Hunger strike ends at Pa. prison; organizers proclaim it a success

By: - July 6, 2021 12:07 pm

By Josh Vaughn

The hunger strike by more than 20 incarcerated men at State Correctional Institution-Phoenix in Montgomery County over prolonged solitary confinement is now over.

 The men, many of whom were transferred to Pennsylvania from Delaware following the 2017 uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, are being held in an Intensive Management Unit that was up until recently not officially recognized by the Department of Corrections.

The unit is meant to transition incarcerated people who the Corrections Department considers to be the most problematic from traditional restrictive housing units or solitary confinement back into the general population. However, men in the unit said the unit was acting as de facto solitary confinement, without programming or services. 

The men said they were only able to shower three times a week and were only allowed five hours a week for recreation time outside their cells.

 “We want to let our supporters know that we are transitioning from the hunger strike,” Alejandro Rodriguez-Ortiz, one of the strikers from Delaware, said in a written statement provided to the Capital-Star by the Abolitionist Law Center, a group that advocates for and files litigation on behalf of incarcerated people in the state. “The whole purpose of the strike was to elucidate the manipulations of PADOC & take them out of the shadows. Now the world sees what PADOC is doing.”

One of the main demands the men had during the hunger strike, which began on June 23, was for the DOC to acknowledge the existence of the IMU and develop policies for the unit, which the Corrections Department  did when questioned by the Capital-Star.

Bret Grote, legal director for the Abolitionist Law Center, said he believed this was the first time the DOC had publicly acknowledged that the IMU existed.

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

Along with the information about the IMU, Rodriguez-Ortiz said the men also received increased access to showers and phones. Most importantly, he said, the Corrections Department offered to start providing  some of the men brought to Pennsylvania from Delaware a pathway out of solitary confinement.

 For men such as  John Bramble, who was placed in the Corrections Department’s custody in 2019 after being acquitted for the killing of a correctional officer during the Vaughn uprising, this could mean the first time he will get out of solitary confinement for the first time in more than 2 years. 

Bramble is currently suing the Corrections Department in federal court over his continued incarceration in solitary confinement. The DOC has denied any wrongdoing in his case. 

According to agency spokesperson Maria Bivens, the strike officially ended Friday, shortly after the Capital-Star released its original report on the hunger strike. Bivens did not confirm any of the concessions the men received from the Corrections Department as a result of the hunger strike. 

“We look at the 10-day strike as a success,” Rodriguez-Ortiz said. “We wanted to thank you all for your support. We can only do so much from behind enemy lines. We wouldn’t be half as successful without our comrades in the world.”

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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