Pa. solitary confinement inmates file federal class-action lawsuit
The lawsuit alleges that the DoC, which didn’t comment, confines people with serious mental illness by withholding evaluations, diagnoses and care
By Samantha Melamed
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — The request forms sometimes came in tidy block printing, other times in a desperate scrawl. But the men in solitary confinement in the Security Threat Group Management Unit at the state prison at Fayette, south of Pittsburgh, kept asking the same question: “Why am I here?”
The STGMU, as it’s known in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, is supposed to house about 40 gang members and others who pose a threat to the prison system.
“I wanted to know why am I going there,” said Kareem Mazyck, 42, who spent two years in the unit that he described as a torture chamber, “and why is it taking so long to get out.”
But the STGMU policies and procedures are confidential, unknown even to those living there.
The result, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the incarcerated men there last fall — and amended this week by the nonprofit Abolitionist Law Center, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and Dechert LLP — is a system that unconstitutionally “isolates people with serious mental illnesses in permanent solitary confinement.”
The Department of Corrections doesn’t comment on pending litigation, a spokesperson said.
A decade ago, the U.S. Department of Justice found that Pennsylvania uses “solitary confinement in a way that violates the rights of people with (serious mental illness).” Since then, major federal lawsuits have brought an end to death row solitary confinement in Pennsylvania and a pledge to eliminate long-term isolation for people deemed seriously mentally ill.
But as of last year about 1,100 people needing mental-health treatment remained in an ever-shifting alphabet soup of long-term isolation units.
Advocates want to force the state to close units such as the STGMU and the Intensive Management Unit, where men can remain for years on end — stuck in theoretical step-down programs that many, with deteriorating self-control and social skills, are unable to navigate successfully.
The lawsuit also seeks monetary damages for those who have survived what they say is a Kafkaesque system that violates their right to due process in disciplinary proceedings. “Placement in the unit is determined by secret evidence,” the suit contends. “The operations of the unit are managed by secret policies.”
The complaint contends that, to get around the DOC’s previous agreement to keep people with serious mental illness out of solitary, the department has simply withheld evaluations, diagnoses, and care from many with very serious conditions.
Among the plaintiffs: a man who attempted suicide 10 times over two years in solitary confinement, yet is not considered seriously mental ill; a man who became convinced that the guards were poisoning his food, stopped eating, and lost 20 pounds; and a man who began punching the walls until he bled, then wrote, “Kill me, I’m ready to go,” in his own blood.
Mazyck, who served four years in state prison for selling fake drugs in Lackawanna County, said each day on the STGMU was “hell.” The paranoid thoughts rattling in his mind were exacerbated by the chaos all around, he said, including brutal assaults by correctional officers, and what he described as a pattern of officers baiting prisoners to verbally harass one another. Under those conditions, it took the men on the unit more than six months to draft their lawsuit, shouting or passing papers from one cell to the next with only minimal access to an on-unit law library.
According to the filings, the harsh conditions of the STGMU — including 22 to 24 hours a day locked in a cell; lights that stay on 24/7; and exercise confined to a cage — have led to ever more deterioration, yet treatment is minimal and conducted at the cell door. A majority of those interviewed by the Abolitionist Law Center’s lawyers had attempted suicide there, according to Bret Grote, the organization’s legal director.
A series of written grievances submitted over the course of several months by Michael Scullen, who is serving a 10- to 20-year sentence for arson in Schuylkill County, illustrates that cycle. According to the documents, filed along with the lawsuit last fall, he had been diagnosed bipolar, but that diagnosis was removed while he was at STGMU.
“I have started seeing a dark-man-like shadow in the corner of my cell. It wants to be called Shareef,” he wrote to staff in April 2022. “I used to take Haldol when I was hallucinating the last time. I really need to be put back on now.”
A few weeks later, on May 5, he wrote an update: “I’m now able to converse with him on a regular basis. He is either a hallucination or I have a celly.”
On May 9, he followed up again.
“My celly has finally fallen asleep. I don’t know when I’ll get the chance to write this again. He’s always watching! Me and my cellmate Shareef are not getting along. He’s a bully and a tough guy and me and him are gonna end up fighting each other or worse.”
The response was one terse sentence: “You do not have a cellmate.”
The Department of Corrections, which houses about 37,600 people, as of last year had identified 1,363 people it deemed were “validated” members of what it calls security threat groups, including 215 Kensington, Bloods, Crips, Dead Man Inc., Latin Kings, Neta, and white supremacists.
An Inquirer investigation found that the DOC holds Black prisoners in higher security settings than white ones. Black people accounted for 36% of minimum-security prisoners, but 53% of those in close or maximum security prisons and 80% of those on indefinite solitary confinement.
Numerous researchers have identified health consequences of solitary confinement, from psychosis to declining cognitive function, and an extremely elevated risk of self-harm. Many have also concluded that solitary is bad for public safety. One found that in the first few months after they return home, people released from isolation, instead of from general population, were more likely to commit violent crimes.
About a year ago, Mazyck was released from the STGMU. He never completed the program, which was necessary to make parole — instead, he served his maximum sentence. He found a warehouse job and an apartment, but the adjustment was rough: He had to relearn how to talk without yelling, and how to be among people again.
His instinct these days is to retreat into solitude, but he said he’s proud to remain part of the lawsuit.
“My hope is to shed light about what’s going on there and to end solitary confinement for everybody, because all it’s doing is deteriorating your brain,” he said. “It makes a person that’s already angry angrier. It makes a person that’s sick sicker.”
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