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Imprisoned: life behind bars

by Elizabeth Timberlake-Newell

One half of the capacity of Beaver stadium at a sold out football game lives in a particular type of Pa. state-funded facility. They eat, sleep and work, live and die. Their numbers are growing, the number of facilities is increasing, but most citizens know very little about the difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions these fellow citizens live in, or why they are there.
The prison population has grown steadily over the past three decades, and as a result state prisons are overcrowded. As of April 2013, 51,370 people were incarcerated in Pa., and the average prison in the state is running at 105 percent capacity by number of beds. The number of people incarcerated 30 years ago, according to grassroots organization Decarcerate PA: about 8,000. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story of the Pa. prison system.
Pennsylvania pioneered the penitentiary, or “Pennsylvania system” of incarceration in 1829, but recently the system has expanded. Three new prisons including SCI Benner (a medium security prison) in Centre County have been built during Pa. governor Tom Corbett’s term. SCI Graterford, a maximum security prison that houses death row inmates, is to be replaced with two new prisons. Nine additional prisons have been expanded.
Meanwhile, according to Correctional News in January 2013, in the past three years the prison population has contracted, resulting in the closure of two prisons—SCI Cresson in Cambria County and SCI Greensburg in Westmoreland County.
Both the expansion of the prison system and the closure of two prisons have been controversial, and that’s not where controversy over the Pa. corrections system ends. In 2011 and 2012, seven guards at SCI Pittsburgh were investigated for “systematic civil rights abuses” including rape, assault, witness intimidation and official oppression. The practice of putting inmates in long-term solitary confinement is also being challenged by a growing body of research.
Who are we imprisoning?
The current Pa. prison population is primarily made up of prisoners assigned to minimum (Level 2) and medium (Level 3) security. A full 45.3 percent of prisoners are minimum security and 34.1 percent are medium security. They were assigned to those levels, according to the Department of Corrections handbook for families, through evaluations such as medical screenings, IQ tests, educational achievement and drug and alcohol treatment needs that are completed at the Diagnostic and Classification Center at Camp Hill.
The inmate’s sentence length is also calculated at the Diagnostic and Classification Center based on “length of sentence [handed down], how much time the inmate has already served and other factors.” “Other factors” are left undefined in the Handbook.
In 2011, a majority (43.8 percent) of those inmates were assigned to serve a maximum of two to five years; only a tiny percent—1.3 percent—were imprisoned for life in that year. Most of these inmates (62.5 percent) were serving sentences for what is called a Type II offense, which includes forgery, statutory rape, and narcotics drugs charges. The largest group of prisoners (28.8 percent) are serving sentences for that last charge.
The average person serving this relatively short sentence starting in 2011 for a Type II offense was a male (91.2 percent) between the ages of 25-39 (46.8 percent) from Philadelphia County (21.3 percent). This man was slightly more likely to be white than black—45.3 to 43 percent—but this number is an anomaly when compared to the state population, which was 83.8 percent white according to census data. When looking at the entire prison population in 2011 and not just the newly committed, the race of inmates is even more skewed, as 49 percent of all prisoners were black.
Life in the big house: Tom’s* story
Statistics describe who on average is serving time in prisons, but they don’t describe what life is like in the prison system. Every day prisoners contend with other prisoners, potentially corrupt guards, searches and the endless quest to keep busy. The following interview with former inmate Tom and his wife Mary attempts to shed light on this experience.
*Names have been changed to protect the sources.
Voices: At what prison (or prisons, in case of transfer) were you incarcerated, and what level of security? If you were transferred, or knew anybody transferred, how did that go?
Tom: I was at Centre County Correctional Facility and at Greensburg after being transferred from Camp Hill. You get a security number when you leave Camp Hill and that determines what privileges you get. The more you get in trouble, the higher risk you are and the less privileges you get. Camp Hill is the worst stop; it’s where you get treated the worst no matter who you are. The guards there are just off-the-wall mean all the time.
Mary: The prison at Camp Hill is a ‘clearinghouse’ for all state inmates and the conditions and treatment of inmates was particularly bad there - I can’t remember any specific details.”
Voices: Were you able to communicate with loved ones?
Tom: When you first get to a jail, communication doesn’t start for a couple of weeks. But if you’re not getting into trouble you can have your visitation, phone calls, and mail. Phone calls were time limited and pretty expensive. You could only get phone calls if your family member on the outside could set up an account for you to call or you used what little money you made to put on your phone account. And then on top of that you had to worry about other inmates being jealous of your phone time or wanting to use the phone at the same time as you. You could never let your guard down while you were on the phone. During lockdowns and raids, you could go days or weeks without speaking to your loved ones.
Voices: What was your day like there?
Tom: I would get up at 4:30, go to work, and work till right before noon. If you didn’t work in the morning, there was block or yard time in the morning. Out of 24 hours, we were locked in our cells from 9:00 at night until 7:00 in the morning, then went to breakfast, back to cells until 8:00 when everyone was finished with breakfast. Out till 11:30, then lunch and locked in again till the whole jail was done with lunch and count. Then from 1:00 to 2:00, went to yard, worked out, or played cards. Then went back into our cells for count again while they did shift change. Then went to supper, then we got out in the summer for yard, in the winter block time—play cards, watch TV, make calls. 9:00 locked in your cell for the night. During lockdowns, meals were brought to the cells. Only cooks got out to prepare meals. We had to go down and cook it, then distribute it through the jail, then go back to our cells. I got paid 19 cents an hour to start and worked up to 43 cents an hour after a year and a half. At 19 cents an hour, you made $16 a month which was enough for your personal care products.
Voices: How were you treated by the guards? Were guards respectful?
Tom: My experience with the guards was not all bad because I wasn’t in for a heinous crime and I showed them respect and didn’t get into any trouble the whole time I was in and actually was treated pretty good because of this. I was there for long enough that I got to know some of the guards and they were all pulling for me to get out. But on the other hand, I saw the same guards who treated me well treat other inmates absolutely horrible. If you pissed a guard off in any way or they didn’t like you, they would do things to set you up. If you had to be at a class at 1:00 they wouldn’t open your cell until 1:20 and then you’d get a write-up and disciplinary action. They’d cell search you over and over again and continue to destroy your stuff every time they did it. They would just harass the guys who were in there for something they didn’t like or who gave them a hard time. Not all guards were like that, some guards were just there for their job and were fair. Everybody knew what guards not to mess with. I never went to the hole but heard horror stories about it. A prisoner would defecate in a cup and throw it in a guard’s face and they would make them go days without food or a shower.
Mary: It seems to me from things he talked about that they guards kind of encouraged the inmates to form ‘gangs’ and to treat each other badly. He got to know some of the inmates pretty well and mostly thought they were all ‘scumbags’ who deserved to be in there, so there is this general atmosphere that none of them are worth much and only get respect by being the toughest.
Cell searches were fairly regular and the guards completely disrespected the inmates’ personal belongings during the searches.
According to Susan Bensinger, deputy press secretary for the Department of Corrections, prisoners do have options for redress of grievances.
“The Department of Corrections has many avenues where inmates can voice their issues,” wrote Bensinger. “At times, the issues are simple concerns and other times the severity increases. The inmates are encouraged to voice their concerns with corrections officers and their counselors. If the issue isn’t resolved at that level, the inmates are instructed to be (sic) their issues in writing. The documents are reviewed by supervisory staff and again if the resolution is not to the inmates’ satisfaction it can be appealed.
“As you can see, the DOC has procedures in place for the inmates to voice concerns and have the concerns addressed.”
Voices: What were prisoner relations like?
Tom: Hanging out with the wrong inmate makes you a target by other inmates and guards both. You had to find a group that you had something in common with and make sure they weren’t in for the wrong thing such as sex offenders, child molesters, snitches or informants. You try to hang out with somebody who will have your back when something goes down. You have to constantly keep your eyes open because there is something going down in all directions at all times - inmates trying to get over on the jail whether it’s stealing food, stealing clothing, gambling, plotting against another inmate, or the guards setting an inmate up. You had to constantly worry about inmates stealing your stuff. Inmates who had money had it a lot better off than those without money, and the ones who didn’t found a way to make money no matter what it took, whether it was artwork or cleaning people’s cells or stealing from the jail and selling it to inmates. Everybody who had a job had a hustle to make extra money. If you didn’t have a job, you had to be in school or taking some sort of classes, whether it was GED, VoTech, or State-ordered classes; you couldn’t just lay around and do nothing.
Voices: I have some friends who were paramedics and assigned to occasionally pick up someone at the prison to be transferred to hospital care. What they said was that the health care in prisons was pretty bad. Was this just their impression based on the worst case scenarios, or was that pretty accurate?
Tom: I had a wisdom tooth pulled, and they failed to give me the antibiotics because of a 4 day long lockdown. My face got extremely swollen, and I was in extreme pain and none of the guards would do anything for me. For any health care, you had to put a request in to the infirmary and then it could take weeks for them to see you. Every time you put a medical request in, they charged you $5.
Mary: Health care is pretty shitty. One of his cell mates was dying (liver disease I think) and was moved to another prison where he died. Mike had a tooth removed, and it got badly infected.
They have a toilet in their cell which they have to use in front of their cell mate. Maybe it’s just me, but YUCK!
Voices: Did you fear for your safety?
Mary: State prison was a whole different world, much more dangerous than local jail.
During transport from one prison to another, guards took an inmate off the bus and beat him up where the rest of the inmates on the bus could watch, I believe because of the way he had been behaving on the bus. For me, this was probably the most distressing particular incident he told me about.
Guards would tell inmates which guys were in for child sexual abuse, and those guys would be targets of other inmates.
Guards would allow some inmates privileges like having their ‘girlfriend’ (other male inmate) in their cell for sex - I believe he said they would also open cell doors to allow inmates to beat up the child sexual abusers.
Russell Maroon Shoats and solitary confinement
Russell Maroon Shoats is approaching 70 years old, and has spent 23 to 24 hours a day in complete solitude at SCI Greene and SCI Manahoy for 30 years. According to a lawsuit filed by Shoats against Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, SCI Mahanoy Superintendent John Kerestes and SCI Greene Superintendent Louis Folino, “The continuous, prolonged exposure to the brutal conditions of solitary confinement have caused Shoats physical and mental harm and anguish.”
According to Shoats’ complaint, he was put in solitary confinement when he became the interim president of the Pennsylvania Lifers Association, an inmate organization.
Shoats, a former community organizer and activist with the Black Unity Council and the Black Panther Party, was imprisoned in 1972 for his involvement in an attack on a Philadelphia police station that resulted in the death of one officer. According to the Human Rights Coalition, which has been supporting Shoats, the attack was in response to pervasive police violence against the black communities of Philadelphia. Shoats was convicted of murder and received multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Shoats did escape prison twice—once in 1977 and again in 1980—but according to his complaint, his behavior has been “exemplary” for the past 21 years. Yet Shoats is still in solitary confinement.
The very practice of solitary confinement is under investigation. In June 2012, the senate judiciary committee heard testimony about solitary confinement. U.S. Senator Durbin strongly criticized the practice and noted the damaging psychological effects.
Durbin’s words are increasingly supported by a body of research that condemns long-term solitary confinement. Research done by social psychologist Craig Haney, PhD, found that long-term solitary confinement, which results in long term deprivation from normal human interaction, led to prisoners suffering “mental health problems including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression.” Other studies have found that prisoners who were previously diagnosed with mental illness deteriorated in solitary confinement.
Change in the air
On August 1, 2012, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and Sarah Morris of Decarcerate PA faced off on WHYY radio.
“Our [prison] population is primarily policy-driven,” admitted Wetzel during the broadcast. “This administration [Corbett’s] has done something to improve our system.”
But according the Wetzel, the people still want to maintain the penal system as it currently operates.
“The general population does not want to eliminate the department of corrections because there are some dangerous people who need to be locked up,” said Wetzel. “And you have to acknowledge this as part of this conversation.”
This month, groups including Decarcerate Pennsylvania, the American Civil Liberties Union Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools will complete a 100 mile march with a rally in Harrisburg on June 3. According to Decarcerate Pennsylvania’s website, the marchers will “demand a budget that invests in Pennsylvania’s communities and not in unnecessary, unwanted prison construction.”
These groups advocate more of the state budget be put towards education to prevent a greater need for prisons created by a lack of opportunities.
“It’s [the prison system] a failed policy when we look at public safety,” said Morris. “It doesn’t make us safer, it makes it worse.”
“Until we’re willing to have those conversations about what’s causing violence, we’re not going to change anything. And as long as we think that prisons are somehow making this better, we’re not going to end the violence.”

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