prison system’s DC-ADM 802 procedures manual, the RRL is a group of prisoners held in solitary confinement indefinitely. They don’t know when they’ll be released into general population — and neither does anyone working for DOC.
Recently, ACLU-PA — with the help of spring 2017 Criminal Justice Intern Morgan Everett — came out on the winning end of a months-long public records skirmish with DOC about access to this list. The list itself contains names of RRL prisoners, as well as reasons why those prisoners were placed onto the list in the first place. After DOC denied our initial request to provide the list, we appealed to the Office of Open Records, which eventually came to a compromise decision: that DOC could provide us with names of people on the RRL, but redact the reasons why they were on the list.
Fair enough. To its credit, DOC actually sent us the redacted list and didn’t force us to sue. We’ve since sent surveys to each and every one of the 100 people on that list — 100 people locked up indefinitely in solitary confinement — to get the information DOC withheld, and more: We wanted to find out how long they’ve been locked up, what procedures were individually set up for being released from the RRL, what kinds of conversations they’ve had with counselors during their stay in isolation, and whether they’ve had any interactions with mental health professionals, among other things.
We’ve learned a lot so far. Decades in solitary confinement is not unusual among people on the list, for one, and there’s already been an RRL death since we received the list. About three-quarters of the prisoners on the RRL have responded to us — and we’re learning more with each response we receive. But what we still don’t know is why such a list needs to exist at all.
Atul Gawande said it in “Hellhole.” The Washington Post said it in its editorial a couple weeks back. Countless organizations have spelled it out over, and over, andover again: Solitary confinement is torture. It’s unfair. It’s a drain on resources. And it doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help those who serve sentences in solitary confinement and are then released onto the streets. And it certainly doesn’t help those who have been locked up for 44 years.
The idea that Pennsylvania continues to confine its prisoners in isolation is baffling enough. (More than 2,200 Pennsylvania prisoners — about four percent of the state’s prison population — are confined to solitary.)
The idea that it keeps some of these prisoners in a secluded limbo for decades on end is beyond comprehension.
Let’s hope DOC leaders wake up to that reality soon.
(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)
- Andrew Christy, ACLU-PA Independence Foundation Fellow, writing in The Legal Intelligencer: “Thousands Jailed in Pa.’s Modern Debtors’ Prisons”
“My investigation of court collections practices suggests that many judges on both the courts of common pleas and the magisterial district courts fundamentally misunderstand what constitutes a defendant’s ability to pay, and thus what constitutes a willful act justifying a finding of contempt. If a defendant is unable to pay, then that defendant by definition lacks the ability to pay, the failure was not willful, and there can be no finding of contempt and incarceration…. Nevertheless, these practices continue to be widespread, as was recently documented by the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in its report ‘Ending Debtors’ Prisons in Pennsylvania,’ to which the ACLU contributed.”
- CityLab: “Attorney General’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Orders Are ‘Irrelevant’ in Philadelphia”
“Civil asset forfeiture remains a problem, however. For one, it’s still legit for cops to take your property if they suspect it’s tied to a crime, and the victims of those takings still have no right to a lawyer to get it back. Moreover, the profit incentive for law enforcement officials to pursue seizing people’s assets remains.”
- The New Yorker: “A Veteran ICE Agent, Disillusioned with the Trump Era, Speaks Out”
“The agent, who has worked in federal immigration enforcement since the Clinton Administration, has been unsettled by the new order at ice. During the campaign, many rank-and-file agents publicly cheered Trump’s pledge to deport more immigrants, and, since Inauguration Day, the Administration has explicitly encouraged them to pursue the undocumented as aggressively as possible. ‘We’re going to get sued,’ the agent told me at one point. ‘You have guys who are doing whatever they want in the field, going after whoever they want.’”
- Times-Union: “Albany County inmate’s death ‘shocks the conscience’”
“The criticism wasn’t an anomaly for Correctional Medical Care, a Pennsylvania-based private company. A month after Cannon’s death in August 2014 — but long before his case was investigated — the office of New York’s attorney general reached an agreement with the company that allowed it to remain in business in New York with monitoring through May 2018. The company paid a $200,000 penalty and agreed to improve staffing levels and training practices.”
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Originally published at blog.aclupa.org on July 28, 2017.