By Felix Rosado
The other night, as I laid in my Phoenix State Prison cell, watching the NBC10 eleven o'clock news, I froze at a clip that seemed to come out of nowhere—or from a time I thought we've long flipped the page on. Stunned, I then spent the rest of the night trying to make sense of the at most 30-second story that if you stretched and yawned during, you missed.
To address Delaware's correctional officer "overtime problem," said either Jim or Jacqueline, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) will be absorbing into its cages just over 250 incarcerated men from across PA's southeast border. The same clips of the backs of men wearing the same DOC-stamped brown rags I've worn for over two decades flashed across my old ViewSonic. Then came the same bird's eye look at the Delaware prison that was home to a recent riot, shown every time the story is revisited. Delaware would be paying PA an unstated dollar amount per body per day, according to the story. Allegedly that would be cheaper than the overtime bill they've been footing.
Good news for the First State? Perhaps. But what about for the Keystone?
Here's what left me scratching my head. I don't know of many COs, and now other staff too, here at Phoenix who aren't bellyflopping and butterfly-stroking in overtime dollars, courtesy of hardworking Pennsylvanians—without their knowledge and consent, of course. Before each shift ends, three times a day, seven days a week, we all hear the same announcement blaring over the walkies: Anyone who wants to volunteer to work [insert shift], please call [insert 4-digit extension]. Most who are doing 16-hour shifts 10, 15, 20 days in a row do so enthusiastically. I've heard some refer to it as free money. "They're giving it away" is a common refrain. Others get mandated to double down and aren't happy about it—but in the end can live with the extra dough.
How much? For those who make $30-an-hour, overtime means $45, and double time on days off and holidays means $60. Some boast about jumping over the six-figure threshold before the clocks fall back. I overheard a CO on the walkway a few weeks ago chatting with another about how she can now cop a Chanel bag since she's bringing in 10K a month. I doubt anyone outside of this particular—and peculiar—environment would believe a portion of PA's $2.4 billion "corrections" budget is being spent on handbags they'll never afford. It takes maybe five of my family members combined to earn what one person makes inside this fence for standing or sitting around, occasionally barking out an arbitrary order or two.
So, why is PA solving Delaware's prison overtime problem when ours dwarfs whatever their taxpayers might be suffering? And we're not only paying for this today. Well after the governor and corrections secretary are in the wind, we'll be paying for thousands of bloated pensions that get calculated based on each retiree's top three yearly earnings. For everyone who works at Phoenix, 2018 will be one of those years.
After my brain-wracking that night, I realized I shouldn't be shocked, even a little. This is just the latest in a recent series of costly, backwards decisions by the PA DOC.
Let's just glance over the last few years. While most of the country is decarcerating, or at least wanting to, PA became hellbent on building a new half-billion-dollar (a conservative estimate, or lie) human warehouse.
July of this year, in the face of mounting political pressure to end the decade-long building fiasco riddled with construction woes and false starts, two thousand and a half of us were hastily chained and dragged over from Graterford next door. Staff were not adequately—or at all—trained to run this humongous maze of concrete, steel, and technology, resulting in stress, anxiety, anger, and trauma unlike anything I've witnessed in all the years since my 1995 arrest. Four months later, we're still trapped in a construction site.
Money from the IGWF (I-word General Welfare Fund), which is supposed to go toward programming and recreation for us, got spent settling grievances for all the property that disappeared or was damaged or defaced by CERT Team officers from the mountains—who were rewarded with, yep, overtime pay—during the mass transfer.
A month and some change later, some rogue officers from a handful of western PA prisons successfully hoaxed the DOC into ordering a 12-day lockdown and rolling out the most extensive list of draconian policies against mail and visits in penitentiary history, making PA a lone outlier to the other 49. These same COs, members of a dark union curiously named Citizens for Accountability, were largely behind the sweeping confiscation of all non-state issued boots, boots we paid over a hundred bucks for on 19-42¢ per hour salaries.
And just when we thought things couldn't get worse, we now have to make room in our cells for these latest bodies-for-sale. And even though our favorite NBC news anchors told us Delaware is paying, the bill will end up stuffed in every Pennsylvanian's mail slot—for generations to come. It's clear that corrections in PA are in dire need of correction. Let's get on it—overtime.
Felix “Phill” 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.