Behind the 12-Day State-Wide PA Prison Lockdown—Control, Power, Money
By Major Tillery
The lockdown of 47,000 prisoners in all 25 PA prisons began August 29, 2018 and lasted for 12 days. The reason given for the lockdown—widespread illness of guards from physical contact with synthetic drugs—is false. This is clear from the Department of Corrections (DOC) records and the expert opinions of toxicologists and doctors.
The lockdown looks like it was a planned pre-emptive action so that the National Prison Strike didn’t spread to Pennsylvania prisons. The “drug emergency” was a pretext to isolate, repress and control prisoners.
For every prisoner, this was 24 hours locked in his or her cell, most double-celled; a minority one-man to a cell. No yard time; no time outside the cell on the block; infrequent showers. Food brought to cells by guards. No law library. No commissary. No contact with the outside world. No mail, no phone, no visitors. Prisoners missed court dates—no transport of prisoners was allowed. No medications for several days. Even mail from the court and DAs addressed to a prisoner was “returned to sender.” Those conditions were worse than solitary confinement, the “hole.”
Truths About the Lockdown
The word from a guard on the block was the lockdown was about the prison strike. This was proven to me by the DOC banning newspapers with articles talking about the strike – like SF Bay View News and Workers World newspapers. The DOC refused to give me these newspapers prior to the national prison strike –but then gave them to me after the lockdown ended.
DOC Secretary John Wetzel backed by Governor Tom Wolf said the lockdown was an emergency measure to protect the prison guards who reportedly became ill from exposure to drugs—synthetic cannabinoid—getting into the prison. The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on September 7, 2018 with the headline, “Pa. prisons spend $15M after guards were sickened by K2. But what if it was just in their heads?” The article was based on the expert opinions of toxicologists, physicians and other specialists in the treatment of these substances that the facts do not support that allegations. “[T]oxologists say one likely diagnosis for the staff illnesses may be ‘mass psychogenic illness’—that is a sort of contagious hysteria fueled by fears of dangerous exposure.” The director of medical toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine is quoted saying, “Mass psychogenic illness happens all the time. We see it all the time with law enforcement.”
The DOC’s own records show that the prisons were not “flooded” with new synthetic drugs There was no widespread illness of guards from physical contact with these drugs. The DOC staff log covering the three months before the lockdown shows 60 “incidents” of reports of alleged reactions to drugs, but none show that any substance got into anyone’s body. There are no reports of any mailroom staff being “exposed” or reporting symptoms. The DOC records do not support actual illness, testing or treatment.
The claim that prisoners get drugs through the visiting room or the mail, is not real. And if so, it is minimal. But they penalize all prisoners. First the lockdown, all prisoners in conditions worse than being in the hole. And now new restrictions of visitors, mail and books and newspapers.
What the DOC doesn’t talk about is the prison guards smuggling drugs and selling them to prisoners. This is a money maker for the guards. Where are the records of incidents of corrections officers’ drug use and sales into the prison? In Frackville, they sent out the drug dogs and caught two guards in the parking lot. Has anyone checked the records of prison guards in drug treatment programs, and suspensions for drug use?
Instead of the DOC giving treatment and dealing with the aspects of why prisoners want drugs and work toward solutions, the DOC response to any problem is retaliation and punishment. There is no attempt to deal with a problem with humanist aspects – but to control through punishment.
Prisoners React to the Lockdown
I was in the hole for the first time at 14 at a juvenile detention center. I was sent there for refusing to go to summer school. There were no aspects of this experience of trying to help youth, no interest in education or rehabilitation. That was clear to me by the “bread and water” we were given – pb&j sandwiches 3 times a day. Our mattresses were put out at 6PM for us to sleep on and taken away at 6AM. That was it. I learned then prison is all about control and power.
I’ve been a prisoner at SCI Mahanoy and then SCI Frackville since May 2014. This area is about 70 miles north-west of Philadelphia.
For as long as I’ve been in these Frackville prisons, there have been complaints about the dirty (brown or black) water we drink and wash in. Those complaints are from people in the town as well as the prisons. The water is contaminated. There was a short time after complaints from family and friends and grievances filed, that we got some bottled water. But the DOC insists the water is safe, nothing is wrong. And the guards continue to get bottled water!
During the lockdown the temperature was high. My cell was hot. The prison gave out bottled water every day to inmates to tap down and stop arguments.
And at first, guards acted like the lockdown wasn’t their fault. That changed when the rank and file guards realized they had to do the work normally done by prisoners, they were angry. They complained when they delivered and picked up food trays, trash, swept up.
From the first night of the lockdown, the food on the trays was all messed together. Jello was running through the other foods. It looked as if the food was tampered with. Prisoners were worried and complained. Guards said, “You all eat what the f---- we give you.” We were being treated like animals.
A prisoner strike began after that. It was incited by the guards’ actions and hostility. By the third day, 80 men on B-wing of B block (BB) refused to take trays. This strike continued through the whole lockdown.
DOC officials tried to stop the strike from spreading through the prison. They sent in 14 or 15 “negotiators.” These were guards and staff, including nurses, and CPS workers (prisoners who are certified peer specialists.) They all wore black t-shirts with the word “Negotiator” printed in white letters.
The negotiators ignored older prisoners, including me, those of us who frequently stand up for prisoners’ rights and file grievances and legal challenges. The younger guys were targeted.
The “Buckeyes” – guys always looking for favors from the administration – tried to discourage other prisoners from solidarity action.
We heard that on other cell blocks prisoners refused food trays.
When the prison began to open-up, and aspects of the lockdown lessened, small groups of prisoners were brought out to the kitchen, given ice cream sandwiches and some extra food. This was to get things to cool down and take the temperature of the jail. This was to get BB prisoners to stop the food strike early. Not all prisoners took this bribe. When the prison ended the lockdown on September 9, there were still 14 men from BB refusing trays.
After, officials broke up B wing. Three guys were taken off the block. A young prisoner on the mental health list was put into the hole, investigated for instigating the strike. He had mental problems and was just yelling from the stress of being locked in his cell around the clock. Other guys stood up for him. Unit Manager Rita Styka made it clear he was ill. But he didn’t get out of the hole until Sept 21.
New Repressive Policies Follow the Lockdown
When the lockdown was called off by the DOC, the bottled water stopped. I complained to Superintendent Kathy Brittain who said giving bottled water to the prisoners “was a courtesy” and that she gave the tap water to her children and “made them Kool-Aid pops.” This is unbelievable – the water is very dirty. Frackville prison guards and staff still get bottled water.
While the lockdown was still on, guards told us it might be a while for visits to begin again. We were told the vending machines in the visiting room were emptied. Families would not be allowed to buy food or drink during visits. Even the tables for families to gather around were removed.
When the lockdown ended, the restrictions on visits, mail and books were made official. New high-tech body-scanners to check visitors for drugs were installed. Also, prisoners are being scanned leaving the visiting room. These machines are often not accurate. Visitors are refused. Prisoners get put into “cooldown rooms.”
The DOC announced a 90-day prohibition on purchasing food in visiting room or taking photos. The prison officials say they are reviewing visiting room procedures to make sure no drugs get into the prison using the food and drink vending machines and taking photos. This is ridiculous. What do these restrictions have to do with stopping drugs getting into prison? Are they saying drugs are coming from the outside commercial food vendors? Or by a prisoner standing with family members and having photos taken by an authorized prisoner using a DOC camera? Nonsense.
This is a return to old policies. Decades ago, there wasn’t food allowed or vending machines in visiting rooms. We couldn’t sit next to each other or around a table, but restricted to sitting across divided tables, often with glass partitions.
The only reason for this is to punish families and dehumanize prisoners. It means fewer visitors and shorter visits. The prisoners are mostly Black and Hispanic and come from the larger cities. The prisons are in rural areas, hours away from the cities where prisoners’ families live. Not being able to get vending food and drink prevents visits from children, older people, people with medical problems. That is the point.
This is an attack on the social values of Black families. In the first days after the lockdown ended, there were more guards than visitors in visiting room. Guards were heard saying things like: “This is how it should be;” and “Why were they visiting? Don’t these people have jobs?”
The other new rules are to prevent us from getting mail from family and friends, to stop communication and dehumanize us. They are also interfering with legal mail.
We can’t get personal mail directly from family and friends. No more photographs or postcards. All mail to PA prisoners now goes to a Florida company, Smart Communications. They check the mail for drugs, then digitally copy it and send it to the prison. We get lousy printed copies of our mail. You can’t see the photos. Can’t hold the letters. And the prison keeps the copies. More dehumanization.
Before the lockdown, official legal mail wasn’t opened in the mail room. (The DOC does not treat mail from lawyers as official legal mail unless the lawyer gets a “control number” from the DOC.) Legal mail was opened in front of the inmate, checked for contraband and turned over to the prisoner. This is to keep confidentiality between prisoners and lawyers and the courts. With the new rules, legal mail is opened while the prisoner watches and the process is videotaped. The mail is scanned for drugs and copied. The copy is given to the prisoner and the prison rules say the DOC will keep legal mail “securely” for 15 days and then destroy it. This violates attorney client confidentiality.
Most prisoners, including me, are demanding the DOC return to the prior mail rules. I made a statement in front of the video camera that the original of my legal mail had to be immediately destroyed; that copying and keeping legal mail violated the right to counsel, attorney-client confidentiality and access to courts. Guards told they are “keeping it for [my] benefit.” That is outrageous. I believe hundreds of grievances are filed against this new rule. The ACLU, Abolitionist Law Institute and Institutional Law Center are filing a lawsuit.
Books, newspapers and magazines are entirely censored. We can’t order or have books mailed to us. The new policy allows access only to e-books. Prisoners can’t even order subscriptions anymore. We have to ask the prison to order newspapers and magazines for us, and if approved, we pay for it and get xeroxed copies. This is all control and censorship by the DOC. The special tablets allowed by the DOC over the past couple of years are expensive to buy ($149), have a short life-span and material downloaded to the tablet costs $$$. Lots of dudes can’t afford the tablet or the downloads. Everything downloaded by an inmate to his tablet or email communication is known to the prison authorities.
The changes to visitation, mail, including legal mail, as well as getting books and newspapers are intended to be permanent, no matter what they say now.
The estimated costs for these changes in visiting procedures, mail and book purchases, including paying for drones in the name of security measures are expected to be $15,000,000 to start and then at least $4 million a year, just for the mail processing.
The Sick, The Elderly, The Lifers
The conditions here and the DOC’s hostility to prisons’ medical care, conditions of confinement and rights should cause concerns that a prison strike could spread into PA.
There are over 47,000 men and women in PA prisons. Pennsylvania has the second highest percentage of elderly prisoners in the U.S. As of January 1, 2018, the DOC reported 10,442 inmates over the age of 50. There are roughly 5,400 inmates serving life without parole (LWOP) in Pennsylvania. These are men and women who have little to no hope of getting out of prison alive.
Prison medical care is inadequate; it is mostly negligent. Add that to being elderly with decades of prison life, including the quality of the food and now the bad water. The leading causes of death in the state’s prisons are heart disease, cancer, and liver disease. Over 6000 prisoners have active hepatitis-C which often results in liver cancer and has many secondary symptoms including skin conditions and arthritis.
Although hep-C can be cured, the DOC refuses treatment until a prisoner is so sick he is close to death. The DOC doesn’t hide the reason they refuse treatment – the cost. In Mumia Abu-Jamal’s lawsuit the federal judge ordered the DOC to provide the cure and ruled that the DOC’s argument it costs too much is unconstitutional. Some of us have been able to get the hep-C anti-viral pills, but only after the threat of a lawsuit. And even then, prisoners have died within days of receiving the first few treatments. Prisoners health and lives are not worth the money. But they are spending tens of millions of dollars over the next years for punitive so-called security measures to stop a relatively minimal problem of drugs into the prison.
At SCI Mahanoy and again at SCI Frackville, I and others challenge the lack of adequate treatment of the widespread itchy, painful skin rashes that don’t go away, likely the result of the toxic water we are forced to drink and bathe in.
Studies show the elderly prison population is at higher risk for self-harm, suicide and victimization by staff and other prisoners. The suicide rate in PA prisons tripled in the last four for the number of inmates serving LWOP.
Since December 2017 several elderly prisoners, including me, have tried to get remedial policies to stop the disrespectful and abusive treatment of seniors at SCI Frackville, including housing unit adjustments, additional blankets and cold-weather clothing (gloves, hats, turtleneck shirts) as well as an activities program for seniors and a mentoring program with younger prisoners. The DOC denies these accommodations for elderly prisoners.
For months I’ve worked to get adequate programming for elderly prisoners at SCI Frackville (those 50 years and older). Other men also are helping with this. Every step has been a fight. Requests for provisions are denied for lack of funds. I’ve filed grievances and we have tried to get out the word. There are 70 of us who are now in the program. We were supposed to get two hours a week, now it’s down to one. There are unreasonable and nonsense restrictions. No funds are allocated toward the 50 and Over Life Enhancement Program. Men can’t bring in newspapers to read, because CO P. Damiter, the Activities Manager, said he “doesn’t like it.”
CO Damiter’s attitude to the elderly prisoners and his racism is shown when he said to me: “If it means pretty NIKES on my children’s feet, I’ll put my foot on every old prisoner’s neck.”
On behalf of a class of elderly prisoners, I filed a complaint on October 2, 2018 to PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro as well as DOC Secty John Wetzel and SCI Frackville Superintendent Kathy Brittain asking for a “Forensic Audit” because of “Misappropriation of Funds” by CO Damiter.
The money for the activities programs comes from the DOC budget allocations as well as money from the inmate welfare fund (which is profit from the prisoners’ commissary). From records we got a hold of, CO Damiter sends large payments to friends of his to teach basketball, soccer and football to Black and inner-city prisoners. These positions were never put up for a bid; no African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans have been considered for these jobs. It seems appears that Damiter is getting kickbacks. There needs to be an accounting of the funds.
DOC Policies of Punishment and Harassment
Earlier this year, the PA DOC punished all PA prisoners for the alleged action of one prisoner, confiscating expensive property without compensation. In February 2018, one inmate, wearing Timberland boots, was accused of stomping a guard who died days later. As punishment, the head of the prison guards association called for banning and taking boots from all prisoners in the state. The DOC ordered all prisoners to give up their boots. Maybe half the prison population owned these boots and had paid over $100/pair. The DOC took the boots without compensation. We were told if we wanted to mail our boots to a charity the DOC said they would pay for the mailing of boots—out of the inmate welfare fund. At Frackville there were at least 300 grievances.
Prisoners across the state filed legal cases in state and federal courts to stop the DOC from seizing the boots. There are differing legal grounds including the taking of prisoner’s property without due process and violating medical orders for some prisoners. The DOC tried to get one judge to rule on all the filed cases without even giving notice to all the plaintiffs. This was challenged, and the judge reversed himself. These separate and spontaneous actions speak to the underlying rumblings among prisoners state-wide. There hasn’t been a court decision yet.
A new 400-million-dollar high tech prison complex named Phoenix opened in July to replace SCI Graterford. In comparison to other prisons, Graterford allowed more prisoner movement, programs and less restrictive visitor rules. Word spread that most of the single celled prisoners from Graterford—men who had been single-celled for decades--were being forced into double-celling. In transferring prisoners’ property Phoenix guards damaged or destroyed legal papers and other items by pouring or smearing shampoo, toothpaste, other liquids and creams on the boxes.
In weeks before the lockdown there was already increased harassment of visitors and prisoners at Frackville. Visitors were turned away, saying the machines testing for drugs went off. Guards increased the practice of standing over couples telling them they were sitting too close or touching. Over the past period other changes were made in lots of the jails to harass visiting families and the prisoners. Prisoners can’t stand close to the vending machines to choose what they want. All food from the vending machines had to be emptied onto paper plates, including chips and candy bars.
At SCI Frackville, in the month before the lockdown, they imposed a new rule that women couldn’t get in to visit if their bra had any metal hooks at all. The metal detector was reset so that even small metal hooks and eyes on bras would make the machine go off. Signs were posted that women they should wear only sports bras. Frackville policy prohibited trying to pass through the metal detector more than once (after removing the bra). Women visitors were sent away or restricted to having a non-contact visits if they didn’t get through the metal detector. There are only two non-contact visiting booths, with bad phone connections to with the prisoner. An 80-year-old grandmother who traveled from NJ to visit her grandson had to turn around and go home. Prisoners were upset. Visitors were angry.
When it comes to health care, aging, family and visitors, legal and personal mail, books and newspaper and all conditions of imprisonment, there is no aspect of the DOC policy that deals with humanity and respect. The prison system is corrupt and repressive.
Drafted, October 1, 2018
Posted, October 12, 2018