This Workers World interview was conducted with Pennsylvania prison activist Bryant Arroyo in SCI Frackville on Sept. 23. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections started a crackdown on prisoners in the middle of the nationwide prison strike that took place from Aug. 21 to Sept. 9. The repression included restrictions on visitors, increased health risks and a new for-profit mail system that violates prisoner-attorney confidentiality. In response, Arroyo called for a prisoner boycott of the DOC corporate mail system.
The prison crackdown is meant to exacerbate the breakdown of social ties caused by mass incarceration. Some friends and family understandably are scared to put themselves at the mercy of prison officials at a time of such intense repression.
The day Arroyo called for the mail boycott, an older couple who came to visit the man’s brother was turned away because the woman was wearing a bra with a small metal clasp, which set off a metal detector.
“It’s straight-up sexual harassment,” Arroyo commented to WW. The “no-bra” policy is apparently unique to SCI Frackville and reportedly not in force at other Pennsylvania Department of Corrections facilities.
The PDOC crackdown also included a punitive 90-day suspension of commissary food during visits. Friends and family are usually permitted to purchase from vending machines in the visiting room. Now a row of six machines stands completely empty at the back of the room. “We literally can no longer break bread with our community,” said Arroyo.
Visits with children are necessarily shorter when parents and guardians can’t buy them snacks. Without access to vending machine drinks, visitors are also subjected to the same water that prisoners are forced to drink, with little kids hoisted up to toxic water fountains to quench their thirst. The guards and prison staff still have access to bottled spring water and soda.
Many Pennsylvania prisons, including Frackville and Mahanoy in Schuylkill County, are situated in a coal mining and fracking region that has become known as a cancer cluster site. Arroyo points out that Schuylkill has a remarkably high incidence of polycythemia vera, a rare blood cancer caused by waterborne pathogens.
Arroyo calls these health risks from the prison system “environmental terrorism.” He himself is awaiting a second round of throat surgery to remove polyps growing on his vocal cords; he is confident these are the result of 25 years of drinking poisoned water in Pennsylvania prisons.
In the prison lobby, this reporter also witnessed two toddlers being subjected to magnetic wanding and swabs meant to detect trace residue of narcotics, the same security protocols required of adult visitors.
When Arroyo’s daughter called to plan a visit with her small children, he was compelled to tell her to wait until the punitive three-month visitor policy expires. “I’m not going to subject my grandchildren to this.”
Democrats lead the crackdown on prisoners
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is just one of many new law-and-order Democrats who display a ruthless dedication to expanding the system of mass incarceration. This reactionary cadre includes Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and District Attorney Larry Krasner, as well as national figures like former California Chief Prosecutor Kamala Harris, now U.S. senator from California.
Wolf also steadfastly refuses to hear demands from im/migrant rights activists demanding he issue an emergency order to close Pennsylvania’s Berks Family Detention Facility, which is under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Other immigrant and refugee concentration camps across the country are among the 50 facilities the new Smart system counts as “clients.”
ICE’s kidnappings, imprisonment and rampant abuse get defended under the guise of “national security.” Similarly, Wolf’s strategy is to tie the crackdown on prisoners to “security and safety” in state facilities, creating a strong obstacle to efforts to fight recent prison repression in the courts.
Additionally, a poorly fabricated “health crisis” among prison staff was the apparent excuse for the August lockdown. But staff accounts of being sickened by synthetic drugs transmitted through the mail system collapsed under public scrutiny.
Arroyo notes that the PDOC appears to have concocted the “health crisis” to justify smothering prison strike efforts in Pennsylvania, which coincided with the Aug. 21 to Sept. 9 national strike.
The emergency lockdown was implemented in late August. After the Labor Day weekend, the omnibus prison regulations were already being implemented, including a more repressive visitor policy estimated to cost the state an additional $15 million to put in place.
Meanwhile, the commonwealth of Virginia under Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has announced a similar set of repressive measures for its prisons. Warden David Call of Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville released a Sept. 20 memo that referred to “feminine hygiene products being an ideal way to conceal contraband.” In an outrageous move that mirrors the Frackville “no-bra” policy, he declared that “the use of tampons and or menstrual cup hygiene items during visitation are prohibited.” (Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sept. 24)
The Virginia DOC memo continues: “Offender visitors who have been recognized by the body scanner machine having a foreign object that could possibly be a tampon and has failed to remove such item prior to being screened, will have their visitation terminated for the day and will have their visitation privileges reviewed.”
Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, another Democrat, failed to evacuate prisoners held in state facilities even as Hurricane Florence wreaked havoc across the state.
‘There is a face, there is a voice.’
Arroyo insists that we must see prisoners as individual human beings to fuel needed collective action. Millions of people are incarcerated in this country, which means millions more family members and friends are affected by this system. He urges his fellow inmates to continue to fight, and to find people on the outside who will actually listen — not just cynical aspirants to elected office. Above all, he urges prisoners across the country not to give up.
Arroyo himself is an innocent man who has been sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit. He says: “I could be bitter. But I choose not to take that path. Nah, that’s not what I want. They want you to mess up so they can put you in the hole. I don’t give them that privilege.”
Of his beloved daughter, Genesis, he says he “raised her through the confines.” This summer he condensed a lengthy essay he wrote, “A Dad’s Honor, a Daughter’s Dream,” and managing to get it down to 15 minutes, he called in to Genesis’ wedding ceremony to read it as a toast to his daughter.
Despite this particularly trying time of reaction and repression, Bryant Arroyo retains his optimism through one of his most contagious tactics: a sense of humor.
“You’ve heard the tune that goes, ‘Video killed the radio star?’” he asks, breaking into song. “Well, the DOC killed the mail!”
(Photo: Benjamin Irvin, SCI Frackville)