ACLU sues to get 156 inmates on death row out of solitary

There hasn’t been an execution in Pennsylvania since Gary Heidnik, the so-called “torture murderer” of Philly, who kept six women prisoner in his basement and killed two, got a lethal injection in 1999.

But some 156 inmates sentenced to death still languish on death row, in what they claim are some of the worst conditions in the state prison system in a new lawsuit filed by the ACLU demanding their transfer to general population.

In Pennsylvania prisons, solitary confinement “is automatically and permanently imposed on all prisoners sentenced to death,” the ACLU and Abolitionist Law Center (ALC) said in a statement on the suit. “It is not triggered by violations of prison rules or a need for protective custody, and there is no procedure for prisoners to challenge their placement in solitary.”

The Pennsylvania DOC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Solitary means spending at least 22 hours a day inside a room with the square footage of a parking spot, ACLU and ALC claim, and some 80 percent of the 156 inmates on death row have been living in these conditions for more than a decade.

United Nations experts have since 2011 deemed solitary confinement to be a form of torture and urged the United States to discontinue the practice in its prisons.

Although Gov. Tom Wolf has issued a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania, some prosecutors, like the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, are still pursuing the death penalty in certain cases.

The most recent defendant sentenced to death in Pennsylvania is Richard Poplawski, who killed three Pittsburgh police officers in 2009. His “administrative execution date” was set at March 3, 2017, but pushed back pending an ineffective assistance of counsel appeal.

The death penalty was reinstated in Pennsylvania in 1978. Since then only three executions have taken place.

Attorneys from Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feiberg & Lin LLP, and Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP are also working on the lawsuit.

“Those conditions cause psychological damage within days, let alone decades,” said ALC legal director Bret Grote. “Doling out a severe punishment like this as a matter of course is shameful as well as against the law.”

Read the lawsuit online at

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