April 22, 2011 Human Rights Coalition
Special Unity and Courage edition
Today the Human Rights Coalition released a report detailing the findings of a year-long investigation into human rights abuses in the solitary confinement unit at SCI Huntingdon state prison in Huntingdon, PA. The report, entitled Unity and Courage, outlines the underlying conditions of abuse and torture within Pennsylvania's isolation units that have led to widespread acts of resistance by prisoners, and describes the efforts of one group of men confined in Huntingdon's Restricted Housing Unit to oppose and bring public attention to constant depredations by guards as well as the willful indifference of prison administrators.
A Culture of Terror
Unity and Courage draws upon more than a thousand pages of letters, prison documents and legal paperwork, and conversations with prisoners' family members. The report depicts a culture of terror fostered by prison guards, who enforce a rule of absolute power through threats and use of force, along with deprivations of basic necessities such as food, water, hygienic items and cleaning supplies, clothing, and bedding. This campaign of brutality is undertaken with the tacit consent and encouragement of prison administrators and top officials of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, who have adopted an informal though strictly enforced policy of turning a blind eye to reports of torture and abuse.
Within this structure of officially sanctioned fear and punishment, solitary confinement units such as Huntingdon's Restricted Housing Unit are one of the most cruel and extreme measures used by prison staff to silence and intimidate prisoners who show too keen an interest in insist on standing up for their human rights.
Among the methods employed by prison staff to assert dominance over prisoners is the use of violence as a standard technique for enforcing obedience, as well as the threat of indefinite solitary confinement for any prisoner who dares to challenge abuses of authority on the part of prison staff.
These and other elements are present in the case study of Vincent Hallman detailed in Unity and Courage, who in January 2010 was abruptly sentenced to isolation after a guard instigated a violent confrontation over a perceived challenge to his authority. Hallman's subsequent targeting for retaliation and virtually permanent placement in solitary confinement provides an example of a common cycle of abuse, protest, and retaliation that exists throughout the PA DOC.
Upon being placed in solitary, Hallman was confined in a cell without heat or bedding in the middle of winter, and was deprived of food and denied medical attention for his injuries. Nearby solitary confinement prisoners who spoke out regarding Hallman's mistreatment were sentenced to further time in isolation, had their sheets, blankets, and towels confiscated, and were stripped of the one hour a day they were allowed outside of their cramped cells to exercise. One prisoner who witnessed guards physically abusing Hallman was told by a guard to "keep your mouth shut, the same thing can happen to you. You're going to die in this hole anyway so you're the least of my concerns."
Acts of Resistance
A key focus of Unity and Courage is the events surrounding a series of non-violent protests organized by solitary confinement prisoners in late September 2010, and subsequent retaliatory attacks by guards.
The initial protest occurred on September 29, 2010, when eight prisoners refused to return to their cells from the exercise cages where they are provided one hour outside of their cells five days a week. Anthony Allen, Theodore Byard, Vincent Hallman, Rhonshawn Jackson, Kyle Klein, Eric Mackie, Gary Wallace, and Jeremiah Weems staged a "peaceful demonstration" in protest of the "abuse, racism, retaliation and witness intimidation" they were being subjected to.
On the 29th, rather than returning to their cells, prisoners refused to leave the exercise yard and peacefully requested to speak to prison authorities. This was met with stiff opposition from guards, who refused to address grievances or permit prisoners to speak with higher officials in Huntingdon's administration. This response had been anticipated by the protesters, who in fact sought to "compel the staff to (follow DOC policy and) bring a video camera so that we can document the starvation, water deprivation, threats of murder and beatings, and racial slurs, and have central office informed."
The prison responded with violence. Writes Gary Wallace, "We were all sprayed with a chemical agent and forcibly removed from the exercise yard. We were then brought into our cells with the spray all over our skin which continues to burn until it is properly washed away. Approximately four hours later I was burning so bad and my breathing was so hampered that I had to cover my cell door to force a cell removal so that I could receive medical attention. I was again sprayed with (pepper spray)." Other protesters received similar treatment at the hands of guards, and over the next several days they experienced further cell extractions and attacks by guards armed with pepper spray.
The next month saw two more group protests on October 15 and 18th, in which prisoners again came together to demand an end to abusive conditions in the unit. In all, prisoners reported that fourteen men in the solitary confinement unit at SCI Huntingdon were subjected to attacks with pepper spray and cell extracted over the course of one month. Despite the absolute refusal of prison administrators to meet with the protesters or address their grievances, many of the men who took part later described their actions as both necessary and worthwhile. Writes Kyle Klein, "Their goal is to stop us from speaking out against them, but it will never work, not a chance in hell, or the hell we are in. Even when winning is impossible, quitting is far from optional."
The Way Forward
Unity and Courage outlines several ways that different sectors of society can take part in exposing and bringing an end to torture and human rights violations in Pennsylvania prisons, including the investigation and prosecution of abusive prison staff by law enforcement agencies, increased assistance from the legal community, the creation by the PA state legislature of an independent commission to investigate abuse, and continued organizing by prisoners and their family members.
Copies of Unity and Courage were sent last week to PA Department of Corrections administration and members of state and federal law enforcement agencies. A complete listing of these public officials, along with contact information, can be found online on HRC's website, www.hrcoalition.org. HRC is calling upon the general public to contact officials on the list, ask their position regarding the human rights violations described in Unity and Courage, and demand that they adopt recommendations made in the report.
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We end this special edition of the PA Prison Report with the words of Huntingdon solitary confinement protester Gary Wallace: "The men participating in this struggle are simply individuals who have been suffering for an extended period of time and have collectively decided 'something must be done'. (We) are all doing what every person on this planet has an obligation to do when you are maliciously being deprived of food and drinking water, showers, exercise, being threatened with physical harm and belittled and dehumanized simply because you are placed under the authority of another group of individuals. What should move advocates to want to intervene is that we collectively understand the most important concept of these times, which is that before one is deserving of a great reward, one must first be willing to offer and endure an even greater sacrifice."
Philly area: Wednesdays are Write On! Prison Letter Writing Night at the LAVA space at 4134 Lancaster, 6-9pm. Come help us stay connected with the many prisoners who write to us with news from inside, learn to document crimes committed by prison staff, and help bring an end to the abuse and torture of our brothers and sisters behind bars.
Pittsburgh area: Write On! – letter writing to prisoners and HRC work night every Wednesday at 5129 Penn Avenue from 7 -10pm. To get involved with HRC/Fed Up! in Pittsburgh,email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 412-654-9070.
You've been listening to the Human Rights Coalition's PA Prison Report, Special Unity and Courage edition.
Keep up the fight!