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Struggling Against the Death Machine

Imagine your entire life concentrated within one tiny cage. Twenty-four hours, by seven days, times three-hundred sixty-five. The state of Pennsylvania owns the cage. Everything you own, everything you do, is squeezed into that suffocating space. There is nothing else.

The State has vowed to kill you.

Hope enters the dim world of Death Row through but the slimmest of cracks. There is no reprieve. No mercy. No way to reclaim your life but by winning the appeals lottery.

You may have an attorney, one who cares about your case. But, still, to them it's a job.

To you it is Life. The Case. It fills boxes. Stacked neatly in your cage. They are the prism through which the light of hope shines. Somewhere in those boxes may lie the key. So in the darkest of hours, you search through the transcripts, appeals, briefs, law books, other cases. This is what you do. Because you want to live.

The State Correctional Institution Greene (SCI Greene) houses 1,400-plus Pennsylvania prisoners, 70 percent of them Black, another 6 percent Latino. The prison, which opened in 1994, is located at Waynesburg, just eight miles from West Virginia in a county (in which most of the guards live) that is 98 percent white. SCI Greene contains a prison-within-a-prison, its Restricted Housing Unit. And inside the smallest prison within a prison within that RHU are caged the 112 men on Pennsylvania's Death Row, among them Mumia Abu Jamal.

"In late January 1998," Mumia reports, "the US District Court in Pittsburgh, through its Magistrate-Judge, ruled that the SCI Greene legal visitation procedures were unconstitutional as they were nonconfidential."

Barely a month later, Pennsylvania Corrections Commissioner Martin Horn instituted stark new Death Row regulations, including severe limitations on property, visiting, phone calls, and commissary privileges.

"On March 5, 1998,'` writes Mumia, "the state, angered at being beaten by a small group of jailhouse lawyers, attacked the Death Row unit at SCI Greene -- not the prisoners, but their property books, pens, legal material, etc."

The property regulation restricted ALL personal property to that which would fit in a 12-inch-by-12-by-14-inch box. The new rule was implemented by a mass shakedown.

"All legal, educational, religious and recreational reading material was taken," said Death Row prisoner Kevin Pelzer, "along with photos of family members and personal letters. [We] were [allowed] to keep any items that could fit into one record center storage box. But when the shakedown team came to each cell, the only rule was 'put it in a box to ship home or trash it."

Secondly, family visits were restricted to only one hour on weekdays, with no visits on weekends or holidays. For decades it has been Department of Corrections policy "to encourage opportunity for visits with family members, relatives and friends," recognizing that it "is important to morale, sustaining family life and insuring ties in the community..."

"Under Horn's new rules for Death Row," said Kevin Pelzer, "he has just about cut our family ties. Over 90 percent of Death Row inmates housed at SCI Greene are from Philadelphia. Commissioner Horn wants our families to drive clear across the state six and a half hours for only a one hour visit." And that only on weekdays.

Thirdly, phone calls were cut back to only one carefully-monitored fifteen- minute call per week, further pressing the weight of isolation onto the already stiffling Death Row.

Finally, Death Row prisoners were barred by the new policy from having food in their cells or even buying food from the commissary. This removed the freedom of all Death Row prisoners to eat anything but what is shoved in their cages by the guards at feeding time, impinging upon the religious freedom of some prisoners who cannot eat meat and who supplemented their diet by eating commissary food. Diabetics and others with special diet needs were put at risk.

Immediately, about two dozen Death Row prisoners began a hunger strike to protest the harsh regulations and to focus outside and media attention onto their plight. By March 18, when the hunger strike ended in apparent victory, between 40 and 60 prisoners had taken part. Pressure by anti-death penalty and civil rights groups along with thousands of daily phone calls from people across the state (and beyond) helped force prison officials to roll back some of the restrictions. The prison's fax machine was so flooded with messages in support of the hunger strikers that its number was changed.

Most of the measures were lifted immediately except the property and commissary restrictions. Officials promised that a fair compromise would be worked out.

But "fair" turned out to be anything but. An original agreement allowing prisoners with health problems access to the commissary was not implemented. Also, on the issue of property, officials gave prisoners two 12-by-12-by-14-inch boxes instead of one. But the average Death Row prisoner's legal papers alone would take about six boxes, not to mention other personal items, such as books, a prisoner may have.

"It is impossible for most capital case defendants to receive adequate counsel," notes Pelzer, "so we become our own counsel. Without our legal material, there is no question the state will kill us."

On April 6, 1998, about 20 Death Row prisoners went on another hunger strike. Mumia Abu Jamal, who joined both hunger strikes, said this of the property restrictions: "Under relatively new statutory authority, the DOC now may sign a death warrant. Thus, no longer are they neutral state agents; they are active agents of death. In this context, the tampering, custody and control of a man's legal materials seems starkly and unquestionably malevolent... The separation of the inmates from their legal materials is meant to hasten death... It is an attack on the last vestige of hope."

Three days later, on April 9, 1998, the DOC instituted "crisis management" public relations campaign cleverly designed to deflect attention away from the hunger strikers.

Commissioner Horn dramatically announced that some 40 (about 10 percent) of SCI Greene's guards (most of who worked in the RHU) faced possible disciplinary action for an alleged pattern of using unnecessary force against prisoners.

"I condemn the use of unnecessary force," Horn said, "and will not tolerate the abuse of inmates by staff. I am committed to taking the strongest possible action against any and all staff members involved.'`

PLN received clippings from nearly a dozen Pennsylvania newspapers, all dated April 10, 1998. Among them were: "Brutality Probe targets up to 40 Guards at SCI Greene," by-line Robert Dvorchak of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette ; "40 Prison Guards Accused of Abuse," by-line Adam Bell of the Harrisburg Patriot News; and "Inmate Abuse Allegations Spark State Action," by-line Colleen Gentilcore of the Herald-Standard .

What makes this an obviously orchestrated PR campaign are the striking similarity in all of these press reports. Though each was supposedly written by different reporters in separated cities, all of the accounts carried the same story line, quotes, and whole paragraphs that were identical word-for-word. However, there was little or no mention of the DOC clampdown on Death Row or the hunger strike. As Mumia notes in the sidebar to this article, it was a "whitewash" campaign.

From that day on, media attention focused not on the struggle of Death Row prisoners, but on the internal DOC probe. And like an inoculation of attenuated virus to ward off disease, DOC spokesman Michael Lukens injected the press accounts with a weakened strain of the truth. In an Associated Press interview quoted by all three papers cited above, Lukens said all of the 36 incidents under investigation involved only "pushing, shoving, and bumping" but said no prisoners suffered serious injuries.

On April 24, Horn transferred SCI Greene warden Ben Varner to another lower-security prison. "Secretary Horn felt that [SCI] Greene needed a change in leadership," Lukens injected into the media mainstream.

The DOC PR machine was now firmly in control of the story, and the Death Row hunger strikers had been virtually erased from the press coverage. On April 26, Death Row prisoners called off the second hunger strike but asked supporters to continue to organize for improvements in conditions.

On May 14, SCI Greene's highest ranking guard, Maj. Robert Sparbanie was demoted to lieutenant; Lts. John Tustin and Scott Nickelson were both fired; Captain Dennis Lantz, demoted to lieutenant; other senior guards received 3- to 15-day suspensions and/or written reprimands. And thus, as far as the mainstream press is concerned: end of story.

The repressive Death Row clampdown that initially focused attention on SCI Greene was mainly forgotten after the DOC deflected attention to it's "pushing, shoving, and bumping" probe and sacrificed the careers of a few guards on the media alter. The omnipotent press eye turns to other stories. But the men on Death Row remain separated from most of their legal papers, books, and other personal property.

You can help. Send messages of protest to: Gov. Tom Ridge, 225 Main Capitol Building, Harrisburg, PA 17120. Telephone: (717) 787-2500. Or sign petitions supporting the demands of the Death Row prisoners and Fax to: (717) 783-4429.

The New Abolitionist, Revolutionary Worker , Reader Mail, Various PA Newspapers

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