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A Death in Solitary: Did Corrections Officers Help an Inmate Kill Himself?

A convicted killer in Pennsylvania committed suicide in lock-down. His family is asking whether corrections officers helped him out.

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"Institutionalized Cruelty," the Human Rights Coalition's 93-page report released this spring, details numerous allegations of inhumane, unsafe and vicious treatment inside SCI Dallas' RHU at the hands of COs the report describes as some of the most abusive in the system.

Walberto Maldonado, of Philadelphia, is serving five to 10 years in SCI Dallas for drug-dealing charges he incurred in 2003. Last September, he wrote to HRC to protest the conditions inside solitary confinement, which, he said, "has become a chamber of cruel and unusual punishment ... a torture camp." The hole resembles "a cattle ranch where people are tortured ... then released back to society without a chance in the world due to being treated like animals."

Wrote another RHU inmate, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation by SCI Dallas COs: "The conditions are horrible. The cell was disgustingly filthy when I first entered it. There were stains on the walls and the bunk that looked like boogers/snot and dried blood. ... Also, the cells have no windows and very minimal air circulation. [Plexiglas] 'spit shields' prevent air from flowing in cells."

He continued: "We are let out for one hour a day, Monday through Friday, for recreation which consists of being cuffed and led by a 'dog leash' attached to the cuffs to an outdoor area where there are a whole bunch of cages similar in size to our cell. We are placed one person per cage and left out there with nothing for one hour. This is where some inmates smuggle containers filled with feces, urine and other bodily fluids and fling it on each other.

"Some inmates actually undress, squat down and defecate into their hand and throw it like that. We also come out [three] times a week for a shower, which lasts anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes usually. Occasionally I've been left locked in the shower stall for close to an hour or more, obviously forgotten about. This is another area where inmates can throw feces, etc., because they put [two] inmates per shower stall, next to each other only separated by a fence-like partition. Other than special circumstances, these are the only times we come out of our cells."

This inmate told HRC that he hears constant banging on desks, beds and walls from inmates in the RHU — an unending barrage of noise. He hears loud sounds he can't identify, yelling from COs, and the screams of men shouting in mania from inside their cells. "Thankfully," he wrote, "I've never had an impulse to hurt myself, or at least a serious one I should say. This place definitely makes you think about it though."

SCI Dallas Deputy Superintendent Vincent Mooney dismisses these complaints. The claims, he notes, are purely anecdotal, and don't come from the most trustworthy of sources. "Not only do [those prisoners] have a reason to lie," he says, "but we look into every grievance filed by every prisoner, and if there's a problem with an officer or an inmate or a part of the prison itself, we fix it."


The debate over the propriety of solitary confinement is nothing new — it was even the focus of a recent  Law & Order: Special Victims Unit  episode. Many psychologists argue, as Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz did for  Wired in April 2009, that "for some people, the actual experience of isolation is so painful that it generates an anxiety or panic reaction. People lose their ability to control themselves. They become uncontrollably and sometimes permanently depressed in the face of this kind of treatment. Others become angry and unable to control those impulses."

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