HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Five death row inmates sued Pennsylvania prison officials on Thursday, challenging a policy that keeps the convicts isolated most of the time and calling the practice degrading and inhumane.
The federal lawsuit asks the court to end mandatory, indefinite solitary confinement for the 156 men on death row at Graterford and Greene state prisons.
The lawsuit said death row inmates are locked up alone 22 to 24 hours each day, and their small cells are kept illuminated at all hours.
"The devastating effects of such prolonged isolation are well known among mental health experts, physicians and human rights experts in the United States and around the world," the lawsuit said. "It is established beyond dispute that solitary confinement puts prisoners at risk of substantial physical, mental and emotional harm."
The lawsuit seeks class-action status as well as a declaration that the solitary policy violates constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment and violates the guarantee of due process.
A Corrections Department spokeswoman said officials have begun making changes that will let death row inmates have more time outside of their cells. She said all death row inmates with serious mental illnesses are currently permitted time out of their cells to receive therapeutic treatment services.
The defendants are the Corrections secretary and the wardens at Graterford and Greene.
The inmates who sued — Anthony Reid, 50; Ricardo Natividad, 49; Mark Newton Spotz, 46; Ronald Gibson, 49; and Jermont Cox, 46 — have spent between 16 and 27 years on the state's death row. The lawsuit said the state has not provided a meaningful way for them to challenge their confinement conditions.
The inmates say they are kept segregated inside cells the size of a parking space. They can exercise in small, outdoor enclosures for no more than two hours during weekdays but are kept in their cells around-the-clock on weekends, unless they have a visitor. They change cells every three months.
The men may not participate in prison vocational, recreational or educational programs, nor can they join in any communal worship.
The Marshall Project reported earlier this year that 20 of the 31 death penalty states allow death row inmates fewer than four hours of recreation outside their cells each day.
Pennsylvania has executed three people since 1976, all of whom had voluntarily given up on their appeals. The state's death row has been shrinking, as fewer death sentences are being imposed and appeals have resulted in some death row inmates being resentenced to life.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf announced a death penalty moratorium soon after he took office three years ago, saying he was concerned about "a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust, and expensive."
Wolf has said the moratorium will say in place until a state Senate-commissioned study of capital punishment is complete.