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Why Are Prisoners Committing Suicide in Pennsylvania? | The Nation

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Why Are Prisoners Committing Suicide in Pennsylvania?

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A corrections officer looks out from a tower at one corner of the state prison in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation.

By the time John McClellan Jr. was found dead inside Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Cresson last May, he had long been categorized as “special needs” for his history of addiction and mental instability. Yet prisoners and staff say the 42-year-old inmate was not living in one of the facility’s treatment units but in the Restricted Housing Unit, or RHU—otherwise known as solitary confinement.

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Matt Stroud
Matt Stroud covers prisons, money and cities for outlets including Reuters and The Atlantic.

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Two months earlier, McClellan had written a letter to his father, a Philadelphia police officer, saying that five correctional officers had assaulted him, then filed false charges against him. John McClellan Sr. had already contacted an attorney; threats and abuse from guards were allegedly so frequent his son kept a makeshift calendar on legal-sized notebook paper to keep track. A former SCI Cresson prisoner, Tim Everard, who says he spent time in a neighboring RHU cell, recalls seeing guards kicking the younger McClellan’s cell door, calling him names and goading him to kill himself. When Everard told the manager of the ward that McClellan seemed suicidal, Everard says she brushed him off, saying of the impulse to commit suicide, “If he’s going to act on it, he’s going to act on it.”

On December 1 the Justice Department announced an investigation into SCI Cresson as well as SCI Pittsburgh in response to allegations of prisoner abuse. Since then, another inmate, who reportedly asked repeatedly for and was denied mental health treatment, has committed suicide inside SCI Cresson. An investigation by The Nation uncovered details of the claims at the center of the probe, through interviews with current and former Department of Corrections (DOC) employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. At least three sources with knowledge of the mental health procedures at SCI Cresson have provided corroborating evidence to the Justice Department, claiming that they were threatened with physical harm or false charges by prison authorities if they raised concerns.

Filed under the 1980 Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, more than thirty similar investigations have been launched by the Justice Department since 1996. Most involve jails holding pretrial prisoners, and at least ten involve claims of insufficient mental healthcare. The process is generally diplomatic rather than prosecutorial; the DOJ publicly releases findings and suggests changes. Institutions usually agree to abide by the recommendations. The DOJ can sue those that don’t; in extreme cases this can lead to a court order forcing a prison to operate under the supervision of a Special Master (as in the case of California, where the state’s entire prison healthcare system was put into receivership).

The investigation into SCI Cresson could have important implications beyond Pennsylvania. In addition to determining whether it “provided inadequate mental health care to prisoners who have mental illness [and] failed to adequately protect such prisoners from harm,” according to the DOJ’s official release, investigators will also consider the practice of subjecting mentally ill prisoners to “excessively prolonged periods of isolation, in violation of the Eighth Amendment,” with its ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Even if the particular abuse leveled at McClellan is found to be an aberration, holding mentally unstable prisoners in solitary confinement is a common practice in prisons and jails across the country. With major studies showing that prolonged isolation can aggravate—and even contribute to—mental illness and a small number of states moving to reduce their reliance on the practice, the DOJ investigation could be a significant step toward banning solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners.

* * *

SCI Cresson was a tuberculosis sanitarium from 1912 through 1956, then a mental institution until 1982, when it was shuttered and abandoned. It reopened as a state penitentiary five years later. Today it is a medium-security facility housing some 1,624 prisoners whose crimes range from murder to drunk driving. Fourteen percent are locked up for parole violations.

Located ninety miles east of Pittsburgh, the prison complex sits off an old highway just outside the small town of Cresson (population: 1,711), known for its coal yards, mineral springs and lumber. Dense forest surrounds everything, including the prison, whose old brick buildings might seem peaceful if they weren’t surrounded by razor wire and thirty-foot fences.

Historically, Pennsylvania has been at the forefront of the use of solitary confinement, and it has continued to experiment with new forms of isolation. In 2000 the Pennsylvania DOC introduced the Long Term Segregation Unit, or LTSU, to house its most dangerous and disobedient inmates. Based on a similar program introduced in 1989 at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, the LTSU held inmates in single cells, isolated for at least twenty-three hours a day bereft of any property, including reading material. The treatment was supposed to last for thirty-six months at the most, with officials vowing to send LTSU prisoners back to the general population when their behavior improved.

A 2004 article in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review quoted DOC sources citing the extreme unruliness of LTSU prisoners—“the worst of the worst,” “despicable inmate[s]” who “just seemed to be incorrigible”—and also quoted attorneys and advocates concerned about the effect on vulnerable inmates. “It raises the question of mentally ill [prisoners] in this unit whose conditions are made worse by long-term isolation,” one lawyer said.

As Pennsylvania implemented the LTSU program, mental health experts warned that such sustained isolation could cause significant mental problems. In a 2003 report in Crime and Delinquency, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote, “There is not a single published study of solitary or supermax–like confinement in which nonvoluntary confinement lasting for longer than 10 days…failed to result in negative psychological effects.”

Lawsuits filed by prisoners supported this. In 2000 inmates at SCI Pittsburgh sued the DOC, claiming that long-term isolation caused mental health issues to get worse and, in some cases, to arise out of nowhere. In a 2003 ruling in Rivera v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, the state Superior Court determined that it was “not clear…whether the mental and emotional conditions demonstrated in the LTSU contribute or cause the extreme behavioral issues that landed these inmates in the LTSU or whether those types of conditions are in part caused by long periods of solitary confinement in such a unit.” But an appellate court later decided that the LTSU’s failure to address mental health issues did not violate the Eighth Amendment.

Nevertheless, about five years after it was implemented, the LTSU program was replaced with a new program explicitly designed to treat mental illness in prisoners with behavioral problems. Dubbed the Secure Special Needs Unit or SSNU, it was unveiled at SCI Cresson. Officials denied requests for information about this change, but a source close to the transition said it looked as though the DOC “actually wanted to make a positive change and to bring some treatment for people with serious mental health issues.”

Testifying before Pennsylvania’s House Judiciary Committee in August 2010, DOC deputy secretary Michael Klopotoski drew a distinction between SSNUs and other specialized housing units—specifically, the RHU (where McClellan was found), the Special Management Unit (SMU) and the Special Needs Unit, for mentally ill prisoners without behavioral problems. Whereas RHUs were designed “to securely house an offender who receives disciplinary sanctions” and SMUs “to securely house an offender who exhibits behavior that is continually disruptive, violent and dangerous,” SSNUs were designed to “provide a [prisoner] who has identified significant mental health concerns…the opportunity of a specialized treatment program to assist him/her in returning to a general population.” It’s supposed to last up to eighteen months—“unless extended by the SSNU Treatment Team.”

The SSNU is a five-phase program that gradually rewards prisoners with group sessions, time in chow halls and increased access to their property in exchange for good behavior. Phase 5 is solitary confinement; it includes twenty-three-hour-a-day isolation, minimal if any privileges and access only to “basic personal hygiene items.”

“Phase 5 is generally the starting point for an offender in the SSNU,” said Klopotoski, explaining that a prisoner will stay there until he or she “has remained misconduct free for a sufficient period of time.” The end goal is Phase 1; inmates who reach it can leave the SSNU and return to the Special Needs Unit. Sources say this is where McClellan was supposed to be.

But psychologists who have worked in the SSNU at SCI Cresson say that corrections officers (COs) or unsympathetic members of the SSNU Treatment Team can easily stall a prisoner in Phase 5, meaning that some prisoners remain in solitary confinement indefinitely.

* * *

There are conflicting reports about the degree of McClellan’s mental problems. One prison psychologist said he was schizophrenic. Another said he was merely an addict. His father did not believe he was mentally ill at all. His attorney disagreed.

What is known is that McClellan was hooked on crack cocaine at 20 years of age. He committed small-time robberies and accrued a lengthy rap sheet. The last judge who sentenced him, for posing as an undercover police officer and stealing $180, seemed frustrated by his inability to avoid trouble. “The defendant has…had plenty of adult time to seek help and to have straightened himself out,” wrote Judge Amanda Cooperman, sentencing him to five to eleven years despite guidelines that prescribed a maximum of eighteen months.

The elder McClellan said his son’s last prison stint didn’t become particularly difficult until 2007, when he was at a Philadelphia-area facility designed for drug rehabilitation. He got into an argument with a guard, who, according to McClellan Sr., discovered that the younger McClellan’s father was a police officer. The guard reportedly shared this information with his co-workers as well as with other prisoners. Fearing this could put him in danger—in the words of the elder McClellan, “Who knows if I put one of these guys behind bars?”—the younger McClellan requested a transfer to another prison. There, according to his father, he again encountered a retaliatory CO who reportedly shared the names, addresses and occupations of certain family members with his colleagues and threatened to hurt them. The younger McClellan sent letters to his father saying he filed grievances against the CO and was rewarded with additional time in the RHU.

“Every time he wrote up a grievance, it got worse,” his father said. “They would come back, write him up for something and put him in the hole sixty days at a time.”

The same thing happened as McClellan approached parole eligibility, with guards reportedly manufacturing charges to keep him in solitary confinement. The parole board would deny his release, the elder McClellan said, “because of the write-ups, because when he was in the hole he was seen as a disciplinary problem.”

By the time the younger McClellan arrived at SCI Cresson last spring, he was convinced he was going to die. He told his father that COs had threatened to kill him and make it look like a hanging. His mental state was gradually deteriorating, and he was reportedly on medication, although it is not clear what he was prescribed.

McClellan Sr. recalls telling his son on the phone, “It’s not going to happen. They’re not going to lose their job because they want to get rid of you.” But his son insisted, “They’re going to hang me.”

On May 6, 2011, McClellan was found hanging in his cell. The DOC did not release details, but his father says administrators told him he had hanged himself from the ceiling sprinkler system.

The elder McClellan has a hard time believing his son was capable of committing suicide. “If he did, the point is that maybe he just had enough. Maybe he just couldn’t take it anymore—the abuse, the harassment. I don’t know if I’d be able to handle it either.”

Sources collaborating with the DOJ investigation don’t believe that McClellan Jr. was murdered. But they do believe that a pattern of sustained abuse, compounded by extended periods of isolation and a lack of oversight among administrators, led a vulnerable inmate to take his own life.

* * *

While a number of officials oversaw McClellan as he deteriorated, one in particular has been repeatedly identified by sources as neglecting his duties at best or, at worst, purposely mistreating unstable prisoners. That man is SCI Cresson’s chief psychologist, James Harrington.

Harrington has been named as a defendant in at least ten civil rights cases filed by prisoners in Pennsylvania’s Western District since 1995. All but one have been dismissed, a number of them on technicalities like missing a filing deadline. But two pending suits filed last year allege that Harrington was complicit in the abuse of mentally ill prisoners. One source with knowledge of psychology procedures at SCI Cresson cites a behavioral plan, co-created by Harrington and implemented last year, prescribing “such barbaric treatment as removing [a prisoner’s] mattress for extended periods of time as a viable means of obtaining behavioral compliance.” In one complaint filed in June 2011, the plan was described as “relying heavily upon extended isolation…essentially designed to simply break the inmate down to where he is ‘willing’” to cooperate. This could take “2 years or more.”

Damont Hagan, who spent time in SCI Cresson between 2010 and 2011, filed a suit in October claiming that Harrington refused to approve his mental health treatment unless he stopped filing grievances over abuses in the SSNU. Another prisoner, Christopher Balmer, claimed that despite being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, he was transferred by Harrington and other administrators from the SSNU to the RHU, where he was saddled with enough continuous solitary confinement time to stretch into the year 2039. In his complaint, Balmer wrote that solitary confinement causes him to feel suicidal and that ignoring his mental health problems amounts to “deliberate indifference to serious medical need.”

Hagan’s and Balmer’s cases were publicized by the Pennsylvania-based Human Rights Coalition, a prisoner advocacy group whose members contacted state legislators, the DOC’s internal affairs investigation unit and the DOJ. Lending weight to their claims is the suicide of another prisoner at SCI Cresson in March. James Willett, 24, was found dead while living in the general population. A source with knowledge of psychology procedures at SCI Cresson says Willett—serving a seven- to fourteen-year sentence for rape—had “repeatedly requested” mental health treatment but those requests were denied. A DOC press release said the county coroner’s office and the state police would conduct an investigation.

Willett’s suicide offers further evidence of what insiders say is the total corruption of the mental health treatment program at the prison under Harrington, who, according to the June complaint, has shown “profound willful indifference” toward the “suffering of lower functioning or profoundly emotionally disturbed inmates placed under his care.”

“The SSNU should be moved out of SCI Cresson,” the source says. “They have destroyed it. The [psychology department at SCI Cresson] needs to be flushed and started over with new staff.”

The role of James Harrington is particularly revealing in the case of former SCI Cresson prisoner Tracey Pietrovito. Tried at 18 for arson and murder, the young man with an IQ of 70, according to witnesses from local hospitals and social service providers, was a classic “unwanted child,” shuffled through as many as forty foster homes. Accused of torching a YMCA in the middle of the night, Pietrovito was held responsible for the deaths of four people, including a volunteer fireman. In 1988, Judge Albert Stallone sentenced him to life plus three-to-twenty years.

“I don’t know if Tracey ever got a break in life from anyone,” Stallone said tearfully, according to the Reading Eagle, “but perhaps he is getting one from me today.” That “break” amounted to a chance at freedom. Stallone speculated that, “in 17, 18, or 19 years, when the Board of Commutations feels this man is ready to be released,” Pietrovito would be set free.

That never happened.

Today, Pietrovito is 44. A SCI Cresson psychologist says that in addition to his developmental problems, he has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and antisocial personality disorder. Sources told the DOJ last year that Pietrovito was languishing in Phase 5, with no sign of being moved out. His mattress was removed, so he slept on concrete. He was stripped of his clothing and shoes and issued a nylon “anti-suicide smock”—a tear-resistant garment with an open back.

Sources say that while Pietrovito had tried to commit suicide in the past, he wasn’t suicidal when he was placed in Phase 5. He would sometimes become unreasonably angry and yell, but he hadn’t said he pondered killing himself. Yet, rather than allow him access to the anger management sessions that are part of Phase 5, Pietrovito was kept in solitary confinement 24/7, overseen by guards who simply did not want to deal with his mental illnesses.

Further details of Pietrovito’s confinement approach descriptions of torture. Sources say that guards would refuse to provide him with toilet paper for significant periods—forcing Pietrovito to wipe himself with his hand—and then refused to provide him with soap before he ate his meal, served without utensils. The only window in Pietrovito’s cell, they said, could not be properly shut, and temperatures frequently approached freezing. Pietrovito also said that he was afraid to eat because COs who slid his meals into his cell would sometimes hint that they’d put feces in his food—a common allegation among prisoners subjected to solitary confinement throughout the state. When Pietrovito refused to eat, COs would file exaggerated or false disciplinary reports, extending his time in the hard cell.

A former SCI Cresson psychology staff member reported that Harrington had been made aware of these allegations but that he responded with indifference. And the same source who described the “barbaric” behavioral plan Harrington helped devise wrote to the Pennsylvania Department of State last summer to complain about the treatment of Pietrovito, which included being mocked for his low IQ. At one of the monthly review sessions that are part of the SSNU protocol, Harrington also reportedly refused to go forward until Pietrovito agreed to sing “I’m a Little Teacup” to entertain the group. (Harrington did not respond to letters or to voice messages left at his home.)

Pietrovito was transferred to a different prison in August. Asked about the allegations, Susan Bensinger, a DOC press secretary, said the DOC is “always reviewing policies and procedures to ensure [prisoners] are receiving proper mental healthcare.” But the former SCI Cresson psychologist says, “This is like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.” Indeed, sources point to a culture of fraternization and blurred professional boundaries among prison administrators. Of the four people who oversee the prison’s mental health unit, two of them are a married couple and the other two have been friends since grade school. Following the complaints about Pietrovito’s treatment, the COs were merely reshuffled—moved from the SSNU into the RHU where the younger McClellan and Balmer were housed.

* * *

DOC denied multiple requests to tour SCI Cresson’s SSNU, without explanation. The Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association declined to comment on the DOJ investigation. And Pennsylvania’s Open Records Office denied requests for information about training or instructions provided to COs before they work full time with mentally ill prisoners. However, course descriptions available online confirm what many DOC employees have said: there is a single training course required for all COs assigned to work in an SSNU to “provide an overview of the continuum of the mental health services delivery system in the PA DOC.” It lasts only six hours.

Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist at the Wright Institute in Berkeley known for his expertise on the effects of solitary confinement, says that this is insufficient—and also typical. “It is standard procedure to have COs with very inadequate mental health training,” he says. (In Pennsylvania, COs are required to hold a GED and to pass the state’s civil service exam to qualify for work.) The lack of training leads to escalating conflicts.

“Someone cuts themselves or gets unusually vocal or begins to act otherwise irrationally, and they’re seen as malingering. Those prisoners, they’ve never done that before. But it’s a bizarre symptom of solitary confinement. Instead of getting treatment—which is what they need—they’re punished further and accused of faking an illness or a symptom.”

Stuart Grassian, a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist who has interacted for years with prisoners in solitary confinement settings, concurs.

“Nearly every prison has one paradigm,” he says. “If you take a rational actor who can respond to rational forms of punishment, that actor may stop doing what you want them to stop doing if they’re punished…. But most [prisoners] are there because of a mental illness or an addiction. These people are impulsive, often emotionally out of control and with cognitive impairments. So that familiar prison paradigm often doesn’t work with these people. But unfortunately that’s often the only tool prisons have. So it’s like that old saying, If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

The result, he said, is a revolving door for solitary confinement; prisoners act out, get thrown in the hole, act out again, get more time in the hole—and so on. “To change that,” he says, “you need a total paradigm shift.”

Such a shift seems unlikely to come from the courts. In the 1982 Pennsylvania case Hewitt v. Helms the Supreme Court upheld solitary confinement, ruling that prisoners have no special right to be incarcerated in a prison’s general population. Another important decision came down in Madrid v. Gomez in 1995, which resulted in the removal of mentally ill prisoners from solitary confinement at Pelican Bay. Conditions there hovered “on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience,” the court ruled.

But as Simon van Zuylen-Wood pointed out in The Nation last year, “Since the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act in 1996, which limited the courts’ ability to challenge prisons’ authority, deference to prison officials has been the norm. Courts have been reluctant to tell states how to run their prisons.”

Still, as the same article points out, some civil rights advocates believe that now is the moment to take on solitary confinement in court.

* * *

The DOJ probe could lead to such a case. Federal investigators have toured SCI Cresson and interviewed current and former SSNU prisoners. Although the DOC has said it will cooperate fully, it may object to a basic claim: solitary confinement, in the hairsplitting definition of one DOC press secretary, means “an individual has no contact with other individuals.” By that logic, none of the inmates at SCI Cresson qualify, given their regular contact (abusive or not) with guards.

A legal clash could be significant. Human Rights Watch has estimated that up to 19 percent of US prisoners “have psychiatric disorders…and another 15 to 20 percent require some form of psychiatric intervention” in prison. A 2010 HRW report gave similar estimates for those in solitary confinement.

It is often estimated that about 25,000 prisoners are living in solitary confinement, but Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, who run SolitaryWatch.com, have noted that this number counts supermax prisons without including the many different isolation units in state prisons, like the RHU and SSNU at SCI Cresson. They put the nationwide total closer to 80,000.

“The DOJ investigation has the potential to further expose the utter depravity…of the prison system,” says Bret Grote of the Human Rights Coalition. The use of punitive isolation at CSI Cresson, he says, fits “squarely within the norm for how solitary units are run throughout [Pennsylvania], where instances of cruelty and insanity are deliberately multiplied by government employees as a matter of policy.”

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