In this edition: A survivor of long-term solitary confinement is returned to isolation after failed attempts to get help from prison administration, a jailhouse lawyer is taken from a mental health treatment unit back to solitary after helping other prisoners advocate for their rights, and the PA Superior Court rules that a Lawrence County trial court judge violated the rights of an 11-year old..
Prisoner activist returned to solitary confinement: On March 1st, Jerome Coffey was transferred to SCI Forest from SCI Greene, where he had spent 9 years and 4 months in solitary confinement despite remaining misconduct free for an extended period of time. On March 12th, he was finally released into general population. Six days later, he was back in solitary confinement after his failed attempts to get help adjusting to human contact led to an altercation with prison administrative staff.
According to reports by prisoners at Forest, Mr. Coffey's requests to be housed temporarily in a single cell were denied by his Unit Manager, Ed Heberling. He was immeditately forced to share a cell with another man, despite the well-known debilitating effects of long term solitary confinement upon survivors' ability to be close to, or share space with other people. Mr Coffey was also not seen by a prison psychologist upon his release from nearly ten years in isolation.
After six days, Mr. Coffey filed a grievance with prison administration and in while in G-Unit yard he approached Deputy Superintendent Overmeyer about his need for a single-cell status. Mr. Coffey reports that the deputy called him a “nigger", and that he then struck the deputy in the mouth and was given a 90-day sentence of solitary confinement. The Pennsylvania State Police have interviewed Mr. Coffey and have vowed to press formal charges against him.
Jerome Coffey is a prisoner-activist who has been a long time member and vocal supporter of the Human Rights Coalition, a factor that may have contributed to his long-term solitary confinement. Earlier this month he wrote, “With every bone in my body I will never submit to slavery. I hate it. It’s wrong. My mentality will always be resistance to oppression, institutional racism, white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, capitalism. . . . I refuse to be a slave.”
Jailhouse lawyer removed from treatment unit in retaliation for lawsuits: Damont Hagan, a human rights defender at SCI Cresson, reports that he was recently moved to the Restricted Housing Unit from the Secure Special Needs Unit (SSNU) in retaliation for filing grievances and assisting other prisoners in advocating for their rights. The Secure Special Needs Unit is a form of solitary confinement for prisoners with diagnosed mental health needs and was originally designed to provide mental health treatment. Hagan was not issued any misconduct prior to being moved, but was told he was being put on a “time-out.” The Restricted Housing Unit at Cresson, like others across the state, does not allow for any substantial access to mental health care.
Removal from the treatment unit followed weeks of escalating harassment and threats of retaliation. In one instance, after overhearing Hagan discussing a lawsuit he intends to file against Cresson, Sergeant Dow confiscated paperwork from Hagan and terminated his access to the law library. Other prisoners in the unit have reported that guards deprive mentally ill prisoners and those who file grievances of food, bedding, personal items, and other necessities. There have been several reported instances of psychological harassment as well, including guard encouragement of suicide.
Mr. Hagan has spent nearly every day of the past ten years in a solitary confinement cell. During that time he has been subjected to repeated instances of racial abuse, physical assault, and food deprivation. Over the years, Hagan has adopted a strategy of resistance with his pen, filing grievances, studying law, and pursuing justice in the court system. Mr. Hagan has been informed on several occasions that he will not be permitted to progress through the treatment program and be released to general population if he continues to file grievances and lawsuits regarding violations of his rights.
On March 17th, state prisoner Vincent Hallman was found guilty of aggravated assault against a guard at SCI Huntingdon for a January 2010 dispute over mail policy.
Hallman's court-appointed attorney, Ray Ghaner, provided a slim defense based on Officer Stitt's unsubstantiated allegations of medical injuries, despite video footage showing Stitt advancing on Hallman agressively after Hallman voiced confusion with a new mail policy. Commonwealth attorneys and DOC officials misleadingly informed the jury that correctional officers had a right to assault prisoners, and Ghaner was unprepared to argue excessive force and human rights violations. The commonwealth also used misconduct history to paint Hallman as a "problem prisoner", which is likely affect the judges sentencing decision.
Hallman testified that the majority of misconducts he was issued were false, or in retalition for filing grievances and speaking out against human rights violations in the Huntingdon RHU. Hallman also testified that he was intentionally not transferred to another prison, so that DOC officials could continue to retaliate and discredit his legal claims. He is working on acquiring transcripts and filing an appeal.
Pennsylvania Superior Court rules that judge violated rights of 11-year-old: A panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania has held that a Lawrence County trial court erred by compelling 11-year-old murder suspect Jordan Brown to admit guilt in order to have his case transferred to juvenile court. In a 2-1 decision, the Supreme Court majority vacated the trial court's refusal to transfer the case to juvenile court and remanded for a new decertification hearing "because the court violated Jordan's right against self-incrimination." Brown was 11 when he was arrested and charged with murder in 2009. He has consistently asserted his innocence.
Department of Corrections tries to cut costs of prison expansion: On March 23, 2011 the Department of Corrections announced that a new State facility that is planned to be built at SCI Graterford will be redesigned to reduce cost and more efficiently accommodate its population of 4,100 people. The prison will be divided into sections that separate maximum and medium security inmates. A death row unit will also be added to reduce cost by decreasing the distance the DOC must transfer death-sentenced prisoners who are convicted in Philadelphia.
The renovated facility will also include Pennsylvania’s first self-contained female transitional facility on prison grounds. Female inmates from the Philadelphia area nearing the end of their sentence will be sent to the facility six months before their sentence ends. When they are in the facility they will be allowed to visit with their family and children.
The state has allocated 400 million dollars for the project, which is expected to be completed in 2014.
Philly area: Wednesdays are Write On! Prison Letter Writing Night at the LAVA space at 4134 Lancaster, 6-9pm. Come help us stay connected with the many prisoners who write to us with news from inside, learn to document crimes committed by prison staff, and help bring an end to the abuse and torture of our brothers and sisters behind bars.
Pittsburgh area: Write On! – letter writing to prisoners and HRC work night every Wednesday at 5129 Penn Avenue from 7 -10pm. To get involved with HRC/Fed Up! in Pittsburgh,email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 412-654-9070.
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