As reform slowly moves through corrections system, are the “worst of the worst” forgotten about?
By Gary Lenigan and Jessica Federkeil, Point Park News Service
In 2010, while testifying in his own defense on a rape charge, Robert Polzer stabbed himself in the neck with a pen and screamed “I love you” to his victim, erratic behavior that continued in prison, landing him in the administrative custody unit for the past five years.
Emery Barron may not deal with mental illness, but his assaultive behavior landed him in the restricted housing unit where he will spend 22 hours a day, 7 days a week until 2019.
These are examples of how the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has dealt with recalcitrant prisoners who act out, commit heinous crimes inside the walls, or in general, cannot behave themselves in the prison setting that has spawned lawsuits and studies claiming the corrections system is not embracing alternatives to locking people in cells for as long as four decades.
In a survey conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union with inmates on the restricted release list who have spent more than two years in the restricted housing unit (RHU), inmates compared their living situation as moving a bed into your bathroom, spending 22 to 23 hours of each day confined to that space. Some have spent as long as 44 years in those conditions.
A RHU consists of a block of isolated cells sometimes known as “the hole,” used by the DOC to house inmates that are placed in disciplinary custody or administrative custody. While living in a RHU, inmates are confined to their cells for a minimum of 22 hours a day.
The use of solitary confinement originates back to 1829 in Pennsylvania at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Quakers locked patients in a small cell alone with only a bible. Over time this method of isolation was implemented in prisons around the world and became known as the “Pennsylvania System.” However, it didn’t take long for critics to question whether the complete isolation these prisoners faced actually promoted rehabilitation, some skeptics claimed it caused mental illness.
In 2013, The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit over the mistreatment of inmates with severe mental illnesses and other maladies in these units.
“These men and women are confined in so-called Restricted Housing Units under horrific conditions, through an unconstitutional process that takes no account of—and exacerbates—their mental illness,” the disability rights network claimed in a suit filed in the U.S. District Court, the disability rights network claims.
Simultaneously, DOC officials hired the Vera Institute of Justice to assess their use of administrative and disciplinary custody. In 2015, Vera made recommendations to the DOC on how they could “safely reduce their reliance on restricted housing.”
The DOC repeatedly declined to comment for this story.
The Vera report found that inmates on the restricted release list are often held for years in segregation. It also found that at the time the majority of the long-term RRL inmates had no plan for a return to the general population.
According to a recent DOC population report, as of Nov. 30, 2017, there are approximately 2,500 inmates confined to RHU’s in Pennsylvania.
According to the DOC’s Administrative Custody Procedure, “it is the policy of the Department to place an inmate in Administrative Custody status whose presence in general population would constitute a threat to life, property, himself/herself, staff, other inmates or the secure or orderly running of the facility.”
“The first thing we run into is that they justify the unit by saying it is the only solution for the most violent and disruptive inmates,” Elena Vanko of the Safe Alternatives to Segregation Resource Center said.
It is inmate cases like Polzer and Barron that highlight an increased national attention to the issue of restricted housing during recent years, where policymakers still justify the use of solitary confinement.
“People who have been in there for a few years and decades often get forgotten about,” Vanko said. “They operate under the assumption that they were violent 5 years ago so they are still violent.”
A HISTORY OF MENTAL ILLNESS
According to court papers, on Aug. 20, 2008, Molly Jones, an acquaintance of Polzer’s whom he had met five months earlier, came to his apartment on the North Side to finish watching a movie they had started the afternoon before.
Jones fell asleep as the two were laying on Polzer’s bed. She awoke soon after when she felt someone tugging on her right arm. When she opened her eyes she realized Polzer was handcuffing her to his bedpost, he proceeded to sexually assault her.
Polzer was later charged with eight counts including rape, false imprisonment, tampering with evidence, and unlawful restraint.
During the weeks leading up to his trial, Polzer penned a letter to Jones from the Allegheny County Jail apologizing for his actions:
“There is really no excuse for what I did to you. This whole entire situation feels like a nightmare to me. I cannot believe I forced myself into you. I feel so ashamed of myself,” he wrote in his confession.
In the letter, Polzer also told Jones that if she did not alter her testimony on his behalf, he would kill himself because he couldn’t go back to jail.
In April of 2010, while testifying on his own behalf, Polzer took a pen from his shirt pocket, shouted “I love you, Molly!” and stabbed himself in the throat. Deputy Sheriff Tom Ninehouser immediately tasered Polzer, preventing him from doing any further damage to himself or others.
According to his defense attorney Erika Kreisman, Polzer collapsed in front of the jury, gushing blood.
“The jury couldn’t leave, he was laying at the exit of the jury box,” she said. “It was very stressful.”
Paramedics rushed him to UPMC Mercy where he underwent surgery for non-life-threatening injuries. A mistrial was declared and Polzer was sent to Torrence State Hospital, where he was diagnosed with depression, malingering psychosis, and antisocial personality disorder.
Following his treatment, he was brought back to trial in October 2010. This time on the witness stand, Polzer, an amateur country artist, sang a song he had written for Jones. Eventually, he was found guilty of rape and false imprisonment and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison.
LIFE IN THE RHU
In February 2013, while incarcerated at SCI-Smithfield, Polzer made a threat to his counselor that resulted in him receiving 60 days in the RHU. In letters from prison, Polzer said while he was locked down he threatened a corrections officer in a letter to the prison’s superintendent with hopes that it would result in a transfer. That earned him an additional 180 days in solitary confinement.
By March of the following year, Polzer claims that he had received fabricated accusations of exposing himself to nurses and refusing to return a food tray which extended his time in the RHU for another 180 days.
These accusations sent Polzer over the edge, and his actions towards corrections officers became much more vulgar.
“I began to expose myself to the Deputy Superintendent lady a few times, which she never wrote me up for. However, the third time, she shook her pen at me three times and walked off,” Polzer said in a letter.
Polzer meet with the Program Review Committee, which consists of the Deputy Superintendent and one another DOC staff member. He said he was led into the meeting with his hands restrained and a corrections officer holding his upper arm. He then proceeded to lunge himself onto the desk where the Deputy Superintendent was seated.
“I took a few steps and leaped my body upon the desk, and never touched her. Then I guess stated, ‘I told you I’d get you!’ Then the lieutenant grabbed me from behind and slammed me on the floor,” Polzer recalled in a letter.
Because of his stunt, Polzer was sentenced to an additional 150 days in the RHU, basically dooming him to serving most of his sentence in that unit.
In May 2016, after being closed off from any interaction for many hours, he informed corrections officers that he began feeling suicidal.
“The officers came in and beat me up, then while handcuffed behind my back, a [Corrections officer] pile drived [sic] my head onto the cement floor,” he claims. The DOC denied comment on this matter.
Kenneth Fryncko, who represented Polzer in a 2015 case, said there was no question about Polzer’s failing mental health, and whether these conditions contributed to his problems.
“Obviously he’s got some issues, just look at what he was charged with,” said Fryncko. “I’m not sure why he is in there (RHU).”
Within the last year, Polzer was transferred to the RHU at SCI-Fayette where he spends his days in a cold 13-by-7-foot cell with a metal frame bunk, steel toilet, desk and stool, and cement walls.
He is allowed five hours a week of recreation in a steel cage outside. If he was in the Residential Treatment Unit, for the mentally ill he would be required a minimum of 20 hours of recreation.
“[I feel] stressed and depressed a lot,” Polzer writes. “I put the blanket covers over my head and try to sleep in this freezing cold cell with a locked rear outside steel door near my tiny bunk.”
Currently, Polzer said he receives little attention from the mental health staff on a regular basis. He sees a psychologist once a week, but only as they are retrieving paperwork from the inmates. He also gets out-of-cell contact with a Psychological Review Team about once every 90 days, while still locked in a steel cage. The DOC could not be reached for comment on this matter as well.
“The hole is for short-term inmates, not for people to be in for an extended period of time—it will just make him worse,” said Kreisman, his former attorney.
According to court documents Emery Barron, of Duquesne, was originally serving a five- to 10-year sentence after pleading guilty to kidnapping and robbery in Allegheny County in 2009 accused of holding a woman against her will and robbing her of $1,000, according to the criminal complaint filed by the Duquesne Police Department.
In prison, he was charged with aggravated assault, simple assault and harassment after an altercation with a corrections officer on Feb. 13, 2014, at the SCI at Somerset.
According to media coverage of the incident, state police in Somerset said Barron was attending a concert and was sitting in the bleachers in the prison’s gym area when he became disruptive and fought with guards.
He has been confined to the restricted release unit at SCT- Coal Township since and will not be released from it (if he behaves) for another two years.
In the ACLU survey, Barron described his cell as “small, white ceiling, walls, concrete floor, steel door, two steel vents, steel berth with a thin mat, steel deck, steel toilet connected to a steel sink, and a useless window I can’t see out of.”
Barron doesn’t think he should be kept out of the general population.
“I shouldn’t be banned from every prison population when I haven’t been to every prison population,” he wrote.
Barron wrote that he doesn’t notice a difference in his mental health since being confined to a solitary cell. Barron said he deals with irritability, anger/rage but that he doesn’t view it as a mental health issue. He said that he doesn’t receive any mental health treatment.
“I enjoy my own company. I wouldn’t use the word cope, I just deal with what comes,” Barron wrote.
Barron said that he passes his 23 hours a day by working out, cleaning, cooking, watching television, and reading.
“It feels like there’s 72 hours in each day and after the first year it starts to feel suffocating,” Barron responded to the ACLU’s survey.
Barron has not acted out in over a year, yet still faces two years before his potential release from administrative custody.
“If I stay out of trouble and complete their step down program I can possibly be in one of these [general] populations by 2019.”
MENTAL ILLNESS SETTLEMENT
Almost three years after the DRN case was settled, Polzer — who has been diagnosed with mental health illnesses such as depression and malingering psychosis — is approaching his third year in the RHU.
The suit was settled with a consent decree in 2015. In the settlement, the corrections department did not acquiesce the complaint which assets the system was violating the Eighth Amendment in that forcing 33 percent of inmates in those units with recognized mental illness to live in deplorable conditions falls under the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Unfortunately, prisons and jails have become the defacto system responsible for treating the mentally ill. While we continue to step up and face this challenge, we also must continue to call for better and more abundant mental health services in the community,” said DOC Secretary John Wentzel in a press release.
Advocates for better treatment say it is still being overused in place of mental health services.
“One thing we run into is that with prisons overcrowded there is not a lot of money for mental health treatment,” Vanko of the Safe Alternatives to Segregation Resource Center said.
“So the overuse of segregation is just another symptom of the overall problem with prisons.”
Following the settlement, the DOC agreed on a total overhaul of their policies when it comes to prisoners with severe mental illness, and to pay a fine of $750,000.
The final agreement states that following a transition period, “No severe mental illness inmate will be placed in a Restricted Housing Unit absent exceptional circumstances,” the settlement reads.
The DOC was to provide alternative housing options for inmates with mental illness in secure residential treatment units designed to provide management programming and treatment for inmates, who have been diagnosed with a mental illness by the DOC, and are considered a threat to the safety and security of staff and other inmates in a less secure environment.
Inmates housed in these units now receive a minimum of twenty hours of out-of-cell time, as well as ten hours of structured activity such as mental health programs.
Contrary to the 2013 settlement, inmates like Polzer, who have yet to be identified by the DOC as having a severe mental illness, remain confined in their RHU unit cells.
Vanko said a lot of people live with mental illness before being placed in the RHU, and the segregation just exacerbates their symptoms.
“This long-term segregation was used as a replacement for actual mental health treatment,” Vanko said.
The suit settlement specifically states that inmates housed in the RHU because of administrative custody or disciplinary custody should be evaluated by psychology staff every 30 days. And that psychology staff visits the RHU five days per week for “out-of-cell contact” for any inmate in need.
According to Polzer’s responses to the restricted release survey sent out by the ACLU, this does not happen.
“For psych meds, the nurse comes every day. Psychiatrist maybe every 90 days,” he wrote.
According to the settlement, an inmate’s suitability for continued placement in the RHU would be determined by deterioration of an inmates mental health.
“Restricted housing should never be imposed for longer than necessary,” Vanko said.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PROGRAMS
Step-down Programs prepare an inmate for a transition to the general population or the community. Individualized programs involve a coordinated, multidisciplinary team approach that includes mental health, case management, and security practitioners.
“We are social creatures, and like anything when you don’t use them your social skills get rusty,” Vanko said.
Vanko said that is where step-down programs play a major role in reducing the number of inmates in restricted housing, whether administrative or disciplinary. The Vera report found that 10 percent of inmates held in administrative custody because they were a danger to others had been in the unit for more than two years. Some, according to a survey by the ACLU, have been in the RHU for as long as 40 years.
A lot of the time, prisons would transfer an inmate from RHU to the general population with no transition period.
“It is really setting people up for failure,” Vanko said.
The Vera report found in some cases if an inmate’s sentence was up while they were in the RHU they would be released straight from segregation. Going from very little human interaction to suddenly being a free person.
“That is really not a good outcome for public safety,” Vanko said. “Which is the point of the DOC to create a safer community.”
CORRECTIONS FACILITIES MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION…SLOWLY
In 2016, the Association of State Correctional Administrators and many prison directors have defined restricted housing as a practice to use only when absolutely necessary and for only as long as absolutely required.
“You want to look at what restrictions are really needed for safety,” Vanko said.
There has been a dramatic change during the past few years in how corrections facilities are viewing the use of segregation, Vanko credits that change to public awareness.
“It is an exciting time for me that over the last two-to-three years this issue is getting more attention. The public is starting to care,” Vanko said.
Since transferring to SCI-Fayette, Polzer’s cell is located in a spot where he able to view a television through his window. He believes that being able to watch the television is beneficial to his mental health.
“I have taken notice, however, that the TV can be actually therapeutic when used properly and appropriately,” Polzer wrote. “It kind of fills a void missing.”
Although watching television may keep Polzer composed for a short period of time, he thinks structured activities and programs offered to inmates living in Residential Treatment Units could be beneficial to his rehabilitation. He expresses interest in programs that are offered to general population inmates such as Impulse Control, Thinking For a Change, Violence Prevention, and Sex Offender Program Therapy.
Barron wrote that he doesn’t see as much of a need for programs in the RHU.
“Programs would be for prisoners left in the hole for long terms and because I don’t believe that people should be left in the hole for long terms, I don’t have any suggestions. People shouldn’t be in the hole long enough to need a program in the first place,” Barron said in a letter.
For Barron, a lot of it has to do with personalities within a prison.
“The Pa. DOC has over 30 prisons. If I believed that a prisoner was a threat to a prison I would send him to another. RRL wouldn’t exist,” Barron wrote.
Vanko said that in the spirit of change more states are looking at how they can reform segregation.
“It takes time, and unfortunately it takes resources,” Vanko said. “Some states will work slower than others, but in general things are moving in a positive direction and we are seeing promising results.”