In this edition: Physical abuse and retaliation in SCI Pittsburgh; Prisoner assaulted by Guards at SCI Greene; Documents taken, Returned months Later at Forest and more…
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News from the Inside
Physical abuse and retaliation in SCI Pittsburgh: On January 15, 2012 at 6:20 pm, prisoner Brian Vojtash was approached by Corrections Officer Burke in the front stairwell in his unit. CO Burke told Vojtash to open his mouth. As Vojtash complied with the order and opened his mouth, CO Burke grabbed him by the neck, squeezing hard and choking him, and shouted different orders, such as, “Lift your tongue, drop your tongue, turn it to the side.” Vojtash complied with the orders. CO Burke then grabbed him by the shirt and coat and roughly dragged him to the bullpen, where there is a video camera monitoring it, and he was strip searched. No contraband was found. Vojtash was then taken to medical to have his neck examined for injury, and then taken to the Restricted Housing Unit, where he was once again strip searched on camera and taken to an observation cell. In the observation cell, Vojtash was handcuffed to the bed under video surveillance and told to wave at the camera when he needed to go to the bathroom and an officer would bring him a bedpan to use. Vojtash cooperated and was under observation until Jan. 16th, around 8 pm, during which he used the bedpan at least four times, under observation of an officer, and it was searched for contraband every time. The observation cell and Vojtash were then search again with no contraband found. He was then taken to the Restricted Housing Unit on administrative custody. He was repeatedly searched and questioned about supposedly hiding “contraband”. On January 19, Vojtash was questioned again and taken to medical for an x ray to search for this mysterious contraband. He was given an x ray against his will, strip searched again, and placed back in an observation cell handcuffed to the bed and made to drink a laxative. Vojtash did not want to drink it because of stomach complaints, but staff members told him if he did not drink it they would leave him handcuffed to the bed for weeks. He was in the observation cell from Jan. 19-20th this time, and drank four 8 oz. cups of a laxative called “Go Lightly”. He went to the bathroom 7 times during this period, always in front of a guard and it was always searched. No contraband was found. He was then returned to the Restricted Housing Unit.
This event occurred when Mr. Vojtash was already paroled and waiting for his home plan to be approved. After this incident, he was charged with possession of contraband, possession or use of a dangerous or controlled substance, refusal to obey an order, and lying to an employee. The charges are based on claims by the Internal Security Department that Mr. Vojtash verbally admitted to having contraband, and that an prisoner informant claimed he had contraband, yet could not say what the contraband was. They did not specify what the supposed contraband was, and admitted to having no physical evidence or written statements by Vojtash. He also passed his drug urinalysis for parole on Jan. 21. On Jan. 17, another prisoner was placed in the RHU cell with Vojtash until Jan. 18th. Vojtash asked for him to be called as a witness to him having no contraband in his cell, but the witness request and his written version of the events were “lost” before the hearing. During his hearing the examiner told Vojtash that he did not need any real evidence to convict him. He was convicted of all the charges and his parole was rescinded. He was sentenced to sixty days in solitary confinement with contact visits suspended. He filed an appeal to the Program Review Board, which was denied. He has taken the second step and filed an appeal to Superintendent Burne that he is still waiting for a response to. He is the father of a one year old child and 2 step children. His fiancee and children are awaiting their father’s return into their lives. They now have to wait until his max out date.
Vojtash filed a grievance against CO Burke for the physical abuse he endured. On 3/9/12 Lt. Peer asked him if he was going to stop pursuing the abuse allegations since they were putting him on cell restriction. Vojtash shook his head no. He was later written up on 3/18 for a trivial issue when he stepped out of his cell when the cell door opened. He was expecting a non contact visit with his fiancee and children, which he did get called for 10 minutes later. He was sentenced to 20 more days of cell restriction, which appears to be retaliation for the grievance he filed.
Documents Taken, Returned Months Later at Forest: Terrance Richardson, a prisoner in the solitary units at SCI Forest, reports that most of his property has been returned after guards took paperwork from his cell in retaliation for filing a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections in December. Richardson reports having his cell searched once a month in September, October, November, and December. No documents were taken out of his cell at those times. But on December 16, 2011, the day that he filed paperwork in court in Forest County, for violations of his rights in prison, officers conducted an additional search that they said was investigative and based on confidential information. They removed paperwork and legal documents from Richardson’s cell. Richardson was able to get his documents back 3 months later after exhausting the grievance process through the institution.
He indicated the lawsuit was filed because he is being wrongfully punished for trying to send and receive mail, which is a constitutional right. He is currently waiting on paperwork from his lawsuit so that he can include retaliation as a part. He reported sending mail to family they never received and vice versa. He has also had his mail subjected to outgoing searches without due process or information on why his mail is being so tightly monitored.
Prisoner Assaulted by Guards at SCI Greene: On March 30th, 2012, prisoner Wesley Chance was told to pack up his property because his cell was needed. Chance was cuffed and escorted to a new cell. While being escorted to a new cell Chance asked about a postage paid envelope that was missing from his property. Officer Kulik responded by throwing his property across the tier. As chance was brought into his cell by Kulik, and officers Suhan and Bodgen, Kulik told him to stop accusing him or “he’d shut his nigger eyes.” Then he began throwing Chance’s property around the cell. Then after a verbal altercation, Kulik struck Chance in the face and placed him in a headlock, before he wrestled him to the ground with assistance from two other officers. Chance was struck six or seven times in the face. When Lieutenant Grego came to the cell to see what happened, Officer Kulik told him the beating was a response to Chance kicking him in the leg. Kulik’s later changed his story, stating that Chance had kicked him in the hand. Chance believes Kulik changed his story to account for the injuries he sustained on his hand from hitting Chance. After the assault, Chance was put in a cell on a block that Kulik’s father operates. Chance’s left eye socket is black, the blood vessels in that eye have burst, he has multiple bruises on his face, his lip is busted, and two of his teeth are loose. Chance believes Kulik’s actions are retaliation for Chance filing grievances against guards during his time at Fayette, which he was recently transferred from.
Across the Nation
Connecticut Repeals Death Penalty:
A new law
passed on April 11, 2012 ruled that people convicted of murder in Connecticut can no longer be sentenced to death, outlawing capital punishment. Those crimes previously classified as capital offenses will now be called class A felonies or “murder with special circumstances” and will warrant the sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole and the possibility of life in prison in solitary confinement, at the Corrections Department’s discretion. The law designates living conditions similar to death row, with monitored movement, up to 22 hours in lock-down a day, no contact visits and limited recreation.
Connecticut has executed 2 people in the past 50 years, the latest in 2005. The repeal of the death penalty did not apply to 11 people currently on death row, who are still eligible for execution. Lawmakers were skeptical those death sentences would stand in future appeals to the Supreme Court and predicted a future all or nothing scenario.
A 2011 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, Struck by Lightning
, outlines the ways in which the death penalty continues to be applied randomly throughout the country, by juxtaposing examples of cases in which people were executed for less than murder, and people who were sentenced to the lesser life in prison for killing 40 people. The death penalty was found arbitrary and unconstitutional by the Supreme Court previously, but was reinstated in 1976 nationally, with new clauses instructing judges that imposing the death sentence had to be reserved for the worst of the worst, and had to include the goals of retribution and deterrence. The report found race, geography and the size of a county’s budget are actually the strongest indicators of who gets sentenced to death. Anti-death penalty advocates have worked to repeal the 1976 law state by state.
Critics of the Connecticut bill believe it will spread the use of prolonged solitary confinement which has been equated to torture under human rights standards in international law, but continues to be practiced in most states including Pennsylvania.
European Court of Human Rights rules in favor of extraditing terror suspects to US: On April 10, The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Britain could extradite five British nationals to the United States to face trial on terrorism. The five men had challenged the extradition because of the extreme likelihood of their being convicted and sentenced to life in solitary confinement at ADX Florence, a federal supermax prison in Colorado, known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies”. This decision considered whether the conditions at Florence violate Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights which provides that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
In the decision from the court several guidelines were outlined as to how Article 3 applies to detention and solitary confinement and then applied them to ADX Florence, assuming the suspects would be held there after their trials. Though the cells at Florence are 7×12 ft cells made completely of poured concrete (including bed, shower and toilet), the court first ruled that the conditions themselves were not in violation of Article 3. The second criteria under which the court ruled was of procedural safeguards. Evidence was presented proving the difficulty for prisoners to progress through what is called the “step down program” at Florence, in order to be released solitary confinement, or challenge their placement at Florence in the courts. The evidence included a report from the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Denver on conditions a Florence. The decision from the courts cited instances in which prisoners had brought cases, as well as 89 of 252 prisoners being in a three year step down program, that can be terminated for any infraction or “administrative reason”, as sufficient proof that there were in fact procedural safeguards in place. The decision went on to state that “isolation experienced by ADX prisoners is partial and relative”, due to reading materials, television and books that are provided, telephone calls, and the ability to talk through the ventilation system. The court also ruled that the mental health problems cited by each of the four men that would be held at ADX Florence (one of the men would be physically unable to be held at Florence as ruled by the court), could be treated by psychiatrists there, disregarding the evidence of solitary confinement exacerbating and worsening the mental illness of those subjected to it.
The decision of the court on this aspect of the extradition came after it had denied any violation of other articles, in an initial ruling in 2010. While the effect of the ruling on legitimating U.S. solitary confinement practices is unclear, critics fear it sets a dangerous international precedent purporting to justify no-touch torture and dehumanizing isolation under the pretext of an ill-defined and eternal war on terrorism.
Philly area: Wednesdays are Write On! Prison Letter Writing Night at the LAVA space at 4134 Lancaster, 7-9 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! – 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.
Keep up the fight!