Frackville, Pa. — For the last six months, Pennsylvania state prison staff have been systematically opening and duplicating all legal correspondence exchanged between inmates and their attorneys.
This flagrant violation of attorney-client privilege, made official policy by Gov. Tom Wolf in July 2018, was challenged by a joint suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Abolitionist Law Center, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and the Amistad Law Project.
After just one day of testimony in federal court, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced its intention to settle the suit and will stop photocopying and storing prisoners’ legal mail.
This sudden reversal is a major victory for inmates and abolitionists across the state.
The decision to open, copy and store prisoners’ legal mail was one of many repressive policies implemented in the aftermath of an unprecedented 2018 statewide crackdown on prisons. Wolf claimed that his decision to impose an emergency lockdown of all 24 state correctional facilities — and over 50,000 prisoners — was in response to an “outbreak” of illnesses due to exposure to “synthetic drugs” that were being smuggled into prisons.
But there has been only one verified case of a corrections officer’s “exposure” to illegal drugs, confirming activists’ suspicion that the lockdown, ordered in the middle of 2018 National Prison Strike, was aimed at stifling rebellion and strike activity.
State ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak told a local NPR affiliate: “Our expert, who was a former warden at San Quentin and a commissioner in the California Corrections Department, was going to testify that legal mail has not been a major source of contraband.” (wskg.org, Feb. 22)
The legal watchdogs’ suit was aimed only at prisoners’ legal mail, so all other mail will continue to be routed through Smart Communications in Florida, where it is photocopied and forwarded to Pennsylvania prisons. The DOC granted a $4 million contract to Smart Communications and has spent over $40,000 to purchase copy machines for all state prisons.
Retaliation continues against prisoners, families
“They’ll resort to any means at their disposal to make you feel like you have no control, to undermine your value as a human being,” says Bryant Arroyo as he bites into a cold turkey sandwich in the visiting room at SCI Frackville.
For the first time since the July lockdown, Bryant and his fellow inmates are allowed to purchase lunch while meeting with visitors. Sandwiches and candy bars are again in vending machines that for six months stood empty.
The machines seem to be stocked with six month’s worth of leftovers, with mostly food, including some kind of pork product.
“This facility is aware,” says Arroyo, “of the majority-Muslim and other individuals who refrain from the practice of eating pork products. It seems the staff has engaged in a deliberate act of discrimination against the Black/Hispanic inmate population.” This insult has only exacerbated racial tensions between the majority Black and Brown prison population and the overwhelmingly white staff.
Bryant also points to the removal of tables from the visiting room. During our visit, prisoners could be seen juggling lunch trays in their laps while meeting with family members, or else they were forced to put trays on the floor and eat off the ground. Apart from the indignity of this arrangement, Bryant slams the removal of proper tables and furniture as ableist and a likely violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The privilege of prisoners to get their photo taken with visitors is still suspended, even though officials said the moratorium was only meant to last 180 days.
Monetizing even the small moments
Daniel Gibson, an activist is also being held at SCI Frackville, described to WW a recent visit with his loved one in no uncertain terms: “Our visit at SCI Frackville was punitive and oppressive. It seemed like all the correctional officers’ actions were a retaliation against the recent wins of prisoners’ rights — food and drinks returning to vending machines, the return of client-attorney privilege with respects to legal mail and the reinstatement of the book policy which allows people to donate and send books to inmates.
“The COs specifically singled us out, reprimanding us for the slightest personal touch (like leaning on someone) and non-‘promiscuous’ behavior (which is not allowed in State Correctional Institution visiting rooms). This is the case for many visiting rooms across the state, where people do feel singled out because of how oppressive these environments are.
“Inmates’ families report harassment, cuts [in] visiting times at SCIs Camp Hill and Frackville in particular, and feeling criminalized while trying to visit their loved ones. The Department of Corrections wants to make in-person visits so unbearable [and] eventually force increased use of video visitation, yet another cash cow for the DOC. They want to further monetize even these small, intimate moments.”
The number of formal grievances filed by inmates has reportedly skyrocketed in recent weeks, an indicator of greater mobilization and activism on the part of prisoners. Arroyo, whom Mumia Abu-Jamal once dubbed “the world’s first jailhouse environmentalist,” is encouraged by the bravery and engagement of his fellow inmates.
‘Tell me who you walk with’
Switching back and forth between Spanish and English as he often does, the Puerto Rican prisoner-organizer recites an adage he learned from his working-class parents. “Dime con quien andas y te diré quien eres/Tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are.”
Bryant walks the block with the most oppressed of our class. The prison authorities and corrections officers clearly stroll a different path
“What does the DOC hope to achieve from all this?” A mischievous smile appears on Arroyo’s face, and he rubs his shaved bald head as if running his hand through a mop of hair.
Then he trumpets his lips out in a comic fashion and gestures wildly with both hands, impersonating President Trump: “They want to Make America Great Again!
“I think that’s a Freudian slip, by the way,” says Arroyo, chuckling. “They really just want to Make America Hate Again.”