In this edition: Jailhouse lawyer placed in cell with nooses, denied mental health care; Mother Denied Visit to Son in Solitary; New claims in lawsuit over pregnant woman who died in jail and more…
News from the Inside
Jailhouse lawyer placed in cell with nooses, denied mental health care: In an update on a story first featured in the PA Prison Report in November, Damont Hagan, a jailhouse lawyer and human rights defender being held in solitary confinement at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) Huntingdon, wrote a sworn statement detailing physical and psychological abuse at the hands of prison staff.
According to the statement, on November 8 Hagan had his right hand smashed on the metal tray slot while being moved from one solitary confinement cell to another by prison guards McDermot and Knouse. It was then that Hagan “noticed three nooses hanging in the cell made of sheets.” When he requested to see a nurse regarding his injury and speak with a Lieutenant about the noose, the guards refused to move his property into the new cell in retaliation. Lieutenant Dunkle arrived on the tier and told Hagan to take the nooses down, stating that “staff were playing.” When Hagan refused, requesting that photographs be taken, Dunkle told him he was not going to receive his property, and walked away.
Later in the same evening, Hagan expressed to a guard that he was feeling suicidal, at which point Lieutenant Gill came to his cell with a camera, taking footage of the nooses. The following day Hagan was taken to an observation cell after expressing a range of symptoms that are commonly associated with solitary confinement, including depression and hearing voices. On November 10, he was discharged from the observation cell despite his informing staff that he’d harm himself first chance he got. Hagan was given a razor on November 11 and staff watched as he proceeded to cut his left wrist out of despair. He was placed back in an observation cell until November 15, and did not eat for seven full days after the incident with the razor.
On November 21, Hagan gave a statement to Harold Kertes from the Office of Special Investigations and Intelligence of the Department of Corrections. While providieing the statement, Kertes informed Hagan that he had reason to believe that Hagan was assisting other prisoners with filing abuse reports, and threatened him with “adverse action” if Hagan did not cease assisting other prisoners.
This information was forwarded to the Justice Department, who is currently investigating SCI Pittsburgh and SCI Cresson
. Hagan was formerly incarcerated at SCI Cresson, where he was warehoused in solitary confinement, deprived mental health care, and subject to repeated human rights violations.
Mother Denied Visit to Son in Solitary: On December 23rd, a woman who tried to visit her son in a Pennsylvania State Prison was denied the visit by guards in the solitary units. The woman, who will remain anonymous out of fear of official retaliation against her son in prison, described her experience to an HRC investigator that day.
“I traveled a long distance to visit my son during the holiday. In preparation for the trip, I called the prison multiple times to verify that I could visit on that specific day and that I would be able to see my son, who has been in solitary for the past year.”
The woman went to the prison with a family member who lived in the area. The family member had previously had their visiting access suspended for a racially themed argument with a guard in the parking lot. When the two people arrived at the prison in the general visiting area, the guard acknowledged the previous suspension and that it had expired in 2010. The two visitors were then asked to empty their pockets, where they threw away a lipstick and a data memory stick. They were then cleared to go to the next visiting area and were transported there by guards.
When they arrived in the visiting area for prisoners in solitary, the mother was informed by a different guard that she would not be able to visit her son. After explaining to the guard that she had done nothing wrong, that the two visitors had thrown away their pocket things, and that they had been cleared and transported to the area, the guard still refused to bring out her son. The woman asked to speak to a Lt. who came out and informed the woman that she could not see her son. The woman again insisted that she had done nothing wrong, had only the lipstick which she threw away, and asked if something was wrong with her son. The guard informed her that because the visitors had come in with contraband, they had to leave together, and that she would not be able to see her son for the rest of the day. An argument ensued, wherein the woman reported being harassed by two Lts. who degraded the visitors by calling them stupid and white trash.
The woman reported that she was made to feel like a criminal the entire time, in addition to being called names. After leaving the solitary area, the woman was told by other guards that she should have been able to visit her son and that she was wronged. She also reported that other people who had brought similar items into the first visiting area got along with their visit fine, but that she was denied. The woman feared she was denied out of retaliation for making calls to the prison or that guards didn’t let her son come out because he was in danger. She had received a letter from him recently describing a medical problem that he was not getting adequate treatment for, and she feared that she was not allowed to see him because he was not doing well.
Prisoners who are housed in solitary cells have limited access to visitors and family because of institutional restrictions. Family members get discouraged from visiting because they are made to feel like criminals or were previously denied visits because of staff bias, or in retaliation for filing complaints. The Human Rights Coalition has received reports from family members who were discriminated against because of their race, class, or religious presentation by visiting room guards, or who were denied visits because they advocate for the human rights of their incarcerated loved ones.
New claims in lawsuit over pregnant woman who died in jail: Attorneys representing the estate of a woman who died while pregnant in the Allegheny County Jail in January 2010 have asked a federal judge to allow them to add new allegations to their lawsuit. On Friday, December 16, U.S. District Judge David Cercone denied a motion by the county and former Warden Ramon Rustin to dismiss the complaint filed by the mother of Amy Lynn Gillespie, of Cuddy, who died of pneumonia at age 27 days after being moved from the jail to UPMC Mercy Hospital.
Attorneys Robert N. Peirce III and Elmer R. Keach III have asked Judge Cercone for permission to file an amended complaint that details the days before Ms. Gillespie’s death. The amended complaint said that during December 2009, the detention block in which Ms. Gillespie was housed had "little or no heat … and the air was so cold in the housing unit that the inmates ‘could see their breath.’ "It said inmates left hot water running in their cells in a desperate effort to provide warmth. “The walls and the ceiling were leaking water and there was a strong smell of sewage coming from Ms.Gillespie’s sink,” it said. “There was black mold growing on and around her toilet and wall.” Ms. Gillespie submitted requests for medical attention, but was told that she didn’t need medical help, it said. Eventually transferred to an infirmary cell, she became too sick to leave it, the amended complaint said. “[T]he other inmates had to care for her needs and provide her with food, such as soup they had made and by attempting to clean her cell and remove mold,” it said.
The lawsuit, filed in 2010, claims that Ms. Gillespie’s death was caused by indifference to her medical condition, a misdiagnosis, and budget-driven delays in sending her to a hospital.
Across the Nation
Georgia Prison Strike, One Year Later: A year ago this month, black, white and brown inmates in a dozen Georgia prisons staged a brief labor strike. They put forward a set of simple and basic demands wages for work, decent food and medical care, access to educational and self-improvement programs, fairness and transparency in the way the state handles grievance, inmate funds and release decisions, and more opportunities to connect with their families and loved ones. A short-lived formation, the Concerned Coalition to Respect Prisoner Rights came together, and met with the Georgia Department of Corrections in support of the prisoners’ demands. In the last weeks of 2010, teams of community observers began to visit Macon State and Smith prisons, where they examined facilities and interviewed staff and prisoners.
A year later, the Black Agenda Report
writes about how the goals of the Concerned Coalition To Respect Prisoner Rights failed and how the Coalition was undermined from the inside and out. The article criticized the leadership of the outside arm of the movement and discussed how prisoner organizers were beaten and broken down for their participation. “State officials conspired to hide from his family and the public the whereabouts of one man they beat into a coma for nearly two weeks as he hung between life and death. A handful of guards were charged, but local prosecutors and grand juries refused to indict. The Federal Justice Department, under its first black attorney general, and president has thus far expressed no interest in protecting prisoners from the arbitrary and brutal retaliation inflicted upon them by Georgia officials.”
The goals of the Coalition were to issue public reports of their fact-finding prison visits, initiate a long-term dialog with state officials in pursuit of the prisoners’ just and reasonable demands, call public meetings and organize a lasting public education campaign about Georgia and the national prison state, and introduce possibilities for radical reform.
Some in Georgia have re-committed themselves to fighting back against mass incarceration and the human rights violations in U.S. prisons. A campaign has been launched with 13 demands that include ending lifelong discrimination in housing, employment and other areas against persons convicted of felonies, automatically restoring the vote to everyone including people who are currently incarcerated, decent food, health care and education behind the walls, stopping the incarceration of juveniles in adult prisons, decriminalizing homelessness, mental illness, drug use, and more.
Minnesota State Study Shows Visitation Reduces Recidivism:
Minnesota Department of Corrections issued a report
examining the effects of prison visitation on recidivism among 16,420 offenders released from Minnesota prisons between 2003 and 2007.
Using multiple measures of visitation (any visit, total number of visits, visits per month, timing of visits, and number of individual visitors) and recidivism (new offense conviction and technical violation revocation), the study found that visitation significantly decreased the risk of recidivism, a result that was robust across all statistical analyses. The results also showed that visits from siblings, in-laws, fathers, and clergy were the most beneficial in reducing the risk of recidivism, whereas visits from ex-spouses significantly increased the risk.
The findings suggest that revising prison visitation policies to make them more “visitor friendly” could yield public safety benefits by helping offenders establish a continuum of social support on their path to reentry. The report suggested that correctional systems consider allocating greater resources to increase visitation among inmates with little or no social support, but warn that simply revising existing policies would not be beneficial to 40 percent of the sample who received no visits at all.
Controversial Arizona Prison Fee Judged Constitutional: A one-time prison visitor fee that goes toward maintaining state-run lockups is not a tax because it is not based on property or income but it is constitutional, Maricopa County Judge Karen Potts ruled in a lawsuit challenging the fee.
The Tempe based group Middle Ground Prison Reform sued the state Department of Corrections earlier this year, arguing that the $25 fee actually was a tax that targeted a vulnerable segment of residents and asked that any money paid so far be returned. They argued it was an unconstitutional diversion since the money didn’t pay for background checks for which it is levied, but for prison repairs. The group could not find a law similar to Arizona’s in other states.
The Judge ruled that the fee is voluntary and in exchange for government services that allow people to visit family or loved ones incarcerated in Arizona state prisons. “So long as the service is not asked, the money will never be demanded,” Potts wrote.
Plaintiff Donna Hamm said the ruling is a slap in the face to prison visitors who are saddled with a responsibility that should be borne by all taxpayers.
More than $95,000 in fees had been collected as of November of this year.
Please Sign Petition
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
, or visit our website at http://www.hrcoalition.org./
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: email@example.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.
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