In the last issue of our newsletter, we reported extensively on the efforts of prisoners at SCI Coal Township to achieve conditions that meet even the most basic civil and human rights standards. In June 2014, more than 1,300 prisoners at SCI Coal staged a historic week-long boycott of the dining hall in protest of cuts to their food portions. Following the protest, prisoners submitted a list of 22 demands to prison officials that would improve conditions at the prisons. The response to this outpouring of legitimate requests and grievances from prisoners has been repression and retaliation by the staff and administrators at SCI Coal, rather than a shift in its own harmful and negligent policies.
On September 2, 2014 SCI Coal Township’s Administration took advantage of a state of emergency in the prison and placed 17 men in the Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU) on Administrative Custody Status following an isolated attack on a correctional officer. Among those 17 men were three individuals who the administration considered to be leaders or participants in the Dining Hall Boycott that the men of SCI Coal Township initiated from June 16 to June 23 in response to the cutbacks in food portions and other problems at SCI Coal Township (see last issue’s feature article for more info.) All three of these men were accused of “unauthorized group activity” in relation to the boycott and were transferred out of SCI Coal Township to SCI Greene, SCI Fayette and SCI Smithfield within a week of being placed in the RHU. All have reported missing items from their personal property, including legal material and personal photographs. All of them were subsequently released to general population, although one man (who was transferred out of SCI Coal Township in July as part of an earlier wave of retaliatory administrative response) remains in the RHU at SCI Greene after being falsely validated as a gang member by SCI Coal Township and is facing possible placement in the Gang Unit.
The RHU placement and transfer of these three men in September is disturbing considering that all three had filed grievances with Central Office over the food cuts at SCI Coal Township and the disruption/censorship of prisoners’ mail; the failure to respond to grievances; the repressive atmosphere within the visiting room; the lack of medical care at SCI Coal Township; as well as a host of other problems within the prison. Since the beginning of the summer, SCI Coal Township has faced continuous critique of the current hostile environment at the institution, including a lawsuit filed against the Superintendent in May by the former Islamic Chaplain, accusing the Superintendent and two other high ranking officers of false imprisonment and kidnapping following an argument over a complaint he filed against the Deputy Superintendent.
Prisoners at SCI Coal Township report that the prison has been in a state of dysfunctional administration throughout the summer culminating in the assault on the officer on August 31. Rather than responding to the actual incident, the administration oopted to go after prisoners who were transparently pursuing their objections to the conditions at SCI-Coal Township through the grievance system and in letters to prisoners’ rights advocates on the outside. Instead of addressing the prisoners’ concerns, SCI-Coal Township retaliated against the men by transferring them hundreds of miles away from their loved ones and by destroying some of their personal and legal property. What type of message, prisoners at SCI Coal are asking, does this send to prisoners who exercise their first amendment rights by filing grievances?
Family members and human rights advocates also took up this very same question as they rapidly organized against the RHU placement and transfers. Decarcerate PA, the Human Rights Coalition, the Abolitionist Law Center, and many other allied organizations flooded both SCI Coal and the DOC Central Office with calls demanding the release of these men from the hole and an explanation of the nature of the investigations being lodged against them. Hundreds of individuals spent hours on the phone lines each day attempting to determine the location and well-being of their loved ones and fellow human rights advocates. Numerous articles were written and widely distributed and an extensive social media campaign was engaged to try to secure their release.
Since the Inmate Dining Hall Boycott in June, five men in total have been transferred--two to SCI Fayette, one to SCI Smithfield, one to SCI Greene, and one to SCI Retreat. Despite the June boycott having been an act of multi racial solidarity, all of the prisoners transferred or placed in the RHU for participation in the boycott have been Afrikan Amerikan or Latino. SCI Coal Township’s retaliatory action towards these men and the Department of Corrections (DOC) Central Office's failure to intervene to stop the transfers, demonstrates the need for an Independent Ombudsmen Office that would be empowered to independently investigate and take action against DOC personnel that retaliate and abuse prisoners for exercising their First Amendment rights to file grievances and lawsuits challenging unjust conditions and the violation of their rights.
To learn more about how to support the 22 demands, visit http://decarceratepa.info/22demands