Inmates fight against dangerous health conditions in prisons

By Ted Kelly
October 11, 2019

For weeks, prisoners at Pennsylvania’s SCI Frackville have been protesting the deteriorating conditions that have led to an outbreak of health problems among inmates. Water from the taps runs a deep “chocolatey brown,” according to prison activist Bryant Arroyo. In the showers in his wing of the prison, black mold climbed the tiles from the floor up the walls; Arroyo and many of his fellow inmates are now being treated for fungal infections.

Arroyo is serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. He’s dedicated himself to organizing from the inside and mobilizing prisoners to fight back against the dangerous conditions authorities impose on these oppressed workers. His activism, which included a successful campaign to scuttle plans for a proposed coal gasification plant that was to be built near the prison complex, has led political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal to dub him “the world’s first jailhouse environmentalist.”

In 25 years in the Pennsylvania prison system, Arroyo has experienced multiple health problems inflicted on him by the prison system. This year he was finally allowed to have surgery to treat throat polyps, which likely arose from drinking toxic water. And while he reports a team finally came in to clean the showers, Bryant is still taking an oral anti-fungal treatment and a topical solution for a skin condition on his feet and ankles caused by prolonged mold exposure.

Even after dozens of grievances were filed by inmates, prison authorities failed to address the shower conditions. Then last month an outside inspection team happened to be on the premises to evaluate the facilities at SCI Frackville. Inmates banged on doors and called out to the inspectors, demanding they investigate the showers on their wing. Afterwards, one inspector was overheard saying, “This place needs to be shut down.”

Prisoners denied family, other visitors

Ironically, last year Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Corrections Secretary John Wetzel manufactured a “health crisis” among prison staff to provide a pretext to lock down prisoners who went on strike. But when a genuine outbreak occurred among the prison population, the authorities moved to silence and punish prisoners. Indeed, during this health crisis, lifers at Frackville were systematically denied visits from family members and friends.

Claudio Manzanet is one of many inmates who have been callously denied visitation rights. It’s been over a year since he’s been able to see family members, who have twice been denied access to the prison when they showed up during normal visiting hours. Derrick Broadnax looked forward to seeing his mother, brother-in-law and older sister recently, only to learn that all three were denied entry at the gates by Frackville staff. The brother of Dominic Williams was likewise prevented from visitation during this time.

This reporter was barred entry to the Frackville visiting room to see Arroyo last month, despite a gate clearance and official visitor status with the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Arroyo said later in a phone call that it is “no coincidence that it’s all lifers who got our visits denied.

After a sustained pressure campaign from inside and outside the prison, it appears that Frackville staff have relented and loosened up their capricious denial of visitation rights. Signage in the waiting room lobby has been updated with clearer and more accurate explanations of state prison policy, and the visitors room is reportedly full again during normal hours.

Mental health support withheld

Meanwhile, the scant services that prison staff are supposed to provide are under attack. The Correctional Peer Support Specialists (CPS) are inmates who have been given some training on how to talk with fellow prisoners who are experiencing mental health crises or suicidal ideations. Such struggles are common, considering isolation from family and community and being trapped in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. The CPS are supposed to have unlimited access to fellow prisoners who are having difficulty coping. However, CPS like John Ludovici report that the program has come under serious attack.

A Frackville sergeant named Reed has been arbitrarily denying CPS sessions between prisoners for months now. The meetings, which are supposed to be of unlimited duration, are now being restricted to no more than 10 minutes. For prisoners suffering from bad health and feeling trapped in these miserable conditions? Ten minutes. For suicidal prisoners or those considering harming themselves? Ten minutes. For an inmate who just needs some time to talk about his feelings in a safe and confidential environment? Ten minutes.

Multiple complaints have been filed against Sergeant Reed, and the Director of Supervisors Lynne Patron has been alerted to this illegal denial of services that amount to de facto cancellation of the CPS program. But she has taken no action, nor has Sergeant Reed been reprimanded.

Shut it down!

Consider the leadership and tireless work of organizers like Bryant Arroyo. Consider the bravery of men like  Manzanet, Broadnax, Williams and Ludovici to stand up to this white supremacist, mass-incarceration machine. We on the outside must heed their words and join the struggle to dismantle the system that forces them to live under these brutal conditions. That inspector was right — Frackville should be shut down. So should every high-tech dungeon in this prison nation, and so should every prisoner be freed.

Free Bryant Arroyo and all prison lifers! Free ‘Em All!