Pa. state prison inmates mount hunger strike, calling for end to solitary confinement

By: - July 2, 2021 6:30 am

The hunger strike is in response to what advocates call inhumane torture in solitary confinement

By Josh Vaughn

A hunger strike is underway at State Correctional Institution-Phoenix in Montgomery County over what advocates and incarcerated people are calling indefinite and inhumane solitary confinement.

More than 20 incarcerated people have been refusing to eat at the state prison since June 23, according to the Abolitionist Law Center.

The men are demanding the Department of Corrections acknowledge that they are being held in a currently undefined “intensive management unit” and provide a policy and guidelines in the department handbook for it, provide people being held in this unit with programming and mental health services, give incarcerated people a path out of solitary confinement, and end long-term solitary confinement in the state.

Intensive management units in other states operate as way to segregate and manage people corrections departments believe pose problems if they are placed in the general population while being able to provide them out-of-cell time and programming in small groups which are not possible in more traditional restricted housing units which often are used as a form of punishment for violating rules.

Bret Grote, the legal director for the Abolitionist Law Center,  told the Capital-Star that is not how the unit is being used at SCI-Phoenix, and is instead being operated as another form of strict solitary confinement.

Several of the incarcerated men were transferred to Pennsylvania following the uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Delaware in 2017.

Incarcerated men took control of the prison in February 2017 following a series of peaceful protests about abuses at the facility.

A corrections officer, Sgt. Steven Floyd was killed during the uprising. Eighteen men were charged in connection with Floyd’s killing. However, only one person wasnone were convicted and in 2019 several men were transferred to Pennsylvania, where records indicate they have been in solitary confinement since.

“Members of the so called ‘Vaughn 17’ have been accepted by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections with the tacit understanding that they will be subject to state torture in solitary confinement of a perpetual, indefinite nature,” Grote told the Capital-Star. .

John Bramble, one of the men on hunger strike, said he is currently only being allowed to shower three times a week and allowed five hours of recreation time a week. The rest of the time is spent alone in his cell.

Bramble was one of the men charged for the killing of Floyd but he was ultimately found not guilty at trial.

He is currently suing the Corrections Department in federal court over his continued detention in solitary confinement alleging the department is violating his due process rights. 

Records Bramble submitted with his lawsuit show he was brought to Pennsylvania in February 2019 and has been held in solitary confinement ever since.

The department has denied any wrongdoing in Bramble’s case and the lawsuit is ongoing.

According to the Abolitionist Law Center, the intensive management unit at SCI-Phoenix is not listed in any department handbook and is not officially acknowledged by the Corrections Department.

Because of this, there are no official rules or policies in place dictating how men are put into the unit, what kind of programming they should receive or how they get out of the unit.

Everything is up in the air,” Bramble wrote in a statement provided by the Abolitionist Law Center. “They make up rules on the fly because there is no policy.”

Another man, Alejandro Rodriguez-Ortiz, wrote that he has not had an infraction in Pennsylvania and that his last prison infraction was from 2014 in Delaware. Rodriguez-Ortiz was also charged but ultimately acquitted following the killing of Floyd.

“You would think that the things that the state funded SCI-Phoenix to run like educational programs, rehabilitational programs, etc. would be running,” he wrote. “There is nothing. To date, we are told that no policy for the “IMU” has been written. We live in the ‘IMU’ yet the ‘IMU’ doesn’t exist.”

Corrections Department spokesperson Maria Bivens acknowledged that there are men on hunger strike at SCI-Phoenix but said the total was 12, more than 20 as provided by the Abolitionist Law Center. 

Bivens also acknowledged the existence of an IMU at SCI-Phoenix and said policies for the unit were currently being developed. She said the unit is for people who the DOC classifies as the highest levels of security or behavior risks. 

“The ultimate goal of the IMU is to provide a path toward integration into [the] general population for these individuals,” Bivens told the Capital-Star. 

While the men who are on hunger strike are protesting long-term solitary confinement, Bivens said not all people in the IMU are in a cell alone. 

When asked if the DOC would intervene to feed the men against their will, Bivens said the DOC could seek a court order to “intervene” to prevent serious injury or death. 

Despite an apparent lack of official policy, a report on restricted housing by Yale Law School posted on the department’s website indicates the state has operated at least one intensive management unit since at least 2016. The report predates the opening of SCI-Phoenix in 2018.

In March, Democratic state Reps. Tina Davis, of Bucks County, and Donna Bullock,of Philadelphia, introduced a bill that would prohibit the use of solitary confinement for certain groups like pregnant women, as well as people less than 21 years old or older than 70. 

The legislation, HB1037, also would restrict the length of solitary confinement for all people to no more than 15 days. This would bring the state in line with recommendations from the United Nations, which called prolonged solitary confinement a form of torture that has a long lasting, detrimental effects on mental health.

A similar bill was introduced in the state Senate in 2019.

Bramble has been held in solitary confinement for more than two years, 57 times longer than the UN recommendation.

“It’s a profound kind of loneliness to be by yourself hours upon hours upon hours,” Laura Goldman, of Philadelphia, said.

Goldman spent more than a decade in and out of solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time in federal prison beginning in the early 1990s.

“When you are in solitary, more than any other time, you are at the mercy of the guards,” Goldman said. “They know you’re vulnerable and they can do anything because you’ve already been labeled as crazy or a troublemaker.”

Goldman described being in solitary as a total loss of autonomy that she is still trying to regain in her life now on the outside.

She said she still does not like being in crowded rooms, she screens phone calls to give herself a sense of control over who she’s talking to and she said she always has some form of noise playing in her home because that allows her to know that she is not in a cell by herself anymore.

“I’m still sort of in solitary,” Goldman said. “I still conduct my life like I’m still in solitary or that I could go back there. I’m very afraid of losing control.”

Capital-Star Correspondent Josh Vaughn is an award-winning freelance reporter who has covered criminal justice issues in Pennsylvania for the last decade, most recently with criminal justice journalism website, The Appeal. Readers may follow him on Twitter @Sentinel_Vaughn.

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