The View from Vermont: Pennsylvania’s Prisons Are ‘Not Livable’

Are conditions in Pennsylvania’s prisons worse than those run by private prison companies? Photo via A.R.M.E.D.

By Emilia Beuger, ACLU-PA Justice Intern

Prisoners don’t get a lot of meaningful attention. Sure, some reality television shows claim to show “life on the inside” while occasional documentaries bring attention to prison conditions. But, for the most part, prisons serve their basic function — that of regulating prisoners’ “movements, activity, and effectiveness,” as Foucault put it, and of separating them from society. Federal civil lawsuits are filed just about every day by Pennsylvania prisoners who claim to have their rights violated behind bars, but it’s not likely you’ll hear anything about them. Prisoners are a concealed population; to most, they may as well not exist.

Which is why it’s been interesting to follow along as conditions within Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections have received attention recently. Pennsylvania’s prisons are allegedly “dirty,” and “not livable.” The treatment that prisoners receive from guards borders on “harassment.” Did something change just recently? Did a major policy shift negatively affect prison conditions for Pennsylvania’s 51,000-odd residential prisoners causing them to speak out? Nope. Turns out, all it took was a view from the outside.

Some background: On June 12, 2017, 269 Vermont prisoners were transferred from Michigan’s North Lake Correctional Facility to SCI Camp Hill — Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution and processing center, near Harrisburg. The Vermont prisoners had been transferred out-of-state due to overcrowding.

Such transfers occur through the Interstate Corrections Compact. Not every state in the country is a member, but most are. Transfers occur mainly due to overcrowding and security issues, and these transfers tend to benefit private prison companies such as Florida-based GEO Group, and the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation. Another private prison contractor, Tennessee-based CoreCivic, housed some 9,500 California prisoners in three states after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a 2006 state of emergency in Golden State prisons.

But sometimes private prison companies decide they’d rather not bother. That’s what happened in Michigan. GEO Group owns the North Lake Correctional Facility, which was designed to hold nearly 1,800 prisoners. Vermont’s 269 prisoners were the only people inhabiting that facility, so in December 2016, GEO’s executives decided those prisoners weren’t worth the trouble. Vermont’s contract was not renewed.

That turned out to be good financial news for Pennsylvania’s DOC. If GEO Group didn’t want Vermont’s prisoners, Pennsylvania would take them. A three-year agreement was finalized on May 1, 2017, to allow a maximum of 400 Vermont prisoners to be shuttled and dropped into either SCI Camp Hill or SCI Graterford. Vermont would pay $72 per day, per prisoner. Secretary, John E. Wetzel touted the deal to Fox43, noting that Pennsylvania had approximately 5,000 empty beds across the state. “Vermont is looking for beds at the same time we have available beds, so it works out for both states,” he said.

That was more than a little misleading, though. If you look at Pennsylvania’s current monthly population report, sure, it looks like there’s an overall excess of beds statewide. But SCI Graterford, located about 30 miles northwest of Center City Philadelphia, is not only the largest prison in the commonwealth, it’s also one of the most crowded — well over capacity, holding about 110 percent of the number of prisoners it was designed to hold. Same goes for SCI Camp Hill: It’s the commonwealth’s second largest prison, and it’s at more than 105 percent capacity.

Unsurprisingly, the Vermont prisoners — who had the run of a Michigan facility that held only a fraction of the prisoners it was designed to hold — have begun complaining about the conditions at SCI Camp Hill and SCI Graterford. They have expressed concern about “extremely short showers once per day, dirty facilities, only being issued one pair of clothing, and constant yelling and ‘harassment’ from prison guards,” according to the Burlington Free Press. One prisoner recalled being told that “meals here are a privilege not a right.” The prisoners also complained about not having access to a library containing Vermont’s legal code, which is a constitutional right in that state.

Suzi Wizowaty, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, told the Burlington Free Press that Pennsylvania’s DOC clearly “wasn’t ready for us.”

“This place would not pass any health codes,” she went on. “[It’s] really not livable.”

The Vermont inmates may have had access to an unusual amount of space in Michigan, but they were incarcerated, and under the purview of GEO Group — a company whose privately-operated prisons have faced no shortage of condemnation related to conditions and alleged prisoner abuse.

Prisoners are a concealed population, yes. And, to most, they may as well not exist. But the fact that Pennsylvania’s prisons apparently fail to match up to GEO Group’s track record for prison conditions should concern everyone — whether they make it a habit to follow prison news or not.

Maybe this view from Vermont will grant Pennsylvania’s prisoners more of the meaningful attention they deserve.

On to the links.

EXCERPTS
(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)

The Third Circuit ruled last week that recording police in public is a First Amendment right. Photo via Campaign Zero.

ACLU of Pennsylvania, via Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney: “One of the Nation’s Only Judges to Rule Against Right to Record Police Just Got Overturned”

“On July 7, the Third Circuit reversed that ruling, concluding that Mr. Fields and Ms. Geraci’s First Amendment rights had been violated. The court explained that, because the First Amendment plainly protects the right to possess and distribute photos and videos, it must also protect the act of making those photos and videos. But even more importantly, the court explained, the First Amendment protects the right to gather information about public officials, including police officers. Without a constitutional right to collect and disseminate information about the government, the people would be left in the dark, unable to make informed decisions and participate effectively in the democratic process.” Also check out approving nods from Post-Gazette, PennLive, and Times-Tribune, and a Facebook Live episode with Molly Tack-Hooper and noted beardsman Ben Bowens.

ACLU-PA PODCAST: “The end- and the beginning- of police body-worn cameras”

“Pennsylvania Senate Bill 560 is now Act 22 of 2017, loosening rules around police use of cameras. With the legislation signed, more police departments in Pennsylvania could increase their use of cameras, including body-worn cameras. ACLU-PA staffers Elizabeth Randol, Matt Stroud, and Andy Hoover discuss the implications.”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Unsettled in America: Pittsburgh’s Latino community is small, diverse, growing — and anxious.”

“The large majority of Latinos are, in fact, U.S. citizens or legal residents. But tensions are high for those who aren’t, and their families, supporters and anyone concerned about a broader anti-Latino backlash. Immigrants and their advocates have marched in various demonstrations in recent months, often joining with refugees and Muslims challenging similar travel restrictions under the Trump administration. Some are calling for Pittsburgh and other local governments to have ‘sanctuary’ status and not cooperate with deportation efforts. Some local immigrants have been deported already, others have been detained and still others, like Mr. Marroquin, are awaiting hearings. Many, though, have lived with knowing their turn may be next, whether they’re farm workers in an outlying county or whether they’re suburban restaurant dish washers.”

HEADLINES

(Criminal justice news to be aware of.)

 

At a City Council meeting, Harrisburg Police Chief Thomas Carter (center) admitted to sharing information with the state’s fusion center. Photo courtesy of Raging Chicken Press.

Pennsylvania

  • Raging Chicken Press: “Harrisburg Police Admits Sharing Pre-Protest Intelligence to a Fusion Center”
  • City&State: “Former longtime DA Abraham applies to be named interim Philly DA”
  • BillyPenn: “As Philly’s inmate population plummets, why aren’t we saving any money?
  • ABC27News: “Pa. police get new law, grant to expand use of body cameras”
  • The Philadelphia Citizen: “Finally, A Hero: When a judge sent disgraced DA Seth Williams to jail to await sentencing, it was a display of what’s too often missing in Philly corruption cases: Outrage”
  • Philly.com: “Federal appeals court in Philly: Citizens may take video of cops”
  • Burlington Free Press: “Vermont inmates, officials assessments of Pennsylvania prison differ”
  • PennLive: “Is Trump shutting the door on sexual violence investigations at 13 Pa. colleges?”
  • Beaver County Times: “Bartolotta’s domestic violence bill passes state Senate.”
  • Pittsburgh Post Gazette: “Gov. Tom Wolf to let Pennsylvania’s state budget become law without full funding”
  • Pittsburgh Post Gazette: “Bill proposes ‘clean slate’ for old misdemeanor convictions in Pa.”
  • Pittsburgh Post Gazette: “Documentary calls for improving or closing Allegheny County Jail”
  • Penn Live: “’Lorenzo will be going home:’ Deal will free man who spent 22 years in prison for Harrisburg murder”
  • TribLive: “Jeannette police might join growing number of departments using drones”
  • Slate: “Federal Appeals Court: You Have a Constitutional Right to Film Police Officers in Public”
  • The Philadelphia Citizen: “Schooling Krasner: With four months to go before election day, what lessons can the likely DA learn now?”
  • TribLive: “Pittsburgh politicians say they’re open to ‘sanctuary city’ status”

National

  • Solitary Watch: “How the Supreme Court Handed Trump a Free Pass for Discrimination and Abuse Against Detainees”
  • The Washington Post: “‘Permanently disabled’ Baton Rouge officer sues Black Lives Matter for 2016 ambush shooting”
  • Mic: “Restoring ex-felon voting rights could overhaul the US political map, advocates say”
  • The Intercept: “The Unclaimed Dead: In Texas, the Bodies of Migrants Who Perished in the Desert Provide Clues to the Living”
  • The Mercury News: “Despite backlog of rape kits, California lawmakers aren’t requiring they be tested or tallied”
  • USA Today: “Adopt uniform police use-of-force policies”
  • Vice News: “Finally, Mentally Ill Immigrants Are Getting Access to Lawyers”
  • Also from Vice News: “To Convict a Cop: Voters may soon toughen up America’s weakest police shootings law”
  • ABA Journal: “One bit of good news for immigrants in detention”
  • Chicago Tribune: “All deaths not equal when it comes to Republicans pursuing legislation”
  • Salon: “Hotspots for gun violence track closely with racist redlining policies of the past”
  • Jurist: “Supreme Court allows enforcement of Wisconsin fetal protection law”
  • Reuters: “Judge orders new restrictions on Oakland police following scandal”
  • The Intercept: “’Show Me Your Papers’ Becomes ‘Open Your Eyes’ as Border Sheriffs Expand Iris Surveillance”
  • ABC: “Jailhouse lawsuit could cost millions for Fresno, Tulare County taxpayers”
  • New York Times: “Campus Rape Policies Get a New Look as the Accused Get DeVos’s Ear”
  • Mic: “Decriminalizing possession of small amounts of cocaine and heroin? Oregon may try it.”
  • Washington Post: “Immigration judges were always overworked. Now they’ll be untrained, too”
  • The Chicago Tribune: “Immigrant sues Chicago, police for placing his name in gang database”
  • New York Times: “A Small-Town Police Officer’s War on Drugs”
  • The Marshall Project: “Federal Watchdog Finds Mentally Ill Are Stuck in Solitary”
  • Grits for Breakfast: “Perverse incentives created by police overtime for court appearances”
  • Prison Legal News: “HRDC and 45 other organizations endorse Private Prison Information Act, HR 1980”
  • Bloomberg: “The ex-Chicago cop at the center of the controversy over crime-prediction technology”

Trump Criminal Justice Watch

  • The Nation: “Trump’s Deportation Surge is Harming Domestic Abuse Survivors”
  • Newsweek: “You Know Trump’s Immigrant Crime Wave? It Doesn’t Exist”
  • The Mercury News: “Is Trump Administration Focusing on Islam and Ignoring Neo Nazis?”
  • The Atlantic: “Christopher Wray Declares His Independence From Trump”
  • Nonprofit Quarterly: “The Trump/Sessions Approach to Civil Rights: It’s Not Our Affair”
  • Alternet: “Trump’s Pick for FBI Director Made His Living Defending Shady Businessmen Just Like the President”

The Appeal is a weekly newsletter keeping you informed about criminal justice news in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. It is written and compiled by Matt Stroud, ACLU-PA’s criminal justice researcher, and ACLU-PA’s summer justice interns, Emilia Beuger, Midge Carter, and Andrew Arslanpay.

If you have suggestions for links or criminal justice-related work that you’d like to highlight in The Appeal, or if you have suggestions for ways that we might improve, please email Matt at mstroud@aclupa.org. And if someone forwarded this email to you, and you’d like to receive it every Friday, you can subscribe here.

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