Goodbye Vermont, Welcome Pennsylvania
[Guest blog by Scott Lowe at SCI Camp Hill, Pennsylvania]
Part I, October 5, 2017
Hello, everyone! It’s me. The guy who brought you “Thinking Inside the Box, a Look at Correctional Reform from the Inside.”
Well, it has finally happened. The first busload of thirty-nine (39) Vermont inmates left early in the morning of Wednesday, September 27th, and arrived at SCI- Camp Hill in Camp Hill Pennsylvania in the mid-afternoon that same day. Here is how the first ten (10) days of my transfer went.
To begin with, I was not out-of-state eligible, for a few reasons, and my case-plan showed there was a “hold” on me. I was in Inmate Legal Assistant, Inmate Peer Mentor, and had a facility job as a Living Unit Cleaner. In seven years of incarceration, I only received on Major Disciplinary Report, and I was 110% Case-Plan compliant.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 26th, C.O.’s in black C.E.R.T. uniforms, had my unit (as well as others), locked down and systematically went cell to cell, hand-cuffing inmates and packing up their personal property, with no explanation.
After being strip-searched and informed that we could only have white clothing in our personal property, no more than two (2) of any one personal item (i.e. soap, shampoo etc.), and no electric razors, we were required to sign an authorization to have our property (excess property), shopped home to family at our own expense.
Next, we were transported to the Southern State Correctional Facility, where we underwent another strip-search, asked questions regarding our psychological health, and any substance addiction treatment, and then marched in a group to the gym, where there were numerous blue “boats” (as we call them), with mattresses in them for us to spend the night.
Approximately 5:00 am, we were awoke for med-call and breakfast. Then at about 6:00 am, again, two by two, we were strip-searched by correctional staff from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, in a Vermont Department of Corrections facility.
Once searched, we had to dress in yellowish coveralls, shackled, and handcuffed, complete with the “black box”, forcing our wrists to be in an uncomfortable position during our trip.
After we boarded the bus and were on our way, about five hours had passed, some of the inmates were complaining that they needed to use the bathroom. Two of them needed to as medically necessary, but the correctional staff didn’t even acknowledge the complaints.
However, the bus did pull into a rest area after 5 ½ hours, so they could have a break, go to the bathroom and/or smoke a cigarette, while some of us agonized inside the bus. Two inmates soiled themselves and urinated in their coveralls. A couple more ended up urinating on the bus floor in the back of the seating section. All while we were yelling to the correctional staff that people needed to use the facilities. Still, absolutely no response from the “guards”. Even when they returned on the bus and began to drive again, leaving us in our soiled and urine-soaked misery.
One and half hours later, we arrived at a Pennsylvania Prison where we were unloaded, had our “black-boxed” handcuffs removed, and were allowed to use the bathroom and eat a bag lunch. There was one inmate that, because of a medical condition, needs to sit on the toilet, even to urinate. He, unfortunately urinated some on the floor, and because of that, he was physically and forcefully man-handled and told to “get f***king moving to the bus”, and placed in the segregated “cage” on it.
Back on a cleaned bus, we continued to our destination of SCI- Camp Hill, arriving around 3:00 or 3:30 pm. Once there, we began our “reception” processing, and changed into D.O.C. uniforms, requiring to even change and throw out our “syrup-stained” undergarments.
With issued blue uniforms, we were paraded through the compound to our temporary housing unit, “R-block”. This is the classification building that every single inmate must go, before continuing, to either a more permanent housing block, or on to another prison facility. Luckily for us, this was the only place we were going to be staying.
Arriving at R-Block, we were shuffled through the system of urine tests, psyche-evaluations, dental check-ups, and partial physicals that included blood-work. This was day on of 7 – 10 days we would go through this origination and classification process.
Day two began at 5:00 am with cell lights on and standing headcount. Then it was breakfast and let out to the dayroom to get our packet, contain the R-Block rules and expectations and something called the “Personal Data Questionnaire” or “PDQ” as it is referred to.
This PDQ was for information from us regarding who to contact in the event of an emergency, medical information, and so on. We also had to answer questions about housing restrictions or concerns we had. Then, it was back to the medical section for more orientation, psychological interviews, and more medical information that they required.
As luck would have it, day three was more of the same, but also included fingerprinting profile photos, and pictures of any tattoos any of us may have. Alter that, there was nothing else for the rest of the weekend.
Both days 4 and 5 allowed us no movement, except one 3-minute shower (the first in 4 days), and each day we were given two hours of recreation in a large gym-type room, with a large caged window approximately 15 feet up. Other than that, we had no access to the outside of the building.
On the sixth day, we were up and herded downstairs for med-call and placed in a “holding tank” to await an escort to the Reception[P1] building we first arrived at. We were escorted there and were placed in a large holding cell (12 of us), to wait for staff to go through each and every single piece of personal property. We were not allowed to keep some things, as was expected. The items we couldn’t keep, we either had to pay to ship back home to family. If we couldn’t pay, it would be confiscated and destroyed, and we would have to sign a receipt for its destruction. I personally lost a few items and I had 2 – 20 lbs. boxes of stuff including legal files.
Once that was complete, we were escorted back to R-block. Now mind you, it was well after 10:00 am, and we didn’t have anything to eat or drink yet that morning. While most of the guys made it back to the unit, I feel behind and needed medical attention, half-way back, due to mild heat exhaustion and dehydration. After 2 ½ hours, some food and 1 + gallons of water later, I was escorted from the facility dispensary, back to R-Block.
Now, before I go any further, I must describe the conditions of the dispensary, as it was a sad sight. I saw elderly and handicap inmates, just being left to themselves, occasionally given medication, but not being check if they actually swallowed it. There were cockroaches, approximately 2 -2 ½ inches long, crawling around the examination rooms, while staff just looked at them and commented on how busy they were. The occasional mouse would scurry along the wall. Just an overall sad experience to view and endure.
After returning to R-Block, the rest of the day was uneventful, with just the usual classification and continued processing, including another psychological classification interview for each one of us.
The last day at R-Block! We went through an out-processing procedure, and received our assigned housing units. Now, all Vt. inmates were supposed to be house in “J-Block”, but because it was so full, some of us (including myself), were assigned to “K-Block” and mixed in with the Penn. Inmates.
Here is what I have learned so far, regarding our placement in this prison: Vermont inmates are not allowed to participate in ANY education, risk-reducing, or employment programs while in the P.A. prison system. We were not allowed any phone calls to home, letting our families know we are alirght, until eight days after we arrived and in our new housing assignments. According to P.A. prison policy, indigent inmates are allowed only eight (8) free stamps per month, and the rumor among inmates and staff, is that the Segregation Housing Unit (SHU), is the worst in this state, due in part to “violent, aggressive, and sometimes inhumane conditions of confinement.” Again, that is according to the rumors of almost 50 Pennsylvania inmates.
With all of this information, doesn’t it make you wonder why Vermont Department of Corrections closes a facility, and sends its inmates out of stat to the conditions I’ve just described?
I suggest everyone write, call, email and text their senators and representatives, the Lt. Governor’s and Governor’s offices, to let them know that this is unacceptable and Vermonters we have a zero-tolerance for the blatant disregard for the warehousing” of people cattle.
Also, I encourage, and dare all Vermont inmates, both men and women, to register to vote and have your voices heard! We have retained the right and honor to vote for changes. As inmates (and members of this state of Vermont), we also have an obligation to practice that right. Love and peace to all.
Part II, October 11, 2017
Hello, everyone! I’m still here at Camp Hell (Hill), Pennsylvania and it feels like a level of Dante’s Inferno, but believe me, it’s no “Divine Comedy.”
In the first part of “Goodbye Vermont,…” I told you about the trip down here and the first week. Well, the morbid and somewhat traumatic experience continues.
So, from R-Block, we were moved to our housing assignments, which were supposed to be all in one building, somewhat separate from the PA inmates. However, there was not enough room for us in that building, so some of us were housed in the building next door, with PA inmates.
Now, pictures were show to the Vt. Dept. of Corrections and used in media releases. These pictures were not of the dining hall or housing unites we inmates use. In fact, our housing conditions and cleanliness of the dining hall we use, are sub-standard I many ways. For example, the kitchen has mice in it, as well as the occasional bird flying into the dining hall. All of the buildings have cockroaches, spiders, and other insects in them, and when the thousands of Canadian geese to the bathroom all over the place, it’s like playing hopscotch in a minefield laid out by well-fed chihuahuas. Lastly, the unit showers need repairs and have black mold growing in some. They have painted over it, but it will grow through again.
Now on to the Vt. inmate population. Ibn less than one week of arriving here, one inmate has requested protective custody (PC), and another has attempted suicide. Another Vt. inmate that arrived from Michigan around June/July, has been sexually harassed because of gender identity, and she reported being sexually assaulted by a PA Corrections Officer.
I personally witnessed a man, that came with us from Vt., be publicly ridiculed and shamed by the unit counselor.
See this man (we will call him “John”), could not read or write at all. In fact, it was part of his case plan to be educated while incarcerated. Well, John forgot to put something informative on a form, and when the unit counselor asked about it, John said he couldn’t remember and didn’t know how to write it, explaining that he couldn’t read or write. To the dismay of other inmates around, and to the amusement of other correctional staff, this Unit Counselor called John “a real dumbass” twice. Even though John has an Americans w/ Disabilities Act (ADA) Accommodation for his learning disability.
The Vermont Prisoner’s Rights Office investigators and lawyers have been turned away from meeting with a multitude of inmates by the PA correctional staff here as well.
I am at great risk of retaliation for bringing this information to you, but it MUST be recognized.
Sending Vermont inmates to another state to endure these conditions, was under the approval of the Vermont Department of Corrections, and they should be appalled and ashamed…
Bless you all, and I’m sure you will hear more coming from PA.