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Inmate challenges ‘harsh conditions’ at state prisons

A state prison inmate suffering from severe mental health issues is refusing to give up his attempts to address what he considers the harsh conditions and lack of treatment provided to him by state prisons.

In a petition filed with the U.S. District Court in Johnstown, Troy Cooper, 51, said he was transferred in 2018 from the State Correctional Institution at Benner,near Bellefonte, to SCI Houtzdale.

Cooper — who is serving 25 to 75 years in prison for rape in Philadelphia County — said at Houtzdale he was placed in a Diversionary Treatment Unit — a specialized unit for the treatment of inmates with mental or other health problems — where he was “subjected to extreme isolation and inadequate mental health care.”

He stated that he was locked in his cell for 22 hours a day at Houtzdale and that although he was permitted to be in the prison “yard” from 7 to 9 a.m. each day, he was kept in a cage.

Cooper also said he was not permitted to exercise, and he complained that the lights are kept on all the time, “making sleep almost impossible.”

He said the continuing isolation — even eating his meals alone — at Houtzdale caused him to experience thoughts of suicide daily, flashbacks, nightmares. hallucinations, major depression “and, ultimately, attempted suicides.”

After he filed his lawsuit, in which he requested a federal court order mandating he receive more “adequate mental health care,” Cooper reported he was transferred to SCI Phoenix, a relatively new prison in eastern Pennsylvania, where, he complains, he is experiencing an even more restricted environment.

Cooper initially filed a complaint that listed 13 defendants, including the secretary of Corrections, the superintendent of SCI Houtzdale, numerous psychiatrists, two registered nurses and a program manager at Houtzdale.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith A. Pesto in Johnstown, assigned to review the lawsuit, recommended dismissal of the civil complaint against all defendants except for a psychiatrist in the Diversionary Unit and the SCI Houtzdale superintendent.

Pesto’s opinion was forwarded to District Judge Stephanie L. Haines, who adopted his recommendations.

Cooper reported to Haines that he never received Pesto’s report and therefore was unable to exercise his right to object, so Haines extended his time to file his objections.

On June 28, Cooper asked for permission to file another amended civil complaint.

Haines, in a six-page opinion issued July 1, upheld Pesto’s conclusions that civil charges should be dismissed against all the defendants except the one psychiatrist and the superintendent.

In her opinion, Haines addressed the constitutional issue that Cooper has raised.

He contends that state officials are ignoring his medical needs, which means he is being placed at “risk of serious harm,” a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

But Haines ruled, “Allegations of mere negligent treatment, including medical malpractice, do not trigger the protections of the Eighth Amendment.”

She concluded Cooper failed to plead sufficient facts to show Department of Corrections officials have ignored his medical needs.

Her opinion leaves Cooper’s lawsuit with only two defendants.

However, on Monday, Cooper, in yet another petition, asked the judge to reconsider her decision and allow him to file another and more detailed complaint against all of the original defendants.

State records indicate Cooper has been in prison since Nov. 6, 1992.

His minimum sentence expired on Oct. 1, 2016.

His maximum sentence won’t expire until Oct. 1, 2066.

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