Letters from the ashes

By Felix Rosado

As we begin our third week here in the ambitiously named SCI-Phoenix, I'm sorry—but not surprised—to report that things have gone from bad to worse. After all, this was supposed to be the prison of all prisons, new age "corrections," the art of caging humans at its finest—clean, sleek, efficient, technologically advanced, economic, safe. Instead, over 2,600 of us and over a thousand state workers are stuck in half a billion dollars of shoddy, unfinished construction that every hardworking Pennsylvanian was forced to fund, and will continue to for generations.

Congrats to Ed Rendell, Tom Corbett, and Tom Wolf, the three governors, Democrat and Republican, under whose watch this disaster unfolded.

For the first two weeks, this massive compound was swarming with CERT Team officers and staff from many of PA's other 24 prisons, who in groups of 4 or 5 hovered over the former Graterford, now Phoenix employees. Captains, lieutenants, sergeants, counselors, psychologists, all in khakis and polos, attemped to show the city folk, some with more time on the job than them, how to run a prison. They were often heard bragging about how they were being paid time-and-a-half and double-time, travel and hotel fully covered. The tension between these rural, white officers and the mostly urban, black Phoenix staff was thick.

This week, finally, the "outsiders," as they came to be called by many staff, vacated the premises and now it's back to just us. So, what bang did Pennsylvanians get for their hard earned buck?

On Saturday, July 28, during an otherwise normal weekend afternoon in the new and improved Phoenix visit room, a fight described as the longest many had ever seen broke out. Identical accounts were given to me by three different friends who all lock on different blocks, only varying in the length of time they believed the fight lasted: 15, 20, and 30 minutes. From experience I know that watching a 1-2 minute fight seems forever. I can't imagine having to endure through an over 10-minute medley, in the last place anyone would expect. In any event, the one CO working the floor couldn't get a handle on what was surely a traumatizing experience for all who were forced to witness it.

Apparently, a guy thought another was "looking at" his lady and decided to say something about it. Next thing, punches and kicks were flying. The three visitors of the one initially confronted. including two women, eventually joined the action. The beatdown went from here to there and back, minute after minute after grueling minute while kids, wives, parents, grandparents either clung to their loved ones or broke for cover.

Meanwhile, CERT was nowhere in sight. After having to look at their puffed-up chests in black tees and army fatigues everywhere we went, the violence they were supposedly here to quell went on and on and on in that visit room.

Finally, after the people fighting must have been dead tired, the officer for some reason decided to start shooting off his canister of pepper spray, hitting not only those involved but others around. As it was relayed to me, a pregnant woman was seen vomiting in a trash can. Visits that took plenty of money, travel, and frustration to achieve were all terminated early. No psychologists from the mountains arrived on the scene to ask how people were doing, as they'd been doing nonstop since we got locked down at Graterford.

In my over two decades next door, I'd never seen or heard anything about a visit room brawl. It was obvious to all that Graterford's visit room was sacred ground where locked apart loved ones were afforded precious moments to transcend the wall. So what happened from there to here?

Rather, what's this attempted "culture shift" causing to happen? Why the obsession with "This isn't Graterford"—the mantra that rolls off the tongues of so many who work here in response to every question or grievance.

This weekend we also had religious services for the first time in three weeks. At the Catholic Mass and Protestant service I attended, both chaplains felt compelled to open their sermons with acknowledgement of the loss and anger most of us are feeling over the disappearance, damage, and defecation of our personal property at the hands of CERT Team officers during the move. Pictures, letters, children's art, wedding rings, and other irreplaceables—gone. Power cords to TVs, remotes, antennas—nowhere to be found. Clothes, footwear, and other price-gauged commissary purchased items—missing. Legal work—scattered, random pages found in other people's stuff. Derogatory words and images penned onto pictures. In the words of one Major, "We'll be settling lawsuits for a long time." This is what Commonwealth residents paid time-and-a-half and hotel suites for. But that's not all.

Another Major got fired after the first week because he forged the training hours of Graterford staff who were supposed to receive 200 each prior to moving. Some only did 8, or none. And those few hours spent at Phoenix didn't even involve anything beneficial to the transition. This explains why people couldn't buzz open gates those first days, and some still.

On my few treks to and from the visit room, I can see three different fences being raised—well, three sets of steel beams shooting up from the ground surrounded in scaffolding that haven't shown any signs of being touched since we got here. How many more fences do we need anyway? And why wasn't all that done before pulling the trigger on the mass transfer of two thousand and a half unwilling bodies and over a thousand staff?

Phoenix's main building that extends from the entrance to the back doubles as the barrier between East and West. Two identical clusters of units, yards, and complexes with chow halls, chapels, schools, gyms, visit rooms, everything—mirror each other but never meet. Why? See, the state got away with building a 4,000-bed prison in the 21st century by originally pitching it as two separately-run facilities within one fence: Phoenix I and Phoenix II they were supposed to be. Those plans drifted away with the dozens of others throughout the decade-long building hoopla. Now that we're here, there clearly aren't enough staff to cover it all. Control centers in the units are eerily empty. Chaplains, teachers, treatment staff, and others need to hike back and forth from one side to the other in rain, sleet, hail, snow to serve this mammoth patchwork of concrete, steel, and faulty technology. I'm guessing we'll see a hiring spree soon, cancelling out whatever savings this place was slated to yield.

So there you have it. This is what you won't read on any front pages. This is my third time in two months writing about PA's second most expensive public building project, the second since being inside it. Maybe if my days were filled working and facilitating workshops as they were at Graterford, I'd have less time to pen op-eds. Oh that's right, though, this isn't Graterford.

I can only pray next time I'll have better news to report. I'm not too hopeful, though. Despite the mural of a beautiful phoenix in the main lobby, there's still nothing but ash around here.