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Campaign to end solitary confinement awaits county hearing

Lackawanna County Prison is located on North Washington Ave. in Scranton.
Tom Riese
Lackawanna County Prison is located on North Washington Ave. in Scranton.

A prison advocacy group awaits a ruling on their campaign to end solitary confinement in one Northeast Pennsylvania county.

The Northeast chapter of PA Stands Up sued Lackawanna County after an effort to have voters decide on prison practices was blocked. The group canvassed over the summer, earning over 13,000 signatures – more than the nearly 8,400 required – to put a referendum on the November general election ballot. PA Stands Up considers solitary confinement more than 20 hours per day in a cell.

But, the county commissioners said prison regulations can’t be amended by ballot measures, citing the county’s prison board and home rule charter in a letter recognizing the lawsuit in September.

The advocacy group is hoping to follow a successful campaign in Allegheny County, which added a ballot measure in 2021 to prohibit solitary confinement. Nearly 70% of voters said they would like to end the practice in their county prison.

“Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. It’s happening in our community, and it needs to end,” said Alec Walker-Serrano after a prison board meeting at the Lackawanna County Government Center in September. Walker-Serrano is the communications director for the NEPA Stands Up chapter.

A three-judge panel is expected to rule on whether PA Stands Up’s referendum could appear on a future ballot sometime in early 2023. Walker-Serrano said the group is hopeful.

“But we’re not sure if we have to collect the signatures again or not,” Walker-Serrano said on a recent phone call.

The court could rule that this year’s signatures are not valid for a referendum in 2023. If they’re required to restart the campaign, the group said they would knock on doors in the county again, but they would like to be compensated.

Last summer’s months-long campaign cost time and money, Walker-Serrano said. They’d seek damages to redo a campaign if ordered by the panel.

 John Thompson speaks outside of the Lackawanna County Government Center in downtown Scranton after September's prison board meeting.
Tom Riese
John Thompson speaks outside of the Lackawanna County Government Center in downtown Scranton after September's prison board meeting.

Differences in terminology

There’s a debate over the terms used for detention.

Prisons and jails in the commonwealth prefer to use “restricted housing,” “administrative segregation” or disciplinary or protective custody and other terms instead of “solitary confinement” when referring to specific types of isolated incarceration. Advocates argue that terminology doesn’t matter as long as prisons use methods of isolation.

At the September prison board meeting, Lackawanna County Prison warden Tim Betti said, by his definition, his prison does not have solitary confinement. However, he estimated about 20% - 25% of the population is in some type of protective, disciplinary or administrative custody.

In an email, he wrote the institution modeled its terminology from the Objective Jail Classification system, a method of categorizing custody for those in prison.

“Ultimately, it all comes down to providing the safest environment for the inmate population,” Betti wrote.

Betti said those in restricted custody are given one hour a day outside of their cells. He estimated that they spend an average of 14 days in separate housing units before returning to the general prison population.

Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz is managing attorney for the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, a nonprofit that provides legal services for incarcerated people.

“Every single prison and jail in the state is going to respond and say that they do not have solitary confinement,” said Morgan-Kurtz, “and almost every single one of those prisons and jails would be lying.”

Morgan-Kurtz said isolation harms people that probably need treatment and rehabilitation while they’re detained. Incarceration itself is the punishment, she said.

“The conditions that you experience while you’re inside are not to be more punishing,” she said.

Firsthand experience

“I went to prison when I was 17 and got out 37 years later,” said John Thompson, a prison advocate who spoke at the PA Stands Up demonstration in September. “I did about 14 years in solitary confinement.”

Thompson pushed back on administrative terms like “disciplinary custody.”

“It doesn’t matter what name you give it – you can say it’s hopscotch, but if you keep somebody locked in for 23 hours a day … it’s solitary.”

Updated: January 4, 2023 at 9:24 AM EST
A new hearing date is scheduled for Jan. 27 at 10:30 a.m. in courtroom three at the Lackawanna County Courthouse, according to NEPA Stands Up.
Updated: December 30, 2022 at 1:32 PM EST
A previous version of this story reported that a hearing was scheduled for Jan. 6. It has since been postponed without a new hearing date. This story will be updated again when a date is announced.
Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.
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