By David Lee
On June 16th, the men here at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute at Coal Township started a week-long, non-violent protest of the prison conditions by refusing to go to eat in the chow hall. Over 1,000 men in the prison participated in this protest to assert their rights as human beings deserving of humane treatment. Quite naturally, the prison has tried to downplay the issues affecting the prisoners in this institution by making it seem as though the chow hall protest was simply about some recent menu changes, but they know full well that the issues the men were protesting goes far beyond recent menu changes. A decent and well-proportioned diet is just one of the many issues concerning the men in this prison. Medical conditions, the red light which shines in our faces all night (every night), the over-crowding, the lack of jobs, the lack of activities, the late delivery of our mail, the denial of legitimate publications, the disrespect of our families due to visiting room changes, the already high and constantly rising commissary prices which not only exploit prisoners, but also our families who assist us in making commissary purchases, the high telephone rates, and much more are all issues which we were protesting.
Our grievances are not just with this administration because we see the entire system as being a major problem which must be properly addressed. Issues such as the elimination of the death penalty and life without the possibility of parole, good time for all prisoners, a better educational and rehabilitation process, the massive reduction of the prison population, the restating of furloughs, releasing prisoners to halfway houses with half their minimum, the reopening of our schools, the closing of prisons, the redirection of resources from prison construction/maintenance and toward job creation/social programs are all issues we are focused on. We have men and women serving time in Pennsylvania prisons who have been in these prisons for 20, 30, and 40+ years, and many have not been in any real trouble for decades, so why are they still serving time? If the Department of Correction and the Pennsylvania legislature were really trying to do the right thing in regards to the people of this state, would they not be working to reduce the prison population and find ways to keep our schools open, rather than engaging in the mass incarceration movement in this country?
The Pennsylvania DOC often states how they are family-oriented, but these same people engage in the process of exploiting our families with exorbitant telephone rates from which they receive major kickbacks. Further, they do great harm to our families by keeping prisoners incarcerated for frivolous reasons, or nonsensical misconducts written by racist or disgruntled staff members. They cause our families and the prisoners great harm by sending us to prisons outside of our region, and forcing our families to burden the expense and physical toll of coming to see us. I personally have spent over 26 years in prison for a crime I did not commit, but the lack of legal and financial resources at my disposal were a major impediment to me receiving a halfway decent chance of winning my trial. Surely a racist and class-biased judicature did not help, but who cares whether I committed the crime or not. In the eyes of many within this system, all that matters is that I am a Black man who had been convicted of committing a crime before in the past, so I must be guilty of something, right? In the eyes of some sick people, that’s all that matters. Justice does not count.
These prisons are filling up with our children and they are lost. They have no idea what truly awaits them regarding this monster known as the Pennsylvania DOC. They are children who should have been reached long before this point in their lives, but I guess with all the funding going toward prison construction there was no money left for their development? It is now time for us to build a massive movement to stop this insanity, and this will require both the outside and inside coming together. We can ill afford to allow this to continue unrestrained by the people of this state, the taxpayers, the citizens whose voices must be heard! There are well over 50,000 people serving time in this state; does anyone think that this number is outrageous? Over two million people are incarcerated in this country. When in enough, enough? When are we going to wake up and collectively stand up and have our voices be heard by the people who are causing so much misery in this country? We have a responsibility to our children to stop this insanity. This is a call to all who care about the future of this state, this country, and this world that we live in, to stand up and have your voices be heard. We need you to help us capture a piece of history as we work to stop the mass imprisonment of the people of this country.
The time to be on the right side of history is now! Let us seize the moment by continuing to build a movement to counteract this fixation on mass imprisonment which is diverting precious resources away from education and development and toward the destruction of our families and communities. I want to personally thank all the men here in the prison of SCI Coal Township for their courage in this situation. They are on the right side of history, and I pray that they continue to stay on the right side!