PA Prison Report October 3, 2011

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In this edition: An investigation into abuse at a Pittsburgh prison progresses as a guard is arrested on charges of sexual and physical assault of prisoners, the Virginia town of Chatham is dismayed to hear that Pennsylvania plans to quit paying to house prisoners there, 12,000 prisoners go on hunger strike in California, and more..

News from the Inside

Abu Ghraib on the Allegheny – Sexual and Physical Abuse at Pittsburgh Prison: On Tuesday, September 27, Pennsylvania state prison guard Harry Nicoletti was arrested on charges that he sexually and physically assaulted more than twenty state prisoners at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Pittsburgh over a two year period. The ninety-two criminal charges included assaulting and raping prisoners and then covering up the crimes by means of threats and intimidation. The story made national headlines and was picked up by the Associated Press, CNNMSNBC, Democracy Now, Solitary Watch, and Mother Jones magazine.
 
Reign of Torture
 
A thirty-five page criminal complaint submitted by a Department of Corrections investigator and based in part on an Allegheny County grand jury investigation included accusations that Nicoletti:
 
• Repeatedly punched prisoners, slapped them in the face, threw water, food, coffee, and juice on their person, and spit on them;
• Attempted to shove a broomstick into the anus of a prisoner;
• Sought out prisoners convicted of sex offenses involving children in order to abuse them;
• Ordered a prisoner to attack another with a lighter;
• Bribed a prisoner for oral sex;
• Ordered prisoners to contaminate the bedding of other prisoners with urine and feces; 
• Ordered prisoners to contaminate the food of other prisoners with bodily waste and mouse feces, along with urinating in juice cups;
• Violently raping a transsexual prisoner while calling him a “weird freaky monkey,” “nigger,” and a “dumb faggot;
• told one prisoner that he didn’t like “niggers” and that this prisoner was a traitor to his own kind for giving a “nigger” a cigarette; 
• Forced a prisoner to touch his genitals and those of another person;
• Paid prisoners with cigarettes, extra food, and prescription drugs, including Xanax and Vicodin, for their compliance;
• Issue threats of misconduct, which would send a prisoner into solitary confinement, along with threats of death to anybody who spoke out against the abuse.
 
In all, Nicoletti was charged with ten counts of institutional sexual assault; six counts of criminal solicitation; one count of contraband; two counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse; one count criminal attempt; seventeen counts of simple assault; six counts of indecent exposure; twenty-seven counts of official oppression; seven counts of criminal solicitation; six counts of terroristic threats; eight counts of indecent assault; and one count of possessing instruments of a crime, which refers to the broomstick.
 
Prior to his arraignment on Tuesday, Nicoletti told members of the press that “They’re false allegations. They’re made up.” Stephen Colafella, the attorney representing Mr. Nicoletti, said his client’s family posted his $75,000 bond, but he will not be released until he has an evaluation with the jail’s behavior clinic.
 
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said Wednesday morning that at least eleven other Department of Corrections employees will be charged in the investigation. Zappala did not identify anyone else who may face charges, nor say when charges could be filed. Among the charges under consideration are conspiracy, official oppression and assault, Mr. Zappala said. “It is a crime under Pennsylvania law for a corrections officer to see assaults or be aware of assaults and not stop them or report them,” he said. “You, obviously, can’t have these things going on in your institution. Besides being illegal, they destabilize the facility.”
Mr. Zappala said he does not believe this is simply a case of inmates conspiring against an officer they don’t like. “It’s not just an inmate case. There’s a lot more evidence. There’s staff, records, videotapes.”
 
Nicoletti was suspended without pay in January as the state investigated complaints from prisoners and other staffers; seven other guards were suspended in April. Zappala said four top administrators that left the prison in May in a re-organizational shakeup, including former Superintendent Melvin Lockett, were not targets of the criminal investigation, despite allegations in a lawsuit filed on behalf of one of the victims that Acting Secretary of the DOC, Shirley Moore Smeal, was notified of the abuse as early as April 2010, and took no action to investigate.
 
Tolerating Violence and the War on Prisoners
 
Prison officials portrayed their handling of a two-year campaign of rape and torture by a government employee under their supervision as a demonstration of their commitment to justice:
 
“The Department of Corrections does not tolerate violence in its prisons and we will seek prosecution of such acts, and this case sends that strong message,” corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton told The Associated Press.  Prisoners, their family members, and human rights advocates found this case of abuse to be one particularly egregious case of business as usual.
 
During the past four years the Human Rights Coalition has documented in excess of 1,000 serious violations of human rights inside Pennsylvania prisons, including countless reports of physical abuse, retaliation, racism, food deprivation and contamination, sexual harassment and violence, terroristic threats, and other actions that are symptomatic of the culture of terror and dehumanization endemic to the prison system.
 
The repeated filing of reports and criminal complaints with prison officials, county district attorneys, the state Attorney General’s office, the Governor, members of the legislature, and federal law enforcement by HRC, prisoners, and their families have been systematically ignored.
 
The institutionalized practice of turning a blind eye to the torture of prisoners exists in the context of a nearly four-decade long implementation of race- and class-based policies of mass incarceration that have led the United States to become the world leader in incarceration. As the ranks of the incarcerated have swelled to historically unprecedented proportions, the war on prisoners and its corresponding attitude of societal indifference has escalated as well.
 
David Mandella, vice president of the local chapter of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, expressed this extremist, anti-prisoner bias when he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week that prisoners frequently accused guards of wrongdoing and, “as far as I’m concerned, 99.9 percent of the time, they’re false.” Mandella said four guards had testified before the grand jury and, “As far as I know, there’s been no proof of any of these accusations … or obviously they would’ve charged my members.” This comment was made prior to the filing of criminal charges. The guards’ union had earlier filed grievances over the suspensions of their members.
 
When Nicoletti was arrested last Tuesday, union spokesman David La Torre issued a short statement about the charges against Nicoletti: “Every citizen is entitled to his due process under the law. The legal system should be allowed to take its course. We will have no further comment on the matter.”

Around Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania reportedly bringing back 1,000 prisoners from Virginia prison: The Associated Press reported last week that Pennsylvania is withdrawing the nearly 1,000 prisoners it sent to a Virginia prison in 2010. Pennsylvania pays $62 per day per inmate to house the prisoners at Virginia’s Green Rock Correctional Center, amounting to about $22 million a year. As reported in the Washington Post, Virginia DOC Director Clarke stated in a September 29 memo to staff that the move will put the department in a difficult financial position, underscoring how U.S. prison systems treat prisoners as commodities. According to Clarke, the contract with Pennsylvania pays not only for the operation of Green Rock, but also for other prison beds in Virginia. He stated also that Pennsylvania had not yet given the required 180-day advance written notice to terminate the contract.
 
The expected loss of income leaves the town of Chatham, Virginia fearing for its economy. In an interview with local ABC channelWSET, county administrator Dan Sleeper announced, “In our community, it occupies approximately 300 jobs. Besides the 300 jobs it utilizes significant amount of water and sewer. Payments for the water and sewer go to the town of Chatham.” Sleeper went on to bemoan the departure of the lucrative contract with Pennsylvania: “It’s gone. It came from another state, and unless they replace it with prisoners from another state where they are charging the same amount or more then they are going to lose significant revenue.. We don’t need anything else closed, especially good paying jobs.”
The Virginia Department of Corrections is reported to be scrambling to find other ways to pay for their prisons.
 

Across the Nation

ACLU Addresses Large Amounts of Abuse in Los Angeles Jail System: The ACLU plans to file a report in the United States District Court on Wednesday, as a result of dozens of reports of abuse by prison guards, occurring in Los Angeles County’s Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers. The report includes incidents of physical abuse and harassment. One account from inmate Reyes, describes him being forced to walk up and down the hallway naked, while guards taunted him saying “Gay boy walking.” Another inmate described being brutally beaten by multiple guards after asking to speak to the Sergeant because there was property missing from his cell. The ACLU’s report includes verification by civilian eye witnesses and a chaplain, and describes the incidents as only a glimpse into the perpetual violence that has been going on for years in Los Angeles jail. The associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project described the ongoing abuse, saying “No jail in the nation matches the level of pervasive, savage, long-standing and notorious deputy-on-inmate violence of the kind we see in the Los Angeles County Jail system.” Through all the allegations of abuse coming out of Los Angeles Jails, Sheriff Baca, the individual who is supposed to address these problems, continues to deny that there is a problem, or hold the guards perpetuating this violence accountable for their actions.
(taken from the NY Times and ACLU)
 
California Prisoner Hunger Strike continues with 12,000 reported participants Prisoners in California enter the eighth day of their second hunger strike in three months today, with sources inside the prisons claiming that 12,000 prisoners were effectively on strike. In July of this year prisoners engaged in a hunger strike that involved more than 6600 prisoners at its peak demanding human rights for those placed in the Security Housing Units (SHU), providing five core demands for reform. The strike, which was the largest in California’s history ended after 20 days when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) agreed to begin implementing some of the prisoners’ demands. After two months of no results from that agreement, prisoners in California announced they would resume their hunger strike. It has been reported that prisoners at 13 different jails and prisons in California, as well as prisoners held out of state in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma are participating in the strike, which according to the definition of the CDCR means they have refused food for 72 hours or 9 consecutive meals.
 
During this second round of the hunger strike the CDCR and prison officials have responded with a much higher level of retaliation. It was first announced on September 27 that the hunger strike constituted a “high level disturbance” within the prisons and that any striking prisoner would be punished with disciplinary actions. Strike participants and organizers in the general population have been threatened with placement in administrative segregation (ASU) or in the SHU itself. Corrections undersecretary Scott Kernan has maintained that the organizers of the strike are “violent gang members” manipulating other prisoners and the system, and “being a real disruption to the California Department of Corrections and the security of its staff and inmates”.
 
Two days after announcing its intentions to retaliate against prisoners involved in the strike the CDCR issued temporary exclusion orders against two lawyers from the prisoners’ mediation team. The orders claim that they are under investigation for misconduct and security threats. In a press release from the prisoner hunger strike solidarity coalition about the bans, Carol Strickman, one of the mediation team lawyers who was banned, stated “We have been receiving steady reports from prisoners of CDCR intimidation and retaliation leading up to the strike. Now, we have the CDCR threatening prisoners and cutting off contact with our legal team. We obviously don’t want to imagine the worst, but we are legitimately concerned about violence on the part of the prison administration.” Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity also announced its intentions to appeal the ban with a letter to Governor Jerry Brown today.
 
Many fear that the banning of the two lawyers from the mediation team is only the beginning of the CDCR’s attempts to isolate the striking prisoners from any outside supporters and advocates, though the strike continues, ever growing. For more information on the continuation of the strike and any developments visit prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com.

 

Announcements

The fall issue of HRC’s newsletter The Movement is out, with interviews with imprisoned lawyer Lynne Stewart and prison activist Craig Gilmore, George Rahsaan Brooks’ report on SCI Frackville’s failed Special Needs Unit, words on Georgia’s murder of Troy Davis, and more. The Movement #12 is available online at hrcoalition.org, or by writing to HRC’s Philadelphia chapter at 4134 Lancaster Ave, Philadelphia PA 19104.
 
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.
If you’d like to know more about the Human Rights Coalition or would like to get involved, come to Write On!, to our monthly general meetings (second Monday of each month, 6pm), or call us at 215-921-3491, email info@hrcoalition.org, or visit our website at http://www.hrcoalition.org./
 
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, emailhrcfedup@gmail.com 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.
Keep up the fight!