In this edition: Staff at SCI Huntingdon use chemical spray on asthmatic prisoners, HRC mail and literature is targeted by DOC for censorship and confiscation, SCI Pittsburgh conceals a grand jury investigation from the PA legislature, and more...
News from the Inside
Asthmatic prisoner attacked with chemical weapons: Two prisoners in the solitary confinement unit at the state prison in Huntingdon reported that on May 14 Marcellus Jones was denied basic issue of soap, shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrush by prison guards Bole and Long.The witnesses report that Jones covered his cell window and refused to comply with orders until he received the cleaning supplies and hygiene products he was deprived of.Other prisoners offered to give Jones some of their own soap to remedy the situation.Guards responded by filling Jones’ cell with OC pepper spray, causing him to suffer a severe asthma attack.Witnesses report that after choking, vomiting, and defecating on himself, Jones was carried to another pod of the Restricted Housing Unit where he was laid out naked for 20 minutes as a demonstration.Jones was a known asthmatic, and the third prisoner to report an asthma attack after being sprayed with OC pepper spray at Huntingdon this year.
HRC mail targeted by prison after report exposing torture is published: Jamiel Johnson reported on May 19 that many of the prisoners held in the Restricted Housing Unit at Huntingdon who testified in HRC’s recent report, Unity and Courage, have filed grievances in response to the report and their recent mail from the Human Rights Coalition being confiscated or not delivered.Kyle Klein sent a confiscation notice to the Coalition that was simply marked INCOMING PUBLICATION DENIAL. A box labeled OTHER was checked andHRC written next to it.The complaint Johnson filed for not receiving his mail was denied by staff because he failed to provide a mail confiscation slip with his complaint.Johnson reports that he did not receive a confiscation slip, as required by DOC policy, so he could not provide one for his complaint. Damont Hagan, recently transferred to Huntingdon, reports that his mail from HRC was withheld also.
Prisoners in solitary confinement have reported mail tampering, mail obstruction, and destruction of legal documents as ongoing human rights violations at SCI Huntingdon.The Human Rights Coalition relies on correspondence with prisoners to generate reports and find out what is happening on the inside. Solitary confinement prisoners are restricted to one visit per month, no phone calls, and all of their mail is strictly monitored.
HRC Philadelphia’s newsletter suppressed at SCI Forest: A prisoner at SCI Forest reports that past issues of The Movement, a news magazine published by HRC-Philadelphia chapter, were confiscated upon delivery. According to the confiscation slips provided by the prison, articles discussing the historic prisoner work strike in Georgia in December of 2010 were the reason for withholding issue number 9.Thousands of prisoners in as many as ten state prisons staged a week-long non-violent work strike in December in protest of atrocious living conditions and systematic violations of their human rights.
Hector Huertas filed a grievance about the denial, stating that “The Movement is published by a prisoner advocate group, Human Rights Coalition, who in no way support, advocate, or promote violence, insurrection, nor prison uprising, but instead promote and support the human rights of inmates, prison officials, and improving prison conditions.” The grievance was denied by the Superintendent of SCI Forest, Debra Sauers. The final appeal to DOC’s Central Office was also rejected by Chief Grievance Officer Dorina Varner, who explained that DOC policy “provides that a publication may be disapproved when the publication contains writings which advocate violence, insurrection or guerilla warfare against the government or any of its facilities or which create a danger within the context of the correctional facility or writings that advocate, assist or are evidence of criminal activity or facility misconduct.”
The decision by prison personnel to refuse to distribute news of the strike to prisoners in Pennsylvania is yet another documented instance of the Department of Corrections’ efforts to isolate prisoners from organizations, political movements, and ideas that advocate for the human rights and political empowerment of prisoners.
Deprivation of mental health counseling, denial of legitimate advancement and food discrimination: Eric Richardson reports from the Special Management Unit at SCI-Camp Hill that inmates are being deprived of mental health counseling by the psychologist and prison staff. He also reports that prison staff are using false misconducts and unfair hearings to deny inmates their deserved upgrade from phase V to phase I, which is required for SMU prisoners to be released from solitary confinement to the general population. In addition, inmates of Muslim faith are not provided halal meat, unlike Jewish inmates who receive their kosher meals. Mr. Richardson continues to fight for his own and other inmate's rights by filing complaints and through litigation. The prison staff is aware of this and recently encouraged Mr. Richardson's neighboring inmate to “flood” his cell with toilet water, which soiled his legal paper work.
SCI Pittsburgh keeps legislature in the dark about grand jury sexual assault probe: An Allegheny County grand jury is investigating allegations of sexual assault involving guards and inmates that resulted in the suspension of one guard in January and seven others about a month ago. The ranking Democrats on the state House and Senate judiciary committees say Department of Corrections officials didn't notify them of a grand jury investigation into sexual assault allegations at the state prison in Woods Run.
Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, said state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel also should have told his committee, which oversees SCI-Pittsburgh, about the firing of top officials there. "(That) suggests a significant level of wrongdoing," Leach said. "I am hopeful we can get to the bottom of not only the facts of the case but of the decision-making process that kept this secret from legitimate legislative oversight bodies."
Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Reading, said Wetzel told him about the personnel shakeup but not the grand jury investigation. "He asked me not to say anything (about the firings)," Caltagirone said.
Last PA prisoners leave Michigan as Muskegon Correctional Facility closes down: On Wednesday May 25, the last 239 state prisoners from Pennsylvania left the Michigan prison, headed back to facilities in their home state.
The transfer has left Muskegon without any prisoners to incarcerate. Reporting by the local Muskegon Chronicle focused chiefly on the blow to the economy created by the absence of any immediate reason to locate a prison in the area. The arrangement between the two states that led to the housing of Pennsylvanians at Muskegon was described locally as a "job-saving contract". Two hundred and eighteen people had been employed at Muskegon, and though many employees were able to transfer to other facilities, at least 94 Michaganians lost their jobs as a result of the termination of the interstate contract.
At the time of its closure, Muskegon Correctional Facility had been in operation for thirty-seven years.
Across the Nation
Black Lawyers Call on Obama Administration to Free All U.S.Political Prisoners: Last week the National Conference of Black Lawyers issued a statement urging “the U.S. to apply international human rights standards to protect, and ensure the rights of political prisoners.” The statement continued: “While the United States consistently denies the existence of political prisoners, these individuals were ensnared in the grips of the United States’ repressive Counter-intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) operation as activists who dared to challenge the status quo of America’s harsh treatment of black people.Many of these activists were members of organizations such as the Black Panther Party, and were not content to remain silent in a system of de facto slavery, but demanded human rights in many areas, including quality education, healthcare, and an end to rampant police violence against black people.Groups such as the Black Panther Party were targets of government surveillance under COINTELPRO and members were harassed, beaten, falsely arrested and prosecuted in a system bloated with contempt for them and their righteous causes.They were sentenced to unreasonably lengthy prison terms.In cases where death sentences were not imposed, the parole boards, through their actions in repeatedly denying parole, are making certain that they will die in prison.Hence this well-oiled machine continues to operate against political prisoners in America.
"A Congressional subcommittee, popularly known as the 'Church Committee', was formed to investigate and study the FBI’s covert action programs. In its report, the Church Committee concluded that the FBI had “conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.
"Even if one were to grant credibility to the FBI’s stated reason for its violations of these prisoners’ constitutional and human rights, there exists no justification for their continued incarceration.”
U.S. Supreme Court orders California to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000: On May 23, the United States Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision that California state prisoners are subject to cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th amendment, and ordered the release of around 33,000 prisoners.It was cited in the case that severe overcrowding in the state’s prisons had lead to inadequate mental and physical healthcare and squalid conditions in the state’s 33 prisons, though the case began before overcrowding had even become a problem in California.
Brown v. Plata, the case that the Supreme court made its ruling on, began as a lawsuit filed on behalf of the state’s mentally ill prisoners regarding their inadequate treatment within the system in 1990.As that case progressed it was combined with another lawsuit filed in regards to inadequate medical care for prisoners in general.Both cases of neglect were amplified during the nineties as California’s prison population grew immensely with the passing of the infamous “three strikes and you’re out” legislation in 1994, which enabled a vast increase in the numbers of people given life sentences.Soon, psychiatric and medical blocks of the prisons were being used to house incoming prisoners, and gymnasiums and mess halls were also used as warehousing facilities, as shown in the now widely publicized photos from National Public Radio’s investigation into the issue of prison overcrowding last year.
Though the ruling on Monday has been seen by many as a landmark case in terms of prison conditions, the ruling notably does not focus on the source of what has been deemed cruel and unusual punishment: the nationwide trend of mass incarceration.Legislation that incarcerates rather than rehabilitates, non-existent re-entry services, and legal racial discrimination did not stand trial in this case.Were the funds sufficient to build enough prisons to house every person held in California today, they would certainly be built.Michelle Alexander, former ACLU lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness comments on this reality: “I think what’s clear here is that it’s going to take a grassroots movement to force politicians to respond rationally to problems related to crime and mass incarceration. This economic crisis does create an important window for advocacy—and advocates should seize this moment of opportunity—but they must do so in a way that builds a grassroots movement for the end of a system as a whole.”
Philly area: Wednesdays are Write On! Prison Letter Writing Night at the LAVA space at 4134 Lancaster, 6-9 pm. Come help us stay connected with the many prisoners who write to us with news from inside, learn to document crimes committed by prison staff, and help bring an end to the abuse and torture of our brothers and sisters behind bars.
Pittsburgh area: Write On! – letter writing to prisoners and HRC work night every Wednesday at 5129 Penn Avenue from 7 -10pm. To get involved with HRC/Fed Up! in Pittsburgh,email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 412-654-9070.
You've been listening to the Human Rights Coalition's PA Prison Report. HRC is a group of current and former prisoners, family members, and supporters, whose ultimate goal is to abolish prisons.