Advocacy group sues Lackawanna County election board over solitary confinement ballot question

Sep. 22—SCRANTON — A group that fought for a referendum to limit solitary confinement at the Lackawanna County Prison filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the board of elections' decision to reject their petition.

Attorneys for PA Stands Up argue the board, comprised of the three county commissioners, misinterpreted a state statute that county solicitor Frank Ruggiero contends prevents the referendum from appearing on the November general election ballot.

The lawsuit, filed in Lackawanna County Court, also alleges the board has no authority to decide the legality of the referendum, which PA Stands Up says met all procedural requirements in the election code.

"The board of elections is becoming the judge and jury in terms of what will go on our ballot," Jaclyn Kurin, one of PA Stand Up's attorneys, said at a press conference outside the Lackawanna County Government Center. "They are not allowed to make that determination ... All we are asking is that the decision be left to voters. The board of elections took that away and they did it improperly."

Ruggiero said he has not yet seen the suit, but he's confident the board's decision will be upheld.

The proposed amendment would have limited solitary confinement to periods of prisonwide lockdowns; no more than 24 hours if a medical professional determines inmates are a danger to themselves or others and require inmates be let out of their cells for four hours each day, compared to the one hour they now get.

PA Stands Up pushed for the amendment, alleging solitary confinement equates to torture. Officials said studies have shown it exacerbates mental health issues and results in more offenders recommitting crimes once released.

At the press conference, Robin Frager, an Exeter woman who said she served 17 years in prison in New Jersey for killing a man who raped her, spoke about mental the anguish she endured during the times she was placed in solitary confinement.

"I became suicidal," she said. "There was no one to talk to me and help me sort out my thoughts or tell me to keep living because this was not the end of my story."

Frager was among about 50 volunteers with the northeastern Pennsylvania chapter of PA Stands Up who collected 13,665 signatures in support of the referendum, far exceeding the 8,396 signatures required. The board of elections rejected the petition on Aug. 31 based on Ruggiero's opinion.

Ruggiero has said the referendum, if successful, would not be proper subject matter for the home rule charter. The charter limits powers already granted by state statute, such as the Prisons and Parole Code. An addition limiting solitary confinement would infringe upon the authority of the prison board, he said.

The lawsuit, filed by Holly VanWert, a Lackawanna County resident and member of PA Stands Up, argues the statute in question only applies to matters of statewide importance that would impact the health, safety and welfare of all residents in the state. In this case, the referendum would only impact Lackawanna County.

The suit also alleges state law only allows election boards to reject a petition if there is a procedural defect. PA Stands Up says it met all deadlines and other requirements.

"The election code ... deals with the mechanics of specific election procedures and does not include the power to determine the legality of a petition's provisions," Kurin says in the suit.

The lawsuit asks a judge to issue an injunction and order the board of elections to place the referendum on the ballot. Timing is critical, the suit says, because the deadline for election officials to distribute mail-in ballots is the first week of October.

"Any delay in granting the injunction will result in the petition being excluded from the mail in ballots," Kurin said in the suit.

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