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Leisure books, visitation now allowed for some inmates in solitary confinement at Pa. jail

The policy and procedure changes for solitary confinement were presented at a meeting, during which the public referred to the practice as torturous

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Corrections Director Janine Donate gave a presentation on these changes during a meeting.

Pa. Department of Corrections

By Graysen Golter
The Morning Call

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The ability to read leisure books and receive 30-minute visits are some of the quality-of-life improvements now available to people in disciplinary solitary confinement at the Lehigh County Jail.

Corrections Director Janine Donate gave a presentation on these changes she approved to the Courts and Corrections Committee during a Wednesday meeting.

The changes she discussed, in effect as of last week, are as follows:

  • Recreation for disciplinary solitary, referred to by Donate as “disciplinary segregation,” was changed to seven days a week instead of five.
  • People in disciplinary solitary can now also have up to three leisure books in their cell instead of just religious books.
  • If someone is placed in disciplinary solitary and has received no misconduct reports in the week prior to their second weekly review from a case manager, they’ll now receive a 15-minute daily phone call and a weekly 30-minute visit. Those calls previously weren’t permitted except for when speaking with an attorney.
  • If a person is in solitary while awaiting a disciplinary hearing (such as if two inmates are in a fight), and if that hearing itself results in solitary as a sanction, then the time spent in solitary leading up to the hearing will now count toward that sanction.
  • The jail review committee that reviews people in their first week in solitary, and determines if they need to remain there, now has their timeframes of review written in policy and has more “creativity” to make a behavior plan, like allowing someone additional recreation for good conduct.

The changes are based on recommendations made by a community action partnership board for the jail, with members including representatives from Donate’s administration and people who were formerly incarcerated.

The recommendations were based on the policies and procedures for solitary confinement that she presented during a meeting in September, at which the public referred to the practice as torturous and discriminatory against people of color.

Donate said she was happy in particular to see the 15-minute phone calls and 30-minute weekly visits as part of the recommendations.

“… We all know how communication and touching base with your family is important in the inmates’ lives when they’re stuck in the jail, so I thought that was a really good one and we’re really excited about that one,” she said.

The use of solitary confinement is a highlight in the lawsuit of Allentown resident Sarah Jackson, who is suing Lehigh County and its jail health care provider, PrimeCare Medical, on the grounds that her incarceration in 2021 caused her irreparable physical, psychological and emotional harm and violated her constitutional rights.

Attorney Ettore Angelo, who filed the lawsuit on her behalf and attended the Wednesday meeting, lambasted officials for the overall lack of transparency, such as when the county didn’t provide the number of people in solitary confinement after a public records request.

“Not to know [how many] — it’s incomprehensible to me,” he said.

Susan Jordhamo agreed with Angelo on the issue of transparency, adding that residents deserve more data from the jail and that it’s “criminal” to put people in solitary confinement, especially those with mental illness.

“We are paying the bills, so we have a right to know,” she said.

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