This was reblogged from: Pennsylvania Prison Report
Special “SCI Cresson Investigation” Edition
June 6, 2013
On Friday May 31, the United States Justice Department issued a report on its 18-month investigation of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ (PADOC) prison in Cambria County, State Correctional Institution (SCI) Cresson, finding that the solitary confinement of people with serious mental illness and intellectual disabilities is in violation of both the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The announcement came in a findings letter detailing the results of its investigation of SCI Cresson by attorneys with the Justice Department’s Special Litigations Section of the Civil Rights Division, working in partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Pennsylvania. The letter also notified PA governor Corbett that both agencies are expanding their investigation to include all 28 prisons under the control of the PADOC.
The investigation, launched in December 2011, set out to find whether SCI Cresson was violating the constitutional rights of prisoners to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by subjecting mentally illl prisoners to the psychologically damaging conditions of long-term solitary confinement and depriving them of mental health care.
SCI Cresson, built in 1987, housed the PA Department of Corrections’ second-largest Secure Special Needs Unit (SSNU), a type of solitary confinement unit used for the isolation (and on paper, the treatment) of mentally ill prisoners. In January 2013, the PA DOC announced its intention to close the prison– three months after members of the investigation team met with PA DOC leadership and Cresson Superintendent Kenneth Cameron to discuss concerns about information received during the investigation. As of April 2013, the SSNU had been emptied and the prison held less than 400 prisoners (down from approx.1600).
Warehousing the Mentally Ill
The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) letter, briefly summarized in a press release, catalogs a long list of human rights violations that will be familiar to readers of the Prison Report, centering on conditions of extreme isolation coupled with additional cruel and degrading punishments inflicted by staff, presided over by a prison administration that not only ignored wrongdoing by prison staff, but also actively prevented seriously mentally ill prisoners from receiving treatment.
The DOJ found that “Cresson routinely locks prisoners with serious mental illness in their cells for roughly 23 hours per day for months, even years, at a time. At Cresson, the prolonged isolation is all the harder for many prisoners with serious mental illness to endure because it involves harsh and punitive living conditions and, often, unnecessary staff- on-prisoner uses of force.” The report noted that placement of mentally ill prisoners in the prison’s solitary confinement units was intentional; not the consequence of a failure to identify those who are most vulnerable to such psychologically destructive conditions, but as a matter of systematic and deliberate practice.
The resulting harms have been catastrophic: “Cresson’s practice of subjecting prisoners with serious mental illness to prolonged periods of isolation under the conditions described in this letter has resulted in harm, including trauma, bouts of hysteria and extreme paranoia, severe depression, psychosis, serious self-injury and mutilation, and suicide.” Corroborating this conclusion is the fact that although less than 10% of the prison’s total population is held in solitary confinement, during the previous year and-a-half, 2 of the 3 suicides and 14 of the 17 suicide attempts at SCI Cresson occurred in these units. Both of the suicides in the solitary units (which HRC reported on shortly after they happened) occurred after requests for mental health care were ignored by staff.
(Links to HRC reports on the 2 suicides in Cresson’s solitary units: “In Memory of Brandon Palakovic” and “Prison staff scramble to cover up circumstances of suicide at SCI Cresson“)
In one of the more graphic examples of self-harm described in the DOJ report, one prisoner was said to have “tore open his scrotum with his fingernail while housed at the RHU after experiencing isolation and a lack of adequate treatment there for three months. In the three days preceding this incident, BB cut his arm with a staple, smeared feces on himself while complaining of hearing voices, and tore off a fingernail. After the incident involving BB injuring his scrotum, he told staff that ‘mental health won’t listen to me so I’m pulling my nuts out.'”
A prisoner who has spent more than 7 of the last 12 years in solitary confinement in PADOC prisons told the DOJ that “isolation makes me want to rip my face off.” Emphasizing the seemingly endless duration of indefinite isolation, another prisoner stated that confinement in the SSNU “feel[s] like it will last the rest of [your] life.”
Torment and Punishment
Among the most disturbing of the investigation’s findings is the degree to which dehumanizing and harmful treatment of prisoners at Cresson was normalized and incorporated into the routine operations of the prison. Though the SSNU was supposedly intended for the treatment of seriously mentally ill prisoners, by policy and practice unit staff were encouraged to react to behavior symptomatic of severe mental illness with “aversive” measures intended to punish. Shouting, throwing feces, or banging one’s head into the wall were consistently responded to with violence by prison staff. The routine use of full-body restraints for extensive periods of time (avg 10.5 hours), using tasers on prisoners who were already fully restrained, forcing prisoners to sleep on cold concrete without a mattress, denial of food, exercise, visits and reading materials, were all regular tools of SCI Cresson staff.
Readers of the Prison Report, former prisoners, and family members will recognize these as regular tools of staff at most or all PA DOC prisons. Punishment of those with mental health needs results in a predictable cycle of dysfunction wherein psychological decompensation is exacerbated by violent repression. This recurring cycle is a phenomenon that is noted in virtually every human rights report, academic or clinical study, court case, or government report assessing conditions of solitary confinement across the country during the past 30 years. The DOJ report described the cycle of dysfunction as follows:
“At Cresson, prisoners with serious mental illness are often subjected to a toxic combination of conditions that include: prolonged isolation, harsh housing conditions, punitive behavior modification plans, and excessive uses of force. These conditions, intended to control these prisoners’ behavior, serve only to exacerbate their mental illness. Frequently, these conditions combine to do serious harm in the following way: a prisoner with serious mental illness is placed in isolation with inadequate mental health care, causing him to decompensate and behave negatively; staff respond by subjecting the prisoner to harsher living conditions, denying him stimuli, and/or using excessive force against him; the prisoner’s mental health continues to deteriorate, and he begins to engage in self-injurious conduct (e.g., banging his head hard and repeatedly against a concrete wall, ingesting objects, or hurling himself against the metal furnishings of his room) or attempts to kill himself; staff eventually respond by placing him in the MHU – a unit where a limited amount of treatment is provided; as soon as the prisoner begins to stabilize, he is returned to isolation, and the prisoner’s mental health again spirals downward.”
Noting that Cresson views “serious mental illness [as] intentional misbehavior that must be punished rather than treated,” the DOJ found that prison staff responded to “behaviors mostly or entirely derivative of mental illness” by deprivations such as “forcing the prisoner to sleep on cement slabs without a mattress; denying the prisoner access to warm food and instead giving him nothing but “food loaf” to eat; denying access to reading materials; denying the prisoner access to the caged, exercise pens; denying the prisoner access to showers; and restricting or eliminating the prisoner’s already limited ability to make phone calls or engage in non-contact visits with loved ones or friends.”
The culture of abuse on display at Cresson included tasering and pepper-spraying suicidal prisoners and leaving their arms and legs strapped to a concrete slab or bed for more than 10 hours at a time. In one incident, prison guards responded to an act of self-harm by placing the prisoner in four-point restraints, and tasering him with “a handheld electronic body immobilization device” when he requested that a mattress be placed on the metal bed prior to his being strapped down. He remained strapped down for nearly 15 hours. Another prisoner was placed in a restraint chair after slamming head first into his cell door, and was tasered seven times and pepper-sprayed in the face twice during the 24-hour period he was in the restraint chair.
In some instances prisoners were double-celled in the solitary confinement units with violent, predatory prisoners, including one case where a diagnosed schizophrenic poured boiling water on another prisoner, who was himself a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and with an IQ of 48. The boiling water caused blistering of the skin.
The DOJ concluded that Cresson lacks a “functioning residential treatment unit,” and that the SSNU does not “even resemble” a treatment unit. When prisoners in the isolation units are provided out-of-cell therapy, “the therapy is generally provided to the prisoner while he sits in a small cage roughly the size of a telephone booth.” According to the DOJ, one of the major causal factors of these conditions are staffing shortages that make it impossible for mental health professionals to provide necessary care.
Instead of any semblance of the residential treatment unit or programming, the DOJ found a prison where the sick torture the sick, and the endless depths of isolation are punctuated only by guard violence, self-mutilation, suicide attempts, and death.
The impact that the release of the DOJ/US Attorney’s Office investigation findings will have remains unclear. Because conditions at Cresson appear to be indicative of systemic patterns throughout the PA DOC, the DOJ has now taken the unprecedented move of expanding the investigation to include all solitary confinement units of the state’s prison system. However, the office of the DOJ tasked with the investigation- the Special Litigations Section of the Civil Rights Division- does not have the power to prosecute, and under the controlling statute- the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA)- the PA DOC is allowed the opportunity to voluntarily remedy the unconstitutional conditions found by the DOJ. Failure to do so means that the DOJ will be permitted- but not required- to file a lawsuit in federal court to enforce the Constitution.
At this time, it appears that all PA DOC staff complicit in the abuse, torture, and negligent treatment of severely mentally ill prisoners at SCI Cresson have not in any way been held accountable for their actions by either PA DOC or law enforcement agencies– in fact, the opposite has occurred: the prison’s chief psychologist James Harrington, who presided over the atrocities in Cresson’s “treatment units”, was recently promoted to the newly created position of Regional Chief Psychologist, in charge of overseeing the mental health services of seven PA DOC prisons.
We end this report with a quote from Renee Palakovic, whose son Brandon committed suicide while caged in SCI Cresson’s isolation units in July 2012 (read Renee’s full statement):
“..On Friday, May 31st (2013) when I read the news articles and eventually the Justice Department report later in the weekend, the pain that I have been fighting to control and manage every minute of every day came flooding back in a real and powerful way that I was not prepared for.
..What psychiatrist does this to a patient? He was ignored. Placed in solitary for extended periods of time and treated like an animal. Taunted by guards who found amusement in toying with his mind and his emotions and given the opportunity to harm himself.
..To read the Justice Department’s report and find that his requests for help were ignored, his visits with the psychiatrist skipped and his treatment reduced to ongoing and never-ending confinement in a small cement cell made my heart break all over again and quite frankly, made me mad as hell.
..My son was more than just a prisoner confined to a cell in a state correctional institution. I will keep telling myself this, because it is true. But until state correctional institutions believe it and operate based upon it, more and more sons and daughters will become victims of the callous and irresponsible treatment seen behind the walls of Cresson SCI.”
If you’d like to know more about the Human Rights Coalition or would like to get involved, call us at 267-293-9169, email email@example.com, or visit our website at http://www.hrcoalition.org./
Pittsburgh area: Write On! – letter writing to prisoners and HRC work night every Wednesday at 5129 Penn Avenue from 7 -10pm. To get involved with HRC/Fed Up! in Pittsburgh,email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 412-654-9070.
This is the Human Rights Coalition’s PA Prison Report. HRC is a group of current and former prisoners, family members, and supporters, whose ultimate goal is to abolish prisons.
Keep up the fight!
Copyright © 2013 Human Rights Coalition – FedUp!, All rights reserved.
From: Human Rights Coalition: PA Prison Report, Dec. 12, 2011
Preliminary Hearing sends Guard to Trial: The preliminary hearing for Harry Nicoletti, a guard suspended from SCI Pittsburgh and arrested on felony charges of institutional sexual assault and criminal solicitation, took place December 7 through the 9 in Pittsburgh. Judge Gene Ricciardi ruled that enough evidence was presented by the prosecution to send Nicoletti to trial. The judge held 101 charges that will be ruled on in the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas.
During the hearing, the prosecution called 31 witnesses to testify, most of whom were former or current prisoners. Some testified as victims of assault, and others testified that Nicoletti encouraged them to assault other prisoners for rewards. Patrick Hogan testified that Nicoletti ordered him to put cigarette ashes in the food of another prisoner who was mentally slow, and then pour the rest of the food on the prisoner’s head and smear it on his chest. Hogan also testified that the mentally slow prisoner was ordered to jump up and down for a long time, stand with his nose against a door, and then was ordered to strip down, and was probed with a broom handle. Richard Cavallero testified that when he was at SCI Pittsburgh, he beat up 30 other prisoners while Nicoletti turned his head.
The defense worked to discredit the testimony, inquiring why prisoners did not report to higher officials, and why none of them sought medical attention. One prisoner said he kept quiet for fear of being sent to solitary. One said that he reported the abuse when he was transferred to SCI Camp Hill and they did nothing. Another prisoner said, “I told him I didn’t want to do it. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to fight him. … What am I going to do, punch him in the face?”
Department of Corrections statistics from 2010 indicate that 98% of prisoner grievances are denied, despite the Department of Corrections maintaining that the prisoner grievance system provides meaningful oversight of prisoner complaints and abuse. The Department of Justice recently opened an investigation into official abuse at SCI Pittsburgh and SCI Cresson, both in Pennsylvania.
Via Email from the Human Rights Coalition:
Both HRC-Philadelphia and HRC-Fed UP! are having our Prisoner Call in Day on Monday, July 11, for the community to pull together to have an call-in day to Prisons and Legislatures in demanding justice for our brothas and sistas who are incarcerated and facing emergency crises, such as medical, physical and sexual abuse.
HRC-Philly will be from 9am to 12pm, at the LAVA Space. 4134 Lancaster Ave.
HRC-Fed-UP! (Pittsburgh) will be until 4pm at 5129 Penn Avenue
But don’t worry if you can’t make it in to the office, so long as you can find a phone you can help by making the following calls:
Help remove abusive guards from Frackville’s solitary units: For the last few months the Human Rights Coalition has received numerous reports from prisoners in Frackville’s solitary units about abuse by prison guard Shaeffer and Sergeant Wickersham. This abuse includes being denied meals, showers, yard, and being repeatedly verbally harassed. Despite numerous grievances being filed about these two guards behavior, and pleas for the guards to be moved out of the solitary units, they have yet to be moved or held accountable for this behavior.
Please Call the Superintendent Collins at Frackville and Central Office, inform
them of this behavior and demand that CO Shaeffer and Sgt. Wickersham be
moved out of the RHU, and disciplinary steps are taken.
(570) 874-4516- Frackville – ask to be connected to the Superintendent’s office, request to speak with Superintendent Collins or the Superintendent’s Assistant, Peter Damiter
717-975-4859- Central Office – ask to speak with Secretary John Wetzel, Deputy Secretary John Murray, or somebody from their office.
For more information on call-in day or how to get involved in the struggle against the prison-industrial complex contact the Human Rights Coalition:
email@example.com, 215.921.3491 or firstname.lastname@example.org in Pgh, 412-654-9070
From: the Human Rights Coalition:
Prison Abuse Logs
The result of over four years of investigation into prison conditions inside Pennsylvania’s jails and prisons, the Prison Abuse Logs consist of more than 900 entries detailing human rights violations by prison officials and law enforcement. Despite repeated efforts to notify county, state, and federal law enforcement, along with elected officials of evidence of criminal acts being perpetrated by prison authorities and staff, every level of government has consistently turned a blind eye to routine, institutionalized attacks on the human rights of prisoners.
The Human Rights Coalition hopes that the release of these documents will aid journalists, lawyers, researchers, policymakers, and community organizers in efforts to shed light on the systematic abuse and torture of prisoners.
Information contained in the logs has been reported to the Human Rights Coalition by prisoners, their family members and supporters. HRC has no way to independently verify each entry; readers are encouraged to investigate on their own.
Many of the entries contain descriptions of abuse, torture and violence, and may be upsetting.
Prison Abuse Logs
Excel Spreadsheet (sortable)
Prison Abuse Logs pdf file (reverse chronological order)
From: Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up! Chapter
RELEASE: New report details systematic torture and abuse of prisoners in Pennsylvania State Prison
Contact: Amanda Johnson – email@example.com – (716) 238-4089
April 25, 2011 – After a year-long investigation, the Human Rights Coalition has issued a report on the conditions of incarceration for people in the solitary confinement units at the State Correctional Institution in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. The report, Unity and Courage, examines discriminatory practices of the PA Department of Corrections and portrays the efforts of a group of prisoners engaging in nonviolent and peaceful protest to demand their basic human rights.
Unity and Courage documents a culture of abuse fostered by prison staff, characterized by the excessive use of force, assaults by officers, use of racial slurs, forced cell extractions, chemical gassing, destruction of legal paperwork, torture devices, and deprivation of food and water. The Human Rights Coalition began its investigation of the use of solitary confinement at Huntingdon in December 2009, when a prisoner committed suicide after being denied mental health treatment by prison staff.
Prisoners began an organized campaign of resistance in September of 2010, by refusing to come in from the exercise yard until they could speak with public officials about their treatment. Correctional officers wheeled out canisters of chemical spray, hosing the prisoners down until they would comply with orders to be handcuffed and returned to their cells, where they were denied showers and medical attention for days. Some were put in isolation cells and had to sleep naked on concrete slabs.
Approximately 2,500 men and women are housed in solitary confinement units across the state. They are in small, brightly lit cells 23 hours a day, with little or no ability to communicate with family, and no access to educational and rehabilitative programming. At Huntingdon, solitary confinement prisoners are dependent on correctional officers to receive food, have access to showers, exercise and law library, and to exchange ingoing and outgoing mail. With severe restrictions on outside contact and a Departmhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifent of Corrections abuse monitoring system that is shielded from external scrutiny, policies and practices of systemic abuse at the prison go unchecked at the cost of prisoners’ health and lives.
“Their goal is to stop us from speaking out against them,” wrote Huntingdon protester Kyle Klein, “but it will never work, not a chance in hell, or the hell we are in. Even when winning is impossible, quitting is far from optional.”
Contact info of public officials who received advance copies of Unity and Courage