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.
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.