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Pennsylvania Prison Conditions

Kudos to Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist Matt Stroud, whose report on prisoner suicides in Pennsylvania has been featured in Pro Publica’s list of “The Best Investigative Reporting on U.S. Prisons.”

Stroud, a Point Park University alum, spotlights the lack of mental health services for prisoners at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institute (SCI) at Cresson, a medium-security facility 90 miles east of Pittsburgh. Stroud notes in his article, originally published in The Nation, that a pending Department of Justice investigation into SCI Cresson and SCI Pittsburgh “could be a significant step toward banning solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners.”

The issue of whether solitary confinement – isolating inmates in empty, single cells for at least 23 hours a day – constitutes torture is expertly addressed by journalist Atul Gawande’s feature story “Hellhole,” which was published in The New Yorker in 2009 and also made Pro Publica’s list. Gawande cites multiple studies of prisoners, hostages, and prisoners of war showing that “without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that incurred a traumatic injury.”

The wide-scale use of isolation in American prisons began just 30 years ago with the first supermax prison in Marion, Illinois. Today our prisons hold as many as 80,000 American inmates in solitary confinement – many for non-violent breaches of prison rules, according to journalists James Ridgeway and Jean Casella of SolitaryWatch.com.

It is likely just a matter of time before the U.S. Supreme Court prohibits the use of solitary confinement as violating the 8th Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment. Until then, we have top-flight reporters like Shroud and Gawande to thank for describing solitary confinement as it really is: legalized torture.

Juvenile Sentencing Laws

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws that mandate life sentences for juveniles. The Court has evolved rather quickly on the issue of whether people should receive death sentences of life without the possibility of parole for heinous crimes they committed as juveniles.

Just seven years ago, in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Roper v. Simmons that sentencing individuals to death for crimes they committed as youths constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. Thus, the juvenile death penalty was abolished.

Five years later, in 2010, the Court held in Graham v. Florida that it is unconstitutional to sentence individuals under the age of 18 to life without parole in non-homicide cases. Thereafter, juveniles could only be sentenced to life without parole for crimes involving murder.

Now in 2012, the Supreme Court held in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole for crimes committed under the age of 18 violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Thus, the Court extended its ruling in Graham v. Florida to all juvenile offenders.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are now scrambling to figure out what to do with the 470 state inmates now serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, as the Miller decision may be declared retroactive.

A Second Chance for Juvenile Offenders

In Pennsylvania, 470 people are serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. That’s more than any other state, according to a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.

Fortunately, these inmates may get their sentences reduced due to the United States Supreme Court’s recent ruling that mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment.

Prior to this ruling, the United States was the only country in the world that regularly applied life without parole for offenses committed before the age of 18, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

We strongly support the high court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, and here’s why:

In recent years, medical research has shown that teenagers’ brains are not fully developed as compared to adults. Specifically, the frontal lobes are not fully connected, which often results in poor decision-making – as any parent of teenagers can attest.

As a result, juveniles are “more likely to act on impulse, more likely to misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions, and less likely think twice, change their mind, or pause to consider the consequences of their actions,” according to Dr. David Fassler, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is supported by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Psychiatric Association. These mental health organizations maintain that people who committed crimes as juveniles have an enhanced possibility of rehabilitation.

It is understandable that many victims of Pennsylvania’s 470 inmates oppose Miller v. Alabama, as it may result in the release of their perpetrators back into society. But we believe that, where possible, our criminal justice system should emphasize rehabilitation over retribution.

Budget Cuts Target Pennsylvania’s Poorest

Some 70,000 of Pennsylvania’s poorest citizens get checks from the state for more $200 a month. These people have no other sources of income. They qualify for cash assistance under the Department of Public Welfare’s strict income and resources guidelines. Many of these people cannot work because they care for a disabled loved one. Others were certified as unable to work by their physician.

But this meager assistance is being cut off. As of next month, Pennsylvania will no longer provide cash grants of General Assistance to the state’s poorest. As members of the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Social Security Practitioners Committee, we support a formal resolution to restore funding of the state’s General Assistance Cash Grant Program. Please join us in opposing these budget cuts by contacting your state lawmakers today.