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Activists Put Solitary Confinement on Ballot, But Local Elections Board Nixed It

In Pennsylvania, a referendum demonstrates the challenges that ballot initiatives can face from those in power.

People hold signs calling for an end to solitary confinement at a rally on October 25, 2022 in New York City.

Since March, Eli Spindler has been locked in an administrative segregation unit in Lackawanna County Prison, a facility in northeast Pennsylvania serving Scranton and the surrounding area. Everyone on Spindler’s block is doubled up in tiny cells for 21 hours a day.

Spindler said one man, who seems to be around 70, barely speaks and regularly urinates in his clothes. “The guards know, the administration knows,” Spindler said. “This man should be on a medical special needs block, and he’s not. There’s a few gentlemen on the block where this occurs.… And the people that they put in the cells with these people are further punished and literally tortured by the smell of human urine for 21 hours a day.”

Despite housing two people, each cell only has one chair. “There’s only so much you can lay down in a day,” he said. “And 21 hours or 20 hours, I don’t care who you are, to lay down that long, it’s horrible.” If the cell toilet is flushed twice within three minutes, the flushing mechanism locks for an hour, so many people choose to leave urine unflushed. This stench was unbearable over the summer, he said, when the air conditioning on the block stopped working for a month.

Spindler said there is no programming offered, other than a recently added weekly Bible study, so the only entertainment is often the TV on the tier, which can only be seen from half the cells.

The lights on the block are never turned off, just dimmed at night. “You can’t sleep. Your body at this point, begins craving, subconsciously, while you’re sleeping, for darkness,” he said. “It’s unbelievable, the feeling that your body gets from being subjected to light for that long.… It seems like a little issue, but it’s huge. It’s catastrophic. And it’s really debilitating, to have to deal with it every day.”

Spindler is far from alone in his experiences at Lackawanna County Prison, which despite having “prison” in its name is functionally a county jail. (Unlike in most states, many county jails in Pennsylvania are officially referred to as prisons.)

The facility’s warden, Timothy Betti, estimated at a recent County Prison Board meeting that it holds around 180 people in “restricted housing units,” including those held for administrative, disciplinary and protective custody reasons. He noted that this amounts to 20 to 25 percent of the total prison population.

Like many prison and jail officials, who tend to prefer euphemisms, Betti told the board he avoids the term “solitary confinement,” which he said evokes “visions of the movie Cool Hand Luke.”

But regardless of what it is called, the fact remains that around 180 people are in restricted housing in Lackawanna County Prison, many of whom spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells. The United Nations defines solitary confinement as 22 hours a day without meaningful human contact, and considers it torture when used longer than 15 days, or for people with mental illness, those who are pregnant, children, and other vulnerable groups. Solitary has been shown to cause severe psychological and neurological effects, higher rates of self-harm and suicide, and even shortened life spans after release. Researchers and human rights courts have found similar effects when people are doubled up two to a cell with little time out, like in Eli Spindler’s unit.

Earlier this year, the advocacy group PA Stands Up (and its northeast Pennsylvania sister group, NEPA Stands Up) sought to give the voters of Lackawanna County the power to curtail this practice. Volunteers collected signatures to put a referendum question on the November ballot, which, if passed, would amend the Lackawanna County Charter to prohibit solitary confinement in the jail (defined as more than 20 hours a day in a cell), other than in emergency situations lasting less than 24 hours.

The groups collected 13,665 signatures in support of the referendum — far exceeding the required 8,396 signature threshold.

Ballot initiatives can be a useful strategy for advocates and directly impacted people who believe their concerns are being ignored by elected and appointed officials. Last year, voters in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, approved a similar ballot referendum to limit solitary confinement in the local jail, with nearly 70 percent in favor. That referendum also prohibited the use of restraint chairs and chemical agents on people in the Allegheny County Jail.

But Lackawanna County’s referendum demonstrates the challenges and roadblocks that ballot initiatives can face. In September, the Lackawanna County Board of Elections voted to leave the referendum off the ballot. In an August meeting, ​​County Chief Solicitor Frank Ruggiero explained the reasoning: He argued that the state of Pennsylvania gives exclusive control of local jails to county prison boards, meaning the referendum would usurp a state-given power.

NEPA Stands Up disagrees, and is fighting back. Its lead organizer, Holly VanWert, is suing Lackawanna County, asking the court to compel the election board to approve the referendum and place it on the May 2023 primary ballot. (The November 2022 ballots have already been printed, and in some cases, filled out and returned.)

VanWert’s attorneys argued their case before a panel of three county judges on October 21. They assert that the Board of Elections overstepped by removing a referendum for non-logistical reasons — and that the board is misinterpreting Pennsylvania law. Jaclyn Kurin, attorney for PA Stands Up, told Truthout that, among other legal problems with the county’s arguments, in 2009, the Pennsylvania legislature made it clear that county prison boards do not have exclusive control over their local jails. A referendum requiring a jail to meet a set of minimum standards, she said, is perfectly legal.

VanWert and NEPA Stands Up are awaiting a court decision as to whether the solitary referendum will be allowed on the ballot next spring. If allowed, it is unclear whether the advocates will have to re-collect the signatures.

“I think this is precisely what happens when people in power want to keep that power,” VanWert told Truthout.

Lackawanna County’s three elected county commissioners — in addition to serving at County Commission meetings — also make up the election board, and a minority of the prison board, where they sit alongside a judge, district attorney, comptroller and sheriff.

“So, these are the same people wearing different hats, different times of the month,” said VanWert, referring to the commissioners.

The commissioners have repeatedly said in public meetings that they sympathize with the solitary reform effort. Eli Spindler, from inside Lackawanna County Prison, praised some of the efforts of Commissioner Debi Domenick to improve conditions in the jail. And speaking in his role as an election board commissioner in August, County Commissioner Jerry Notarianni cited Solicitor Ruggiero’s opinion that the solitary referendum is not legal, but told advocates, “We all agree with you [on solitary confinement]. That’s the bottom line. But we can’t put it on the ballot, because it’s not legal. It’s got nothing to do with right and wrong.”

Instead, the county commissioners encouraged NEPA Stands Up to bring their solitary confinement concerns to a meeting of the prison board, on which they also serve — but do not hold a majority.

Taking this advice to heart, the group has since repeatedly asked the prison board to adopt the proposal laid out in the referendum as official policy.

But VanWert says the primary goal is still to pass the restrictions at the ballot box.

“We have 13,665 signatures,” she said. “The Lackawanna County voters have earned the right to vote on this. If it were to be implemented just by the prison board, that would make them self-accountable. And we don’t want a prison board to be accountable to themselves, when implementing more out-of-cell time. We don’t believe that they could be self-accountable, and that this would be implemented in the way it would need to be.”

While data on the use of solitary confinement is extremely limited — particularly when it comes to local county- and city-run jails — the information that does exist suggests that Lackawanna’s use of solitary is extraordinarily high. The most recent nationwide jail estimate found that, on a given day in 2011-2012, 2.7 percent of people in jails across the country were in solitary confinement. In Lackawanna, Warden Betti recently told the prison board that it would be difficult for his staff to increase out-of-cell time because an estimated 20 to 25 percent of his detainees are in restricted housing.

But advocates like NEPA Stands Up say that the high number of people in solitary is not an excuse, but the problem itself.

“Over the last several months, NEPA Stands Up has been in frequent contact with at least 20 people held inside the prison, all of whom share details of their experiences in solitary,” VanWert stated at the prison board meeting. “The accounts were consistent in their cruelty. We heard about the withholding of medication for serious physical and mental health issues, unsafe and inedible food, failure to provide access to programming or proper out-of-cell time, and periods of extended isolation.”

The advocacy group has published claims from individuals in solitary in Lackawanna County Prison who say they are subjected to beatings, chemical agents and restraint chairs. One person said they were denied medical care despite having eight broken ribs and multiple mental health diagnoses.

Of course, even if the advocates succeed in court, and if the referendum then receives enough votes to pass, the challenge of enforcement will still lie ahead. In Allegheny County, where a similar referendum passed last year, the county’s Jail Oversight Board has found the jail in serious violation of the new ban. In January, Allegheny jail staff reported to the oversight board that nearly 300 people had spent time in solitary in December 2021, prompting the county councilor to tell media: “The jail is very blatantly disrespecting and not complying.”

But Kurin, VanWert’s attorney who has also worked on Allegheny County cases, noted that referendums can lead to change. She noted that, prior to the referendum, Allegheny County Jail had the most uses of force of any jail in the state. In 2019, the jail recorded 720 uses of force, including 339 stints in the restraint chair.

“One of the best moments I’ve ever had,” she said, “is to talk to my clients who have been held in those chairs, and tell them, ‘Since the referendum has gone into effect, do you know how many times that chair has been used? Zero. How many times someone has been pepper sprayed? Zero.’ So there certainly are a lot of challenges on the solitary confinement front, and the enforcement of it. But, you know, I think it’s important not to overlook some of the things that referendum has achieved.”

Spindler said, if passed, the referendum would help require accountability from the jail, something he believes is severely lacking.

He said he is not surprised that the referendum gained so many signatures. “Roughly one in three persons in in society has a criminal background, including from a misdemeanor,” he pointed out. “You can go with a petition, like they did, and stand downtown and just ask people randomly what they think. And some of the people are either going to be similarly affected, or have collateral consequences of somebody that was in prison.”