Concentration camps for the poor: Pennsylvania prisons wage war on oppressed workers

Frackville, Pa. — Tensions in Pennsylvania prisons are at an all time high since the statewide lockdown ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf last summer. 

The Department of Corrections (DOC) is now using SCI Frackville as a laboratory to test a “violence reduction policy” that, in practice, means staff can immediately shutdown entire cell blocks of the prison and order hundreds of prisoners to be confined to their cells for 36 hours at a time.

“Every day I’m in a state of impending lockdown,” says Bryant Arroyo, an innocent man at SCI Frackville, serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. “We’re anxious all the time. The mood is very tense and it’s become dangerous for both inmates and staff alike.”

According to Arroyo, the facility’s posted policy says that a single wing will be placed on temporary lockdown in the event of a brawl or other dangerous incident. But in this period of heightened tensions among prisoners and between inmates and staff, Frackville’s superintendent now can order the entire block to be shutdown for 36 hours. 

Prisoners would be confined to their cells and subject to shakedown —  guards come in and rummage through prisoners’ personal property looking for “contraband.” Access to libraries, common space, even showers is restricted during lockdowns.

“It’s gotten to the point where if you see a fight might be about to break out, you grab your towel and head to the shower because you don’t know when your next chance will be.” The last time Bryant’s block was locked down it was due to an incident on an adjacent wing. Bryant, whose cell was turned upside down in a search, was in the chow hall and didn’t even know a brawl had broken out.

“Yet we’re being forced to pay the piper for the infractions of others. Not only is this a violation of our 14th Amendment rights, this constitutes punitive actions taken against a collective: a violation of the Geneva Convention.”

Lockdown targets prison organizers

Prominent organizers within the prison appear to be specifically targeted during these lockdowns, and any hint of mass mobilization brings swift retribution. The statewide lockdown last summer was ordered to disrupt a nationwide prison strike that had been called months in advance.

And now anyone in theory can take an entire block hostage and conveniently shut down the prison when an action is planned. The DOC code of ethics mandates that staff are not allowed to give one inmate power over another, Arroyo explains, and yet this is exactly the effect of this policy.

“Hypothetically, you could orchestrate a lockdown of the whole facility. It’s a hostile and volatile environment.” He adds, “I’m speaking as a victim. You’re not going to keep punishing me with impunity. I hate to categorize myself as a victim, but I’m being victimized by this policy.”

Imagine if you were driving down the highway, Arroyo says, and you get pulled over by a state trooper, who asks you to step out of the car and immediately places you in handcuffs. You are not charged with a crime; you are not told why you are being brought to jail. You get no phone call, no lawyer, no recourse. They hold you for 36 hours and then let you go back to your normal life, no explanations given. You are told later that because there was a robbery a few miles away off a nearby exit, police were rounding up everybody on the highway and holding them for a day and a half.

“Welcome to the violence reduction policy. That’s now what we face every day.”

Ironically, prisoners are better off if they are directly involved in incidents that cause a lockdown, because they are brought to the restricted housing unit, incident reports are filed, and prisoners have access to the law library and can appeal the decisions made by prison staff. If you’re an unsuspecting prisoner on the block just trying to live your life and do your time, you don’t get that due process.

Bryant Arroyo has filed multiple grievances against Frackville staff and the DOC regarding this “violence reduction policy,” but as of this writing they have not been responded.

String of abuses against inmates

The lockdown policy is just the latest in a string of abuses perpetrated against the inmates at SCI Frackville. There are still no educational programs specifically for inmates with long-term or life sentences like Bryant. There is still no ESL program, even after Arroyo successfully lobbied for an ESL program on behalf of his fellow Spanish-speaking inmate Rafael Rodriguez.

Staff agreed that in a facility with a sizeable Spanish-speaking population, they must have at least one ESL instructor on hand, but the facility has failed to hire anyone after the decision was made nearly a year ago.

During Ramadan, Muslim prisoners who were fasting and placed on lockdown had no rescheduled meal time and either had to break their own fast knowing they’d be restricted to their cells or wait until nightfall to eat an ice cold “iftar” meal [specially prepared meal to break a fast]. Months ago, many Muslim prisoners filed grievances because the visiting room vending machines were disproportionately stocked with pork products, and neither inmates nor their families were able to share a meal together on visits.

“White supremacy? That’s policy,” says Arroyo. “But the change here is inevitable. Because this is torture.”

After a manufactured scare about prison staff being sickened after exposure to synthetic drugs, prisoners are now subjected to strip searches before and after visitation with families. Arroyo and other prisoners say these aggressive and punitive searches constitute sexual harassment and sexual assault and are meant to keep prisoners isolated and discourage them from scheduling visits with loved ones. Staff euphemistically refer to this practice as “unclothed searches” and deny that making inmates take off all their clothes and submit to cavity searches is at all sexual or harassing.

Incidentally, despite these increased security measures, the trafficking of synthetic drugs inside prisons is reportedly at an all-time high. It is common knowledge that guards and prison staff, not inmates, are the ones who are smuggling the drugs into facilities to be sold. Addiction is wreaking havoc on the community. “Guys on synthetics — they’re just getting high,” Arroyo says. “It’s like that’s all they’re looking forward to.”

Inmates have also been denied the right to wear safety collars to prevent exposure to radiation when being made to go through full x-ray body-scanners before and after visits. There is still insufficient research regarding the safety of body scanners; the technology is similar to that employed at airport security checkpoints. But prisoners’ concerns have been categorically dismissed.

Environmental dangers in prison

Arroyo recently had to undergo surgery after suffering from precancerous polyps in his throat. Initially told by staff that he was just suffering from acid reflux, Arroyo fought for an examination by an otolaryngologist who immediately discovered the advanced state of his affliction. Arroyo is certain the polyps arose from the toxic conditions in the prison, specifically the poisonous state of the drinking water.

In a recent broadcast for Prison Radio, political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal spoke of an article he had written for Workers World about Bryant Arroyo, whom he dubbed the world’s first “jailhouse environmentalist.” He describes the multiple battles now being waged by inmates against the environmental crimes of the mass incarceration industry.

Arroyo concluded his own Prison Radio talk by addressing environmental racism in prisons. “Class is the most important thing in society. But race is not any less important.”

Prisons, like military bases, are poisonous sites that are often built on land that has already been ravaged by capitalism. Arroyo led a campaign that successfully shut down a coal gassification plant scheduled to be built near a Pennsylvania state correctional facility, a scheme that would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Arroyo also helped organize his fellow state prisoners to lobby on behalf of federal prisoners — a historic act of solidarity across prison walls — to shut down the construction of a federal facility in Kentucky that would have been built next to an active coal mine. With this federal prison plan now shut down, over $500 million set aside for its construction will now be reallocated.

Bryant brags that he’s now taken over a billion dollars out of the pockets of the “corporate raiders” he has dedicated his life to fighting against. “I’m in the billionaire club! I just don’t get to collect it myself. But I’ll tell you, I feel like a very rich man. Donald Trump can’t prove that he’s a billionaire, but I can.”

Prisons: ‘places of mass pollution’

“The globe is under constant assault,” says Arroyo, a deeply faithful and committed environmentalist. “Our oceans are filled with plastic. It’s an abomination.”

Mumia asks, “What are prisons except sinks of negativity? What are they except places of mass pollution of the spirit, the mind, the psyche? The environment of prisons is one of oppression. We cannot ignore this truth. How can any good come from it?”

Bryant Arroyo and Mumia Abu-Jamal are two of Workers World’s most tireless advocates on the inside, fighting against censorship of the paper within the prison system and fighting on behalf of their fellow inmates. In a nation where prisons are concentration camps for the poor, all prisoners are political prisoners.

There are no walls in the workers struggle! Tear them down!

(FOTO: BENJAMIN IRVIN)

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