After nearly two decades in death row solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania state prison, Jimmy Dennis could no longer endure the humiliation of being strip-searched and shackled to move between the cage of his 8-by-12-foot cell, the cage of a work station in the law library, the cage of the small, fenced-in exercise yard, and the cage of a stall in the secure visiting room, where his daughter would cry when she saw him in handcuffs and chains on the other side of a glass barrier.

So, in 2008, he stopped leaving his cell.

“I went for years with no shower, no library, no nothing,” said Dennis, who was released from prison in 2017 after a federal judge found that he was wrongly convicted of killing a teenage girl for her gold earrings in 1992 because prosecutors withheld key evidence. But he still has not recovered from the trauma. “It’s like chipping away at your soul on so many different levels, and you feel like you’re literally suffocating in your own skin.”

On Monday, Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections agreed to sweeping changes that will allow the 136 people sentenced to death to enjoy many of the same rights as those in the general population: to be out of their cells 42.5 hours a week or more, to use the phone at least 15 minutes each day, and to have contact visits with family who have, in many cases, not hugged their loved ones in decades.

To settle a civil-rights lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Project, and two law firms on behalf of those housed on death row, the department also agreed to provide resocialization assistance as well as physical and mental health evaluations.

“This settlement brings Pennsylvania out of the penological dark ages and makes it a national leader in treating all incarcerated persons humanely,” Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, Susan McNaughton, said the proposed settlement “formally memorializes many of the reforms that the DOC had already instituted.”

The Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association declined to comment on the settlement.

Jimmy Dennis showed up at Philadelphia's Stout Center for Criminal Justice on Oct. 1, 2019 to support Willie Veasy, who was released after 27 years, his murder conviction vacated. He's shown embracing Veasy's sister, Ketra.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Jimmy Dennis showed up at Philadelphia's Stout Center for Criminal Justice on Oct. 1, 2019 to support Willie Veasy, who was released after 27 years, his murder conviction vacated. He's shown embracing Veasy's sister, Ketra.

Under the settlement, those sentenced to death will remain on a dedicated unit but will be allowed to move about without strip searches or shackles unless in response to a specific security concern. They’ll be allowed to apply for jobs, to eat meals together out of their cells, to attend organized programming and religious services, to exercise in a yard, to sleep in darkened cells, and to have clear windows in their cells.

Dennis, who said he goes to therapy twice a week to deal with the panic attacks and symptoms of PTSD from his time on death row, said those changes will address some of the most painful aspects of his experience, like the 24-hour-a-day lights that left him in a constant state of sleep deprivation and the food trays that often came to his cell from the general population with spit, urine, and racial epithets scrawled on them.

But, he said, it will difficult to heal the damage. “There’s not a single person that comes from death row or solitary confinement that gets out and they’re unaffected. The nightmares that you deal with while you’re there, the nightmares you deal with when you come home — it’s just an ordeal that you never put behind you.”

Pennsylvania is home to one of the nation’s 10 largest death-row populations — but the population has fallen by 40% since 1999, the last year that the state administered a lethal injection, to execute Gary Heidnik, a serial kidnapper, rapist, and killer from Philadelphia.

A study by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office found that 72% of the city’s capital cases from the last 40 years were overturned and said others were likely to follow.

“The single most likely outcome of a capital case once a death sentence is imposed is that the conviction or death sentence is overturned," said Robert Dunham, a former federal defender in Pennsylvania who is now executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "In Pennsylvania, in nearly all of those cases, the prisoner is not resentenced to death.”

Given that most death-row prisoners end up in the general population — or exonerated and released — “it was a horrifically bad idea to house them in conditions that would make their future adjustment more problematic,” Dunham said.

The future of Pennsylvania’s death penalty has been called into question in recent years, as Gov. Tom Wolf has continued a moratorium on the practice and a state report, seven years in the making, found a deeply flawed process in need of legislative reforms — including protections for those with mental illness and intellectual disabilities, checks on racial bias and dedicated state funding for public defenders in capital cases.

The state Supreme Court this year contemplated arguments that the punishment was unconstitutional, but ultimately declined to exercise its authority to stop death penalty cases from proceeding through the courts.

For now, the changes on death row — some of which have been in place for several months — are being rolled out without incident, according to Bret Grote of the Abolitionist Law Center.

“The response to contact visits is beyond description: how meaningful that was to the men in the capital case units, some of whom have not touched a loved one for 20 to 30 years until this summer,” Grote said. “There have been no major security disruptions. There’s not been pandemonium or an outbreak of violence.”

He said that many have expressed their gratitude for things like daily showers, the opportunity to purchase musical instruments, and access to kitchen jobs with pay that starts at 19 cents per hour.

“Things even people in prison take for granted," he said, "they’re now able to experience.”