by Incarcerated Citizens Coalition (ICC)
On June 16 to June 23, men at SCI Coal Township initiated a 1-week, peaceful boycott of the Inmate Dining Hall in response to the implementation of the DOC’s “efficiency diet” at the prison. The men supported one another by sharing each other’s food and commissary items with each other on the units. The boycott was overwhelmingly successful on the West Side of the prison, where over 70% of the men participated, with only 20 to 25 individuals per unit/wing going down to the dining hall per meal. The implementation of the “efficiency diet” severely reduced the portions on the men’s trays to the point that older men were suffering hunger pangs and the meal’s main portions were deliberately placed in the small slots in the food trays to further reduce the portion amount. While the “efficiency diet” motivated the boycott, the men were also protesting the dysfunctional administration of the prison and the disregard for the basic rights and privileges they were entitled to by law and DOC policy. Issues such as the withholding and censorship of mail, failure to respond to grievances, lack of medical care and a doctor, the illumination of general population cells throughout the night by a red light which disrupted men’s sleep and contributed to depression and anxiety, the generous portions and quality of food provided/served in the Staff Dining Hall, reduction in excessive telephone rates and the uncomfortable atmosphere in the Visiting Room were also among the issues the men were protesting. The men at SCI Coal released a list of 22 Requests for Change, which was published in a local newspaper and which can be reviewed online at http://decarceratepa.info/22demands.
The men were also supported by family, friends, and activist and advocate organizations on the outside, who called SCI Coal and the DOC Central Office in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, supporting the men’s concerns and stand. Several men also filed grievances requesting that if the efficiency diet was caused by budget concerns, as alleged by staff, then the Staff Dining Hall should also have their entitlements reduced and removed, and staff should be required to eat from the same Master menu and Portion Control prisoners are subjected to, which would help alleviate budget concerns by cutting back on staff entitlements such as multiple menu entrees, specialty pastries, tubs of ice cream, multiple desserts, custom grills for staff, etc. which enabled staff to dine like aristocrats on antebellum slave plantations. These grievances infuriated SCI Coal and Central Office, who hold prisoners in general as less than human and feel obligated to demean and humiliate/dehumanize prisoners by erecting strict social barriers between themselves and prisoners.
At the conclusion of the boycott, the administration dug in its heels and ignored the men’s requests and concerns. Follow-up boycotts were discussed and considered by the men but never got off the ground due to the demoralization of many of the men following the prison administration’s failure to grant any concessions. Unfortunately, many of the men could not see that change takes time and continual struggle, and when they saw no results, many slumped back into indifference and irrelevance. The administration subsequently retaliated against some of the men it believed were organizers of the boycott, especially the men who filed grievances over the severe reduction in food portions, and transferred them to other prisons. Despite the eventual retaliation by the administration, the boycott was successful in demonstrating that under certain circumstances, prisoner unity in a peaceful manner is possible. To the participants, it was a great experience in human solidarity in an environment that does everything possible to diminish and strip one of their sense of humanity and sanity.