By Lena Mercer, Perilous Chronicle
A hunger strike by prisoners in Pennsylvania came to an official end on Sunday, July 4 after 10 days on strike. 12 people housed in SCI Phoenix, a state correctional institution in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania initiated the hunger strike.
The strikers were all held in a long term isolation unit, commonly known as an intensive management unit (IMU), despite the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) having no official policy regulating the use of IMUs at the time. The strikers’ demands centered around the lack of accountability from the administration about segregation and programming policies in the IMU and the conditions associated with long term isolation.
“PA taxpayers are paying for a program that is really nothing more than a title,” said striker Abednego Baynes in a public statement. “There is literally nothing tangible in regard to an IMU program.”
The strikers also decried the lack of programming and lack of access to basic amenities like showers and phones. “We currently only shower 3 times a week,” wrote striker John Bramble in a public statement. “We have no mental health treatment whatsoever, and only 5 hours of recreation a week.”
In an interview with the Pennsylvania Capital Star this week, the PADOC acknowledged the existence of an IMU at SCI-Phoenix. Bret Grote, legal director for the Abolitionist Law Center, told the Capital Star that he believes this was the first time the department had publicly acknowledged the existence of the long term segregation program.
The PADOC said in a July 6 email to Perilous Chronicle that the “hunger strike was resolved Friday”, which counters the statements from both outside prisoner advocates and the prisoners themselves that the strike continued until Sunday.
“We look at the 10 day strike as a success,” said striker Alejandro “Capo” Rodriguez-Ortiz in a statement announcing the end of the hunger strike. “Now the world sees what the PADOC was doing.” According to the statement, several of the demands around conditions inside the IMU were addressed by the administration, including greater access to showers and phones, and that some prisoners were being moved off segregation status.
Those held inside the IMU were protesting not only the conditions but what they say is the lack of ability to be able to advocate for themselves. Without a clear policy on how the IMU operates, there is little to no ability to work inside the structure to transition out of the unit. In an email to Perilous, Maria Bivens, the PADOC Press Secretary said that “the ultimate goal of the IMU is to provide a path toward integration into general population for these individuals.” Prisoners, however, say that the lack of a clear policy regarding the use of the IMU makes that goal both misleading and impossible.
“We were told by PRC (Program Review Committee) that upon our arrival at Phoenix, we were here to be flown off of the Restricted Release list and that the IMU was meant for that, which was a lie” Bramble said in a June 25 public statement. In a June 29 social media post, the Abolitionist Law Center, a non profit law firm and community based organizing project, stated “Incarcerated community members…were transferred to SCI Phoenix and promised a new program by the PADOC that would provide education and mental health resources – and way back to general population. That was a lie…”
According to statements by both people held inside the IMU and the Abolitionist Law Center provided to Perilous Chronicle, showers were only available 3 times a week and there were no mental health resources or educational programming, and only 5 hours of available recreation per week. “Everything is up in the air. They make up rules on the fly because there is no policy,” Bramble said in regards to the policies inside the unit.
Press Secretary Bivens told Perilous Chronicle that everyone who is currently being housed in the IMU at SCI Phoenix was once held in the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU), which she described as representing “the highest levels of security and/or behavior risks.” Some people held inside the unit contend that they have no disciplinary history in the Pennsylvania prison system that would warrant this type of designation.
In a June 26 email, striker Rodriguez-Ortiz said that he has not been “written up,” another term for receiving an infraction from the DOC administration, while incarcerated in Pennsylvania. “My last significant issue in Delaware was in February 2014” he said.
Ortiz, along with several other strikers participated in the uprising at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware in 2017 and were later transferred to Pennsylvania through interstate compact. These prisoners, known collectively as the Vaughn 17, were charged with crimes following the uprising and have since organized jointly in their own defense. Many of them now being held in the IMU at SCI Phoenix, including Ortiz, feel they ended up there because of their past activism and commitment to collective defense.
In the statement from the Vaughn 17 concerning the end of the strike they are clear to acknowledge that this strike was a continuation of their collective efforts inside various facilities. “Our sole purpose is to tear down every last brick until every last prisoner is free” they said.
Lena Mercer is a journalist based in the Pacific Northwest and a member of the Perilous Editorial Collective.