No Phoenix Here, Just Newer Ashes

By Felix Rosado

On Wednesday morning, July 11, Graterford was put on lockdown and we all knew what it was about. The dreaded move to SCI-Phoenix was finally going down after a decade of talk, building, and false starts.

Officers from the DOC CERT Team in black khakis and tees invaded the 89-year-old prison determined to move roughly 2,600 men and property next door to what had been advertised as a new, state-of-the-art "correctional" institution. It's supposed to be the Phoenix that rises from the ashes of Graterford, as the thinking of the higher-ups goes. Though the mailing address remains the same, we are now to replace Graterford with Collegeville.

The logo on the CERT Team shirts is a gas-masked face in front of a crossed rifle and shotgun surrounded by the Latin words "Veritas," "Officum," and "Aequitas." For five days these officers, who none of us had ever seen before, pushed blue laundry carts up and down cell blocks, picking up men and their property and escorting them away. It was a tight operation, something to see. But the efficiency, which I'm sure was celebrated, is precisely what made it so dehumanizing.

I got taken away on day five as part of the last group to exit Graterford's 30-foot-high concrete wall. The school building, the beacon of Graterford just days prior, was converted to a shipment portal of human bodies. The room I earned my Villanova bachelor's degree from was now pit stop #1 where a line of officers patted us down. From there it was on to the law library where I sat in a chair and got sniffed by a hound, the same library where countless men navigated their way to freedom over the decades. In the former Prison Literacy Project room, I stood before a mural of a student being handed a diploma and underwent a slow, intricate strip search. In another G.E.D. room, the final stop, I got chained and prepped for shipment.

It had been 22 years since I stepped foot in Graterford, three weeks after my 19th birthday in the same month of July. The transport bus, known to us as the Blue Goose, was an upgrade from the old bus I arrived on. It was new, shiny, air conditioned, a sign of what was in store at Phoenix.

But no amount of shine can cover up ugly. And opening up a new set of human cages in 2018 at a price tag of half a billion dollars to PA taxpayers is as ugly as it gets.

So here we are now. The cell blocks have 72 cells in each of their two separate sides as opposed to 400 in each of Graterford's five blocks. Two big flat screens hang high above on walls over both sides of the control center. The CO station on the ground floor has fancy high chairs and three computer screens various people spend all day looking at. Our cells are still concrete and steel, just cleaner—for now. But it's clear we're not supposed to be in here yet.

The cell lights turn on at random times all through the day, including two or three times overnight, and no one seems to have an answer as to why or how to make it stop. Doors to enter and exit the blocks take up to half hour sometimes to buzz open. Every officer says someone other than them is in control of the doors. From one of the block windows we can see what is supposed to be the main yard. Some of the ground is overturned, flag markers all over the place. We won't be going there anytime soon.

In fact, we haven't gone anywhere since getting here Sunday—just cell, an hour here and there for phones and showers, and a concrete "yard" attached to the cell block with metal tables, two basketball rims, and one workout apparatus.

On the night of Tuesday, July 17, a man fell from the top bunk in his cell and didn't get carried off the block in a stretcher until over an hour later. First, two officers in the control center for some reason didn't hear his cellmate buzzing through the new cell intercom system. Finally we all began kicking our doors and screaming "man down." It took another five minutes for one of the officers to find his way out of the control center and to the cell.

Once he arrived and assessed the situation, call after call on his walkie went unanswered. A sergeant then came ten minutes later and was able to make contact on his walkie. It took 45 minutes for two medical staff and three COs to arrive. They were stranded at each gate into the block for at least 10 minutes each one. The whole ordeal began at 10:15 and ended around 11:30. The guy never returned to the block.

For all the criticism Graterford receives from people who've never been there, something like that would've never happened. In my 22 years inside that wall I’ve seen very little violence. Now everyone seems on edge, staff included. Scowls have replaced smiles or at least neutral countenances. In trying so hard to eradicate the "Graterford culture," everything that was good is being replaced by a certain "mountain" mindset. In the mountains, as all the other PA prisons are called, there are many more assaults, and certainly more on staff. And I can't imagine the recidivism rate is any lower with their limited or nonexisting programming. Why would we want to replicate that?

So, have we risen? Only time will tell. But if week one is any indication, we've surely sunken to a new low. We've been dumped into a prettier ash pile—that no phoenix can ever rise from.

Felix Rosado is cofounder and co-coordinator of Let’s Circle Up, a restorative justice project based at Graterford State Prison. Originally from Reading, PA, he has been fighting a death by incarceration sentence since 1995. He also co-coordinates the Alternatives to Violence Project and is a member of the Inside-Out Graterford Think Tank. In 2016, he earned his Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree from Villanova University. He is an advisor to Decarcerate PA, as well as to Eastern State Penitentiary’s Prisons Today Exhibit and Returning Citizens Tour Guide Program. As a member of Right 2 Redemption (a founding organization of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration) and Lifelines, he seeks to end the practice of caging humans until death.