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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.