Anatomy of a hunger strike: A prisoner speaks

By: Demetrius Grant/ Joe Piette, editor

‘I went on a hunger strike because of the unconstitutional, inhumane and repressive conditions.’

Many protests against mass incarceration have taken place on the streets of U.S. cities over the last decade. Many resistance struggles have also been waged by individuals or groups of prisoners inside the prison walls, often without any support from or knowledge of by people or press on the outside.

Demetrius “Dee Jay” Grant

One of the many methods of resistance used by prisoners worldwide has been the hunger strike. Prisoners from Ireland to Palestine, California to Pennsylvania have refused to eat for weeks or even months, hoping to win prison reforms or political demands, and sometimes attracting publicity in the mass media in the process.

Demetrius “Dee Jay” Grant (FY6063), an African-American prisoner in Pennsylvania, conducted a months-long hunger strike in 2019 over prison conditions at State Correctional Institution Albion. Grant is known as the “Pro Se Litigator,” the person who exposed the mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners by former Correctional Officer Charles Graner at SCI Greene before Graner became infamous for mistreating Iraqi detainees. Here is Workers World’s interview with Grant about his experiences. 

Workers World: How long have you been imprisoned?

Dee Jay: I have been in prison for 26 and a half years, since May 3, 1993, for three counts of aggravated assault and one count of robbery. During that period I successfully escaped from prison three times. I have been at SCI Albion since June 19, 2018. I have been at 10 other prisons in my 26 years. I was put out of each one due to protesting and litigating against prison officials.

WW: What conditions caused you to go on strike?

Dee Jay: I went on a hunger strike because of the unconstitutional, inhumane and repressive conditions being created by SCI Albion officials. They have little to no regard for prisoners’ constitutional rights or their own policies that are supposed to benefit prisoners.

SCI Albion has over 545 correctional employees, but only 51 are African-American, 10 Hispanic, two Asian and two Indigenous. There are no African Americans on the administrative or psychologist staff for over 1,000 African-American inmates.

Ever since the PA DOC [Pennsylvania Department of Corrections] authorized correctional officers to use chemical agents to suppress disturbances, they’ve been misusing them, especially on mentally ill prisoners.

In addition, there is incompetent medical service by staff. Solitary confinement is a fire hazard due to padlocks on doors. Administrators allow subordinates to place false entries in prisoners’ institutional records.

Prisoners are receiving only one and a half to two and a half hours of law library time per week.  Other DOC facilities provide prisoners a minimum of two and a half hours per session, three times a week. If you can show a current court deadline, you can request two additional law library slots over a 30-day period. If you miss your law library slot for any reason — a visit, a legal call, etc. — your name is removed from the law library list and you have to reapply, which takes time to get back on. Other DOC facilities allow two unexcused absences.

The kitchen is dirty and unsafe to the point that prisoners are getting seriously injured all the time. The food is unhealthy, and the portions are small so the PA DOC can save money.

Physical abuse, denial of medical care

Dee Jay: Prisoners with mental illnesses are being allowed to work in the kitchen despite their inability to keep up with the work demands of the kitchen.

The guards are all the time physically and verbally abusing these prisoners during mental episodes. This is due in large part because the guards are not being trained to respond properly, resulting in excessive and unnecessary force (pepper spray and tasers), causing serious injuries. When this happens, medical will cover for the guards by not accurately documenting how the prisoner got their injuries.

Prisoners are being denied adequate medical care and/or treatment. They are enduring pain and suffering needlessly and in some cases are suffering permanent injuries, even death. Example: A good friend of mine has multiple sclerosis and must receive blood tests, but medical has failed to provide these tests on a regular basis. Medical staff have even lied to his family and attorney, saying they gave him the blood test when they know they did not. And now he must file grievances just to get the medical treatment he should be receiving. An investigation into SCI Albion’s medical department is absolutely necessary to stop and expose these abuses.

Recently, SCI Albion, via the PA DOC, has instituted a violence prevention policy which, among other things, forces prisoners to snitch on one another in order to avoid being arbitrarily locked up for long periods or losing privileges and/or their parole. The state-sponsored snitching was created to divide and control prisoners, which results in prisoners being labeled a snitch and placed in jeopardy of being seriously hurt.

Additionally, SCI Albion has created an environment wherein they condone and/or encourage the guards and staff to be hostile and aggressive toward prisoners, resulting in prisoners being assaulted, verbally abused, having their properties lost and/or stolen, having false/fabricated misconduct reports filed against them, being subjected to excessive or unnecessary force and being celled with mentally ill prisoners who are not compatible. This has resulted in prisoners being assaulted and even killed.

Complaints bring retaliation

WW: What did you do to solve these problems, before deciding on a hunger strike?

Dee Jay: Prior to going on the hunger strike, I spoke with and/or wrote prison officials about my complaints a number of times. I eventually had to file grievances and still nothing was done to correct the problems — except I was retaliated against.

I filed a grievance about the kitchen food trays not being properly washed, sanitized and dried, which is causing mold to build up on the trays, causing prisoners’ health issues. The DOC has an established policy each facility is supposed to follow. SCI Albion is not following its policy, nor is the PA DOC reprimanding Albion for not functioning pursuant to the policy.

I filed another grievance about the cable TV constantly going out for days and weeks at a time and us still being charged for it, despite the cable contract stating prisoners are to be prorated for any time the cable was out due to equipment problems. After filing a grievance, my cable was arbitrarily turned off for 26 hours in retaliation and my grievance was ignored. Also, my account was not prorated for all the times the channels were out. I have since canceled my cable and will never have it connected again.

Outside of filing multiple lawsuits, which I cannot afford, I was forced to go on a hunger strike in order to get prison officials to do what they are legally required to do already, but are refusing to.

Dee Jay Grant begins hunger strike

WW: Describe your experiences during the hunger strike.

Dee Jay: Prior to going on the hunger strike I was going through a lot of physical and mental anguish about all the issues that needed to be addressed. I got to the point where I could not eat or sleep, and when I did, I would wake up soaked in sweat, trying to figure out what other options I had besides a hunger strike.

I wanted to bring a different type of challenge to prison officials to get their immediate attention because they were ignoring my complaints.

Once I realized it was my only viable option, I told my comrades Jerome “Hoagie” Coffey, Christopher “Gooch” Young, Gerald “Bas Sengbe” Bennett and Michael “Shabazz” Thorpe, who were fighting prison officials on some of the same issues.

I officially started my hunger strike on April 29, 2019, by telling my counselor, Ms. Robinson, Unit Manager Ms. Frith, Block Sgt. Gould and Block Guard Mr. King. They ignored me despite the fact that the PA DOC Health Care Policy 13.01.01, section viii, D and E establishes detailed procedures for the observation and medical/psychological assessment of prisoners who refuse to eat or drink liquids.

The DOC does not have a policy pertaining to force-feeding prisoners.  This is so they can freestyle force-feed a prisoner without having to follow a set protocol, which results in medical abuses.

WW: How did prison officials respond?

Dee Jay: Prison officials ignored my hunger strike until May 23, 2019, when my comrade Travis “Sunny” Hill told his work supervisor Ms. Kusiak that I had not eaten since April 29 and prison officials were ignoring it.

I was immediately called to the medical office to be examined by Dr. Amanda Hartwell, the Medical Director at SCI Albion. She has a 1.9 rating in her private practice []. She represents the calibre of medical personnel being hired by the DOC. This should be exposed to the public so they’ll know their tax dollars are being wasted.

I was placed in a Psychiatric Observation Cell (POC) for several days by order of Deputy Superintendent Ennis, Dr. Hartwell and Ms. Jari Smock, Corrections Health Care Administrator. I was seen by the Prison Psychiatrist Dr. Gottsman and Psychologist Ms. Eddy, who informed prison officials that my hunger strike was not due to any psychological illness.

On May 28, instead of placing me in the prison infirmary, they sent me to the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) on Administrative Custody (AC) status, allegedly to monitor my calorie intake. That should have been the Medical Unit’s job.

Deputy Ennis manipulated Ms. Eddy into filing an “Others Report,” claiming I was a danger to myself and others. I was moved to the POC to isolate me from other prisoners. I was told I could not have visitors, phone calls, go to the yard or use the Law Library until I ended the strike.

Assaulted by guards, then force fed

Dee Jay: On May 30, I was told by Dr. Hartwell, Ms. Smock and Nurse Edwards that I had to give them my vitals and if I did not, they would have it taken by force. After I refused to give my consent, seven guards dressed in black riot gear with helmets forcefully entered the cell and assaulted me. I was placed in handcuffs and leg shackles and a hood was placed over my head. I was then placed in a restraint chair while medical staff forcefully took my vitals without legal authority.

As a result of the assault, I have nerve damage in my right hand that medical is still refusing to provide proper treatment for. Once prison officials realized I was not going to end my strike, the guards started harassing me by turning up the air conditioner and the TV sound all day and night.

Despite being isolated I was able to receive messages from some of my comrades, but each day I was growing weaker and thinner. I went from 207 pounds to 143 pounds during the strike.

I had to make a strategic decision to stop drinking all liquids in order to force the medical unit to provide me with nutrition. I know this sounds crazy to someone out there reading this but under the circumstances I had to because they would have just let me die.

On June 25, after almost two months and 174 consecutive missed meals and after five days without water, the forced-feeding began.

WW: Forced-feeding — how did they do that?

Dee Jay: A lieutenant would come to the cell door with four guards dressed in black riot gear with helmets, plus a sergeant with a video recorder. The lieutenant would read the “use of restraint chair” policy, telling me if I did not follow his orders to be strip searched and handcuffed, they would use force against me, including the use of pepper spray and taser.

After being strip searched, done to demean me, I would be placed in handcuffs and leg shackles, and placed in a restraint chair. Each of my legs and arms would be strapped down. A belt would be placed around my waist and a shoulder harness would go on last. I would then be wheeled to a medical room where two nurses were waiting.

First, my vitals would be taken and then the feeding tube would be inserted into my nostril until it went down into my stomach. Sometimes the tube would get stuck in my nostril and the nurse would try to force it down, causing severe pain and bleeding. Some of the nurses would deliberately let the tube get stuck in my throat, cutting off air, causing me to choke. They would try and make it as uncomfortable for me as they could, but I still would not let it discourage me.

Weight loss and seizures

Dee Jay: For the first month I was force-fed pureed foods twice a day. On July 25, things changed — they started force-feeding me only once a day. Then they told me I would be provided nutrition and hydration only if my body weight was under 150 pounds. Then I was told nutrition and hydration would not be provided on weekends, Wednesdays or when there was an institutional emergency.

I later found out this was part of a five-phase plan created by Dr. Hartwell, Dr. Herbick (Medical Director at SCI Fayette) and the Medical Director for the PA DOC Bureau of Health Care Services. The plan was to manipulate my body weight, causing me to become constipated and emaciated, which was very painful. As a result, I developed a lot of medical problems.

When prison officials found out I was receiving messages from my comrades and support from a few guards, I was immediately moved to the Restricted Housing Unit and placed in a hard cell, which consists of a concrete bed, toilet/sink and a desk. After I kept having seizures brought on by the stress of the hunger strike, I was moved back to POC.

After I filed numerous grievance complaints, they moved me back to a hard cell in the RHU, where I was subjected to unauthorized cell searches while I was out of the cell. The guards would take all my linens (blanket, sheets, towel and washcloths), leaving me with no way to keep warm or shower.

I had five false, fabricated misconducts filed against me, but other prisoners on the pod would give me support. They let the guards know if they did anything to me they would contact their families and outside officials, which they did on several occasions. []

No matter how difficult things got, I would stay strong by quoting Winston Churchill’s speech about “never, never, never giving up no matter how hard or long.”

But it was getting to the point I was in too much pain because of the “Five-Phase Plan” which triggered a lot of seizures. When I would ask the guards for medical help, they would ignore me.

‘Much more to be said and done’

WW: What made you decide to end the hunger strike?

Dee Jay: I started worrying about being seriously hurt during a seizure and not being able to receive help. It was killing me to even think about ending the strike. There was so much more that needed to be said and done.

Early in the strike, I met with several prison officials who did make a good faith effort to resolve some of my issues, but things moved at a slow pace. In the meantime, my health was getting worse.

The hostility and aggression from the guards were being turned up to the point they tried to physically harm me when they would get outside the view of other prisoners or cameras. They would get you in the hallway and turn the camera off, say it malfunctioned and then assault you.

After the strike was over, I was told by a sergeant that prison officials told guards they gave me everything I asked for, and I was only continuing the strike to cause problems. This was misinformation by prison officials because they did not want any more guards to support me.

On Sept. 17, after the superintendent agreed to address each of my complaints, I agreed to end my strike. However, if prison officials keep foot dragging on implementing the fixes, I have not ruled out a second strike.

Despite damage to health, a victory

WW: What was your physical condition when the strike ended?

Dee Jay: When the hunger strike ended, I was only 143 pounds and unable to eat whole foods because the feeding tube damaged my esophagus. All my food has to be pureed. Also, I have trouble walking, standing, sitting and laying down due to nerve damage, which medical staff here is refusing to treat me for. I have still not received an MRI for the nerve damage in my hand after the guards assaulted me.  The medical staff refuses to house me in the infirmary for observation despite all my health issues.

Nevertheless, I believe the hunger strike was a victory because I was able to force the administration to sit down and address my grievances. Also, I learned the tactics medical and prison officials will use to combat hunger strikes. I took a hit to my body, not because of the hunger strike per se, but because of the nefarious “Five-Phase Plan.” This is why the courts need to force the PA DOC to come up with a forced-feeding protocol instead of allowing officials to freestyle the process.

Since the strike, it’s been a mixed bag wherein some prison officials and guards keep me at arm’s length, but there are those who take every opportunity to retaliate against me. For example, Major Maure instructed the property room to confiscate all my legal and nonlegal property under the pretext I have excessive property. This is the same property I was transferred to SCI Albion with, and it had been in my possession until the hunger strike.

I am back in general population, and things are getting worse again with regard to unconstitutional, inhuman and repressive conditions.

WW: What did you learn from the hunger strike?

Dee Jay: The hunger strike made me realize that it is not for everyone. Outside support is a must so that they can’t get away with abusing you. Most importantly, the hunger strike made me even more determined to stand up and resist abusive authority, no matter the cost.

My advice to all those out there who may be contemplating going on a hunger strike is: Make it worth it and don’t stop until you achieve your goal. Remember, “never, never, never give up no matter how hard or long.”

WW: What would you like to explain to people on the outside about prison conditions?

Dee Jay: In the past 5 to 10 years, prison life in Pennsylvania has changed dramatically due in large part to the closing of this state’s mental health facilities. Now, those individuals are being housed in the PA DOC. This was done by a previous governor, Ed Rendell, to save money.

In response, the DOC hired a bunch of psychiatrists and psychologists, but there are still not enough to deal with the large numbers of mentally ill prisoners, some of whom are violent, drug addicted or illiterate.

Initially, mentally ill prisoners were housed at SCI Waymart, but due to the large numbers, they are now being housed throughout all DOC facilities. It is having a profound effect on the overall general prison population.

PA state legislators and prison officials are using assaults committed by mentally ill prisoners to create policies and laws authorizing excessive use of force against all prisoners. The “Violence Reduction Policy” allows prison officials to arbitrarily deny prisoners their state and federal constitutional rights by placing a cell block or even entire prisons on lock downs for days on end after one of these mentally ill prisoners allegedly assaults a guard.

Recently the PA House Judiciary Committee passed three bills supposedly designed to improve the safety of county and state prison guards and staff, even though assaults on prison staff are at a 10-year low. Nothing, however, is being done to address the increase of assaults on prisoners by prison staff.

Ultimately, the guards and staff hired by the DOC cannot be adequately trained to deal with mentally ill prisoners. Some of them have mental illnesses themselves.

This situation means non-mentally-ill prisoners are being left with the burden of dealing with these mentally ill prisoners, even though we are not qualified.

The DOC and state legislators know the dynamics of what is happening, but they won’t solve the crisis because it’s a win-win for them. The state receives millions of dollars in federal funding to address a crisis it created. At the same time, they use this crisis to create new laws to increase repression and deny prisoners their state and federal constitutional rights.

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