Graterford Prison inmate Robert L. Cook Jr. this month sued Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett and two other state officials, alleging Civil Rights violations. Cook has served nine years on death row unsentenced and 26 in solitary confinement. The claim construes this treatment as an attempt to force the plaintiff to abandon an appeal, plead guilty to first-degree murder and accept a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Dated October 17, Cook’s action holds that Corbett has in his capacity as governor
caused, created, authorized, condoned ratified, approved or knowingly acquiesced in the illegal, unconstitutional, and inhumane conditions, actions, policies, customs and practices that prevail at SCI-Grateford… He has, therefore, directly and proximately caused and will continue to cause in the future, the injuries and violation of [the plaintiff’s] rights.
Assistant Philadelphia District Attorney Jack McMahon successfully prosecuted Cook for first-degree murder and a weapons offense in 1991. Cook received two concurrent life sentences for these charges, according to an opinion filed by District Judge Louis H. Pollak. He was also sentenced to death for a separate murder that same year.
Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham in 1997 distributed video evidence that McMahon instructed a group of between 25 and 30 unpracticed prosecutors to use peremptory strikes against potential jurors of color.
The term “peremptory strike” refers to the dismissal of potential jurors from a trial without justification. The Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional to use peremptory strikes in order to racially engineer a jury likely produce a given verdict.
Cook filed a petition claiming McMahon exercised racial bias during his trial’s jury selection. Court dismissed the racial bias claim, but did grant Cook a second hearing. A 2005 ruling reduced his death sentence to life imprisonment, though he was never permitted to leave death row.
According to his complaint, a committee reviews and extends the terms of Cook’s solitary confinement on death row every 90 days. He demands that Graterford’s administration justify these indefinite extensions and specify what he must do to reenter the prison’s general population. Cook also demands punitive damages and compensation for all litigation expenses.
Cook believes his situation is common. He argues in his complaint that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections makes weapons of excessive terms in solitary confinement and other “punitive conditions that constitute an atypical and significant hardship.” They use these weapons, he writes, to “break-down and submit [incarcerated people] to the will of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
“Jailhouse lawyers” like Cook often find themselves in various types of restricted housing for long periods of time, according to a 2011 Human Rights Coalition report on Pennsylvania and Texas prisons. Aside from active litigators, the mentally ill are also overrepresented in solitary confinement at prisons in this state.
The Department of Justice has conducted a series of statewide investigations regarding solitary confinement policies and conditions at Pennsylvania prisons. According to a February letter from the Department to governor Corbett,
From May 2012 to May 2013, over 1,000 prisoners identified on PDOC’s [Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’] active mental health roster spent three or more continuous months in solitary confinement. Nearly 250 of these prisoners have been in solitary confinement for more than a year.
Solitary confinement can begin to exert a negative psychological impact after 10 days, according to a widely cited 2003 article psychologist Craig Haney published in Crime & Delinquency. The United Nations has recently considered imposing an international 15-day limit on the length of time prisons may permit incarcerated people to remain in solitary confinement.
The period Cook spent in solitary confinement exceeds this suggested limit 624 times over.