Matt Slocum / AP, file
The Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution in Dallas, Pa.
A group of Pennsylvania prison inmates who claim they were savagely beaten and abused by guards while held in solitary confinement three years ago are due in court Monday on charges that they sparked a riot in their unit.
Authorities allege that in April 2010 six inmates at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Dallas provoked an uproar after they barricaded their cell doors and windows with bedding, forcing guards to forcibly remove the men, according to the police criminal complaint.
And yet the prisoners and their advocates claim they were simply staging a peaceful protest they say was designed to draw attention to rampant abuses and deplorable conditions in the security housing unit — from food deprivation to medical neglect.
Advocates for the inmates say prison guards responded to the protest with horrific violence.
"The guards put on their riot gear, and they tear-gassed the guys, they beat them with batons, they electro-shocked them, they tasered them, they pepper-sprayed them," Shandre Delaney, the mother of inmate Carrington Keys, told NBC News.
When reached for comment, SCI Dallas spokeswoman Robin Lucas said: "Our response is that we do not comment on matters of litigation." A representative for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections did not return request for comment.
According to the complaint, a person is guilty of rioting "if he participates with two or more others in a course of disorderly conduct with the intent to coerce official action."
For the last three years, Delaney and a small but vocal group of activists have called on county officials to drop the rioting charges, which they say are unfounded. All the while, the prisoners — Derrick Stanley, Anthony Locke, Andre Jacobs, Duane Peters and Keys — have remained in solitary confinement at facilities scattered across Pennsylvania. A sixth inmate, Anthony Kelly, accepted a plea deal and was released from prison.
As legal proceedings begin Monday, advocates for the so-called "Dallas Five" say the trial could become a crucible in the wider debate over solitary confinement, which supporters defend as an essential management tool and opponents decry as a practice tantamount to torture.
"I hope it sheds light on what actually goes on in these units," said Bret Grote, an activist with the Pennsylvania-based Human Rights Coalition who has advocated for the inmates. "It's a story that needs to be told."
An invisible population
In 1842, Charles Dickens visited the Eastern Penitentiary, just outside Philadelphia, a sprawling complex where, he said, "the system ... is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement."
Eastern State Penitentiary in Graterford, Penn., is shown, Aug. 25, 1934, the day of a fire and riot at the prison.
In a travelogue published in the fall of that year, he wrote: "I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers."
Nearly two centuries later, the Dallas Five allege they endured inhumane and cruel treatment at a prison just two hours north of the now-defunct Eastern Penitentiary. Their allegations may not be representative of all convicts in "the hole" — but they are nonetheless part of a fast-growing population that lives in the shadows of popular consciousness.
At least 80,000 people doing hard time are held in "restricted housing" facilities every day in America, according to David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prison Project.
"Tens of thousands of prisoners are being locked alone in a cell for up to 24 hours a day, every day, with extremely limited human contact, social interaction or environmental stimulation," Fathi said. "No windows, no natural light — all behind a solid steel door."
A hot-button issue
Many prison officials who support "administrative segregation" measures say solitary confinement helps stem the tide of vicious gang violence and wanton misconduct in prisons across the country.
But scores of advocacy groups opposed to the practice charge that it is commensurate with torture under international law.
"It's incredibly harmful to physical health, and it's incredibly harmful to mental health," Fathi said, adding that inmates held in isolation for years on end run the risk of chronic depression, self-mutilation, decreased brain function, hallucinations, revenge fantasies — and in some cases suicide.
The number of convicts in solitary has exploded in the last quarter-century due to a spike in stringent sentencing policies and the "overcriminalization" of historically low-priority offenses, according to the ACLU. Prisoners can be sent to solitary for as little as a day or as much as two decades.
Fathi said many inmates are sent to "the hole" for a wide range of reasons — from serious offenses like attacking a fellow convict to relatively minor transgressions that many critics deem arbitrary.
"It's really shocking how trivial some of the offenses are that land someone in solitary," Fathi said. "You could be sent there because you have too many postage stamps or because you have prescription medication that has expired. The most trivial things imaginable have landed people in this extremely harsh and punitive environment."
He added: "Just because you're in solitary doesn't mean you've done something serious."
A recent lawsuit in New Mexico claims that officials kept a 73-year-old grandmother in solitary confinement for close to five weeks — and deprived her of cancer medication, according to the Associated Press.
The woman, Carol Lester, was sent to solitary at New Mexico Women's Correctional Facility after she complained to legislators about her medication, the wire service reported.
Advocates for the Dallas Five say they hope that when proceedings get underway at the Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Monday, the truth about the inmates will finally be known.
Delaney and Grote, speaking on behalf of the inmates, said that guards at SCI Dallas initially targeted the six inmates after they voiced complaints about conditions in solitary to the Human Rights Coalition, which published a comprehensive report that identified the prisoners by name.
In response to allegedly rampant mistreatment — including food deprivation, mail destruction, beatings, medical neglect and various other abuses — the six inmates decided to cover their cell windows with bedding in order to draw the attention of their counselors, state police, the District Attorney and the Public Defender's Office, according to Grote.
Advocates for the inmates allege that corrections officers responded to the barricade by "viciously attacking them with electro-shock shields, tazers, fists and pepper-spray," according to a release from the Human Rights Coalition, which has called for the abolition of solitary confinement in Pennsylvania.
Following the alleged attack, most of the group of six were transferred to other prisons. And in August 2010, the county brought criminal rioting charges against them, Grote said.
When reached for comment a week before the trial was set to begin, a representative for Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie J. Salavantis said she was not available.
Delaney said that she hopes the trial launches a popular discussion about the potential for abuses in solitary confinement in penal institutions across the country.
"The public is going to get a chance to see what's really going on," she said. "A lot of people just think that you put people in prison and you throw away the key, and whatever people want to do to them while they're in there is okay. But it’s not okay."
Grote said the stakes are high for the defendants.
"We hope for an acquittal," Grote said. "A guilty verdict threatens to criminalize anyone who tries to speak out against their own degradation and abuse."
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This story was originally published on Mon Dec 9, 2013 5:11 AM EST