Hunger Strike on SCI Greene's Death Row

Revolutionary Worker #949, March 22, 1998

On Friday, March 6, between 28 and 35 death-row prisoners at SCI Greene Prison in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania launched a hunger strike to protest new, vicious and inhumane regulations. This is the prison where political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal is being held, and most of the prisoners on death row here are from the Philadelphia area. As we go to press, these prisoners remain on strike at SCI Greene, but the mainstream media in Philly has completely whited-out news of this hunger strike.

On March 5, prison authorities across the state of Pennsylvania came down with an outrageous attack on death-row inmates. Claiming that rules for death-row inmates were "inconsistent," prison authorities issued "Changes to Capital Case Practices"--a set of new, extremely oppressive rules. A memo from the superintendent of SCI Greene to the 111 prisoners on death row read: "This will be facilitated today, March 5, 1998, with a general shakedown of all capital case inmate cells and the implementation of the changes."

The prisoners found out about the new rules at 7:45 A.M. when guards busted into their cells and stole their belongings. Cherished pictures and mementos of loved ones were taken, as were legal materials being used to prepare appeals. Even things like underwear were confiscated. Legal material was stored but everything else was packed up by guards.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is not participating in the hunger strike but is supporting it (see statement). All of Mumia's personal items and papers were removed from his cell--a total of 17 boxes--and prison officials are going to destroy them if Mumia doesn't pay for them to be sent out. Taking away Mumia's books and papers virtually means ending his ability to complete his master's degree, to utilize the thousands of pages of transcripts and legal briefs in his case or keep up with news about events in society which is critical to his ability to make key defense decisions.

The prisoners at SCI Greene say the real motivation behind the attack was retaliation for an increase in lawsuits, some successful, against prison officials by the prisoners. A few days after the rules were instituted, Mumia sent out this message: "Several years ago in Live from Death Row I wrote about the `attack on the life of the mind.' This is that attack realized. In one fell swoop the state has sanctioned everyone on Death Row for the practice of their constitutional rights by suing and winning in court. The men on Death Row did nothing to deserve such harsh and unreasonable treatment and regulation. This is simply retaliation because the men exercised their constitutional right to fight in court, and a continuation of tough on crime policy for political purposes."

The new rules laid out in the Department of Corrections memo include:

  • Exercise - limited to one hour a day, five days a week.
  • Clothing - usual outward clothing is now limited to standard issue pinstriped jumpsuit, shoes, two pairs of underwear and "basic toilet articles."
  • Visits - The usual two-hour personal visits are now limited to one non-contact visit a week for one hour. Most prisoners come from Philadelphia which means friends and family have to travel six hours or more each way for a one-hour visit.
  • Phone calls - one collect 15-minute call a week.
  • Property allowed in cell - one record-sized box (the size of a small orange crate). All legal, religious, educational and recreational reading materials must fit in this small box. Storage is allowed of some legal papers. Other property will be destroyed unless prisoner pays to have it sent to friends or relatives. Prisoners report that all kinds of personal things have been confiscated. A new newspaper can be obtained only by turning in the previous one. Televisions and radios are supposed to be allowed, but there are reports that guards have removed some antennas from them.
  • Commissary - items prisoners can purchase are limited and food can't be purchased as it is no longer permitted in cells.
  • Mumia's spiritual adviser, Steve Wiser, told the RW the prison authorities have said that each prisoner on the hunger strike is being checked daily by a doctor. But the prisoners say that's not true and that they've been told they'll be force-fed if they start to get sick.

    The new rules are an outrageous escalation in an already horrible situation. Wiser visits the prison often and told the RW that family members who have traveled six or more hours from Philadelphia are routinely turned away. In many cases, this is accomplished through the use of a high-tech machine called an IONSCAN, which scans people for extremely small traces of drugs and explosives. One 13-year-old boy who had never seen his father was turned away when his scan came up positive. A Mumia supporter, Ali Bey, who was one of the Panther 21, was recently turned away when his scan showed "explosive residue." It turns out the machine picked up the sulfur from a match he'd lit earlier when smoking a cigarette and considered this evidence of explosives! This machine is used arbitrarily, but whenever they hear Mumia has a visitor they bring it out.

    In a letter of protest at the new SCI Greene regulations, National Secretary of Refuse & Resist!, Robert Rockwell, M.D., said:

    "Mumia Abu-Jamal, one of the inmates at SCI Greene, has written that these new attacks `sanction everyone on Death Row for the practice of their constitutional rights by suing and winning in court.' Mumia has been actively involved with his legal team in preparing for his appeals. Other Death Row inmates who are poor and not represented by adequate counsel will be deprived of their constitutional right of habeas corpus. These new regulations coincide with the severe limitation of appeals on the federal level which are included in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The right to appeal has been one of the bulwarks of the Constitution and is now being challenged. Without legal representation and access to law books, most Death Row inmates will lose this basic right. These new regulations are in retaliation for the many successful lawsuits won by Death Row Inmates. They not only remove a basic liberty but are designed to break the mind and soul of inmates. Family visits are limited as well as books and television. The whole world looks with shame on the use of the Death Penalty in America. These new regulations aim to kill the mind of Death Row inmates even before they are killed by the State. This cannot be allowed."

    Pierre Sane, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, also condemned the attacks at SCI Greene and the barbaric new prison rules in a statement issued March 11 which said: "When I visited SCI Greene last November I was appalled at the inhumane manner in which death row prisoners are `warehoused' pending their execution. I believed the conditions to be extremely debilitating and draconian. To learn that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections have, for no apparent reason, cut back further on the few `privileges' allowed to death row inmates fills me with horror. Why has the prisoners' meager visiting allocation been halved? Why have the majority of their private possessions been removed from them? I fear and suspect that the authorities are attempting to make conditions for condemned men so harsh that they will no longer be able to bear the strain and so abandon their legal appeals and allow the state to kill them. I urge all prisoners on death row to stand strong and resist these attempts to dampen their resolve and spirits."

    The Pennsylvania Abolitionists, a statewide anti-death penalty group, will be holding a protest rally at the State Building in Philadelphia on Tuesday, March 17 and one at SCI Greene on May 27 to kick off a week of actions at Pennsylvania prisons. International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal have called for people to call, fax or write their protests to:

    Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge,
    225 Main Capitol Bldg.
    Harrisburg, PA 17120
    Fax: 717-783-4429
    Tel: 717-787-2500 11/98

    Martin F. Horn, Secretary Commissioner, PA. Department of Corrections
    2520 Lisburn Road, P. O. Box 598
    Camp Hill, PA 17001-0598
    Tel: 717-975-4859 Fax: 717-977-0132

    SCI Greene Acting Superintendent
    Benjamin Varner, SCI Greene,
    1030 East Roy Furman Hwy.
    Waynesburg, PA 15370-8020
    Tel: 412-852-2902 Fax: 412-852-2909

    People are also being asked to write Mumia to show support and send money (a U.S. Postal money order made out to Mumia Abu-Jamal) to help pay for sending his belongings out of the prison. Mumia Abu-Jamal, AM8335 SCI Greene, 1040 East Roy Furman Hwy., Waynesburg, PA 15370-8090

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