By Cindy Lou
For 39 years of his unjust imprisonment, Major Tillery’s main concern has been the welfare of others. There is a history of retaliation against Tillery, who has advocated for other prisoners throughout his years of incarceration.
When Mumia Abu-Jamal was very sick at Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy, Tillery confronted the superintendent, seeking care for Mumia. In retaliation, Tillery was transferred to SCI Frackville and put in the hole. He sued and won, and as a condition of his victory, he was transferred to SCI Chester, closer to his family.
At Chester, he succeeded in setting up a Senior Life Enhancement Program (SLEP) Center with support from the previous prison administration. But the current administration put him in the hole in January 2023 on bogus charges and threatened to transfer him as a security risk. With an outpouring of protest calls that action was defeated.
Tiller was put into solitary again in August 2023. This latest injustice was yet another attempt to discredit Major and portray him as a physical threat to other prisoners instead of a constant advocate.
Litigator behind shutdown of SCI Pittsburgh
Mr. Tillery is an experienced litigator who served as the lead plaintiff in 1989 in a successful class action challenging the horrific conditions of confinement at SCI-Pittsburgh. The prison was ordered to spend $30 million to address substandard medical care, dangerous filth and poor sanitation, double-celling, insufficient clothing and bedding, ventilation and lighting.
Tillery also exposed the skin rashes he and many other prisoners suffered; toxic water causing illnesses; authorities who retaliated by withholding approved medical implements, including braces and ortho shoes; illegal restrictions of attorney visit time; and promised mental health counseling that was never delivered.
He also challenged a bogus claim by guards that they were getting sick from drug-laced letters coming into the prison; and arbitrary cell searches — ransacking by guards who confiscated legal documents and personal items.
In the end, SCI Pittsburgh was shut down. For 20 years he has endured solitary confinement after being sent out of state to Federal Supermax Prisons in Marion, Illinois, Leavenworth, Kansas and Terre Haute, Indiana. He was also sent to Trenton State Control Unit and El Reno Federal Prison in Oklahoma. Tillery noted: “The PDOC would trade me for other prisoners, the way they traded slaves.”
Aging prison population
In prison, you are considered an elder once you hit 50, as prison officials and academics both recognize that people incarcerated for decades age faster amid the inhumane, harsh conditions of confinement. Nearly 15% of the overall Pennsylvania Department of Corrections population is 50 years or older.
When Tillery first came to prison in 1983, the DOC incarcerated 357 elderly prisoners. Now more than 6,041 are over the age of 55. There is an exploding population of elders due to their receiving overly severe, lengthy sentences — life without parole — who are struggling to survive in spaces not designed for them.
Tillery made his first proposal for an elders program to Superintendent Kathy Brittain while he was incarcerated at SCI Frackville in 2017. After a slow-moving start and his transfer to SCI Chester, the program was instituted there.
Creation of SLEP
The Senior Life Enhancement Program (SLEP) center for elderly inmates opened at SCI Chester on Oct.1, 2020, with a ceremony hosted by the Superintendent Kenneth Eason and Captain Lori Eason who helped bring the program to fruition. A brochure describes the goal of the program: “… to create a Senior Center Environment for elderly inmates, giving them meaningful opportunities to meet, communicate and share peer support. The SLEP is also designed to guide the elderly towards an effective reentry into society and help with hospice companion support if necessary.”
Visitors report that the Center’s main room has a very relaxing and low-key vibe. There is a large-screen TV, fresh coffee, couches, music, wall murals and a big fishtank. In the gym on Sunday nights, elders can exercise, socialize and play cards. There is also special yard time scheduled just for the elderly prisoners.
But the Center is more than just a lounge. It is in this program that people can be connected with and get help to fill out applications for Medicare, other forms of financial assistance, housing, how to secure a copy of birth certificates, Social Security records and other legal forms. There is group therapy and story-telling, led by experienced facilitators. Assistance with housing and reentry is available. Sadly, there is also help for older people to make that last transition from life to death.
Shortly after its opening, then PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel visited SCI Chester in order to tour and learn about the Center. Now the program is present in three additional state facilities: Waymart, Muncy and Laurel Highlands. At the recent American Correctional Association Conference the program was pitched on a national level; however, Tillery’s name as program originator was not acknowledged. This obvious oversight is courtesy of the Victims Advocate Office, which represents alleged victims of crimes during prisoners’ sentence commutation appeal proceedings.
Major Tillery’s August solitary confinement stay is also suspect. It appears that prison administrators put him in the hole again to cast further aspersions on his person. They often portray him as a “wild killer from a crime gang — undeserving of legal justice.”
Major says: “They [the SCI Chester administrators] claim they can’t mention me by name because of the Victim Advocate Office. They just say ‘an inmate,’ but you can write the full story. It’s not them, they are good people who really want to help. It’s their bosses — I guess it’s hard to admit a prisoner wrote a program that is the only one in the country.”
Day-long conference on SLEP at SCI Chester
On Nov. 9, a Workers World comrade and I traveled to SCI Chester for a six hour conference concerning prison reform and the innovative SLEP center for the elderly population. The conference program was excellent, and it was astonishing to see “lay people” mingling, eating and talking with 50 incarcerees in their prison garb. Incarcerated members (mentored by a knowledgeable elder, Richie Marra) had produced three excellent videos.
Especially poignant was the documentary that examined medical neglect and death in prison. It depicted Korean War veteran Domenic Florio, an 87-year-old lifer in prison now for 43 years. He filed for commutation twice and was denied both times. Out of the five panelists on the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, only two supported his release. Florio lost his wife of 70 years a few years ago. Last year both his son and daughter passed away. He can barely walk without his walker.
The conference on SLEP was painstakingly initiated and organized by incarceree Major Tillery with a participating community of other incarcerated men: Earl Best, Thaddeus Ford, Derrick Melton, Melvin Bowmen, Vinny Vorrado, Reginald Jackson, Angel Rodriguez and Al Joyner, who recently died from COVID-19. Many more gave their time and labor to make this vision a reality.
While prison officials are now putting SLEP in other institutions, it remains to be seen whether it is anywhere near as successful when it is lovingly crafted by a crew of incarcerated people, rather than implemented by the rigid Department of Corrections.
This article is dedicated to Major Tiller to shine a light on his actions of unselfish concern for the welfare of others, especially the visionary thinking, creativity and consistency that went into formulating this program.