Resistance in the Shadow of Death

Second hunger strike ends, but struggle continues on Pennsylvania death row

By: Joe Cleffie

The first hunger strike, which ended March 18 in an apparent victory, was called in response to repressive measures carried out by the prison. Between 40 and 60 prisoners took part.

In addition to regular harassment by guards, inmates at SCI Greene are fighting four major limitations on their rights.

First and most important is the issue of the prisoners' legal materials. The state has come up with a new rule requiring prisoners to keep all personal property in a 12-inch by 12-inch by 14-inch box. Given the large amount of legal papers accumulated by the average death-row prisoner, this is completely unrealistic. When one inmate couldn't afford postage to ship his legal materials to another address, guards apparently destroyed them.

Mumia Abu Jamal, the Black radical wrongly convicted and sentenced to death who joined both hunger strikes, said this of the restrictions: "Under relatively new statutory authority, the [Department of Corrections] now may sign a death warrant. Thus, no longer are they neutral state agents; they are active agents of death. In this context, the tampering, custody and control of a man's legal materials seems starkly and unquestionably malevolent... The separation of the inmates from their legal materials is meant to hasten death... It is an attack on the last vestige of hope."

Secondly, family visits have been restricted to only one hour on weekdays, with no visits on weekends or holidays. Because of the prison's remote location, some family and friends will have to drive for more than six hours for a one-hour visit. And even this reduced visit was sometimes eliminated at the whim of the guards.

Thirdly, phone calls were limited to only one fifteen minute call per week.

Finally, prisoners were barred from having food in their cells - or even buying food from the commissary. This took away the religious freedom of some inmates who cannot eat meat. Also, inmates with special diet needs, such as those with diabetes, were put at risk.

On March 18, prisoners ended their first hunger strike with what looked like a victory. Pressure by anti-death penalty and civil rights groups along with thousands of daily phone calls from concerned people around the state helped force prison officials to concede to the prisoners' demands. The prison's fax machine was so flooded with messages in support of the hunger strikers that its number was changed.

Most of the measures were lifted immediately except the restriction on property and the restriction on food from the commissary. Officials promised that a fair compromise would be worked out after the hunger strike was over.

But SCI Greene officials' idea of "fair" was anything but. An original agreement allowing prisoners with health problems access to the commissary was never implemented. Also, on the issue of property officials gave inmates two 12-inch by 12-inch by 14-inch boxes instead of one. But the average death-row prisoners' legal papers alone would take about six boxes, not to mention other personal items, such as books, that inmates may have.

Facing this kind of hypocrisy, the prisoners were forced to go back on hunger strike.

The repressive measures at SCI Greene are a way of getting back at death-row prisoners for a series of lawsuits against prison guards and officials charging brutality. Even the mainstream media has had to acknowledge the prison's record of brutality after Martin F. Horn, head of the state prison system, announced that 40 staff members at SCI Greene were being investigated for brutality. The investigation is centered around the use of "unnecessary force" on 36 inmates in separate incidents over a 12-month period.

Even former prison employees have come forward to blow the whistle on guards for brutal acts. Examples of brutality include regular beatings of inmates by guards, confiscation of religious items and medication and harassment of prisoner's lawyers and family. SCI-Greene was cited as the only prison that performs regular strip searches and body cavity searches on female inmates before each visit. These violations are justified with such ridiculous excuses like the snaps on bras might set off the prison's metal detectors.

Grisel Ybarra, an attorney for a prisoner at SCI-Greene, wrote Gov. Tom Ridge after a recent visit to the prison. "What they're running there is a concentration camp," Ybarra wrote. "It's like an Alcatraz mentality. It's horrible. In my 22 years as an attorney, I have never, ever, ever seen a place such as Greene. I have never seen such bigots in all my life."

Brutality is not just for prisoners. Anyone who opposed the guards and the corrupt officials at SCI Greene faced threats of violence. Rob DeBord, a former corrections councilor was that told he "would pay for this in the parking lot" when he made a report charging a guard with lying about a prisoner's violent behavior in order to justify beating the prisoner severely.

The actions of the death-row prisoners at SCI-Greene and anti-death penalty activists across the state have helped to expose the brutal conditions at the prison. But we cannot expect the Department of Corrections to really deal with the horrible conditions at the prison. The guards who are being investigated have not been removed from the prison. With their history of threatening people who oppose them, many witnesses will be scared into not testifying in the case.

This is why people on the outside who are angered over the conditions on death row must keep up the pressure on the prison officials and politicians.

We must take inspiration from the prisoners on SCI Greene's death row. If they have the strength to fight, we can do the same. Public pressure forced the prison cave in once, and we can do it again.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • Join the nearest chapter of the Campaign to End The Death Penalty.
  • Send messages of protest to: Gov. Tom Ridge, 225 Main Capitol Building, Harrisburg, PA 17120. Telephone: 717-787-2500. Fax:717-783-4429.
  • Sign and fax petitions supporting the demands of the death row inmates.
  • Organize a speakout to raise awareness of the issues facing death row prisoners.