SCI Greene: Prison Hunger Strike On Again

Guard Brutality Exposed in Control Unit

Revolutionary Worker #953, April 19, 1998

SCI Greene is a maximum security prison isolated in a rural area of southwestern Pennsylvania. There are over 14,000 men incarcerated here--111 of them on death row, including political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. As previously reported in the RW, death-row prisoners launched a hunger strike here on March 6, after prison authorities issued a set of new, extremely oppressive rules and sent prison guards to carry out a vicious shakedown of prisoners' cells. Prisoners were allowed to keep only what could fit in a small box. Everything else was confiscated. Mumia joined the strike saying, "The numbers of men on the hunger strike were so big--25 to 33 people--and the sacrifice so apparent, that I could not stand aside. Our goal is to obtain immediate access in the cell to our legal materials, because on Death Row this is a question of life and death."

After 13 days, the prisoners ended their strike and soon after this, prison officials issued a new list of regulations. Now, as we go to press, the RW has heard that 14 prisoners at SCI Greene have gone back on hunger strike.

New Evidence

Prisoners at SCI Greene have been trying to let the world know about the inhuman treatment they are being subjected to--especially in connection with the prison's Restricted Housing Unit, which prisoners call "The Hole." This is the special punishment unit where inmates are isolated from the general population and routinely brutalized.

Jere Krakoff of ACLU's National Prison Project, estimates that he has received over 30 letters from Greene inmates complaining about mistreatment. Prisoner complaints include confiscation of their religious property and denial of medication. Krakoff represented SCI Greene prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal in a suit against the prison.

In November 1997, an inmate filed a complaint that guards were brutalizing inmates while they were transferring them to the Restricted Housing Unit. Now, two former employees of SCI Greene have helped document such brutality at the Restricted Housing Unit--as well as other abuses of power.

Bob Debord said he quit his job as a corrections counselor in December because he could no longer turn his back on what was happening at SCI Greene. Debord says he saw an inmate with bruises all over his body after being taken to the Restricted Housing Unit.

"I didn't see it happen, but he didn't have the bruises when he left and when I went to see him he was obviously hurt," said Debord. A prison guard filed a report claiming that this prisoner had been "belligerent." Debord reported that this report was false and, as a result, he started receiving threats. "I was told," Debord said, "I would pay for this in the parking lot." There were threats that someone might plant contraband, like drugs, in his office.

Debord said he also saw a guard beat a prisoner after breaking up a fight. He said Black inmates were often referred to by racist epithets. Debord charges that the medical staff once ignored an inmate having a seizure for 35 minutes. They claimed they "thought he was faking."

Linda Welling, a former unit manager who was Debord's supervisor, believes she was fired from SCI Greene last month because of questions she raised. "If you don't play ball the way they want you to, you're out the door," she said. Welling said her office was ransacked and that she feared for her safety after she had raised criticisms of guard actions.

Prison officials at Greene videotape the transfers of inmates to the Restricted Housing Unit. However, inmates have been reporting to lawyers on the outside that videos which document beatings have disappeared. Welling reports that she has heard guard lieutenants talking about destroying videotapes of inmate transfers to the Restricted Housing Unit.

Welling says that she never personally saw prisoners being beaten--because it took place behind closed doors--but that she often saw unmistakable injuries from brutal attacks. She describes what she saw after one incident in 1995: "They beat him mercilessly. I saw him. I saw his cuts and bruises. I heard him cry. I sit in my office and listen to them cry to me."

Welling said an inmate told her he needed to change jobs because of "bad vibes" he was getting from the guard running the prison kitchen. "When he came back to the unit the next day," Welling said, "I saw fingerprint marks on his neck. I called the shift commander and the next thing I know, the man was sent to the hole for threatening the staff." Welling said that though prison authorities knew the inmate had been choked by the guard, it was the prisoner who was punished--including by losing his parole status.

Welling said prison staff repeatedly degrade women, using sexist comments. "They are abusing human beings. None of us has the right to take out personal prejudices on anybody else, ever," Welling said. "The place is horrible. It has been going on from the very beginning. If I turn my back, then I'm just as wrong. I want it to stop."

Harassment of Visitors and Lawyers

"What they're running there is a concentration camp. It's like an Alcatraz mentality. It's horrible. In my 22 years as an attorney, I have never, ever, ever seen a place such as Greene. I have never seen such bigots in my life."

From Attorney Grisel Ybarra's 19-page letter
to Pennsylvania Governor Ridge

Grisel Ybarra has a client at SCI Greene and has seen a lot of mistreatment of prisoners and visitors there. Ybarra says prison officers force women to take their bras off in order to visit prisoners--using the excuse that the snaps on the bras would set off the metal detector. Ybarra wrote several letters to DCO officials saying she has visited prisoners across the country and never experienced such harassment. She said, "I've been to Atlanta Penitentiary and prisons in New York, Miami, Tallahassee and Gainesville. I've never seen things like what goes on at Greene. I have never seen women forced to take off their undergarments at any other institution I have visited." In one case, Ybarra said she had to cut buttons off a jacket because they set off the metal detector. Another time, prison officers asked her about the value of her jewelry, saying she couldn't enter the prison with anything worth more than $50.

Ybarra says guards have questioned her right to bring legal documents into the prison, asking her whether they "were necessary to this case." In one instance a map of Coral Gables, FL was taken from her before a visit with her client because a prison officer told her that such maps are "instruments of escape." On another visit Ybarra says a guard, who is now a prison captain, read her client's documents--despite the fact that they were sealed by the government and that it is illegal for prison guards of any rank to read inmates' legal material. When she confronted the guard, he told her, "Anything that is in his cell, I can read and review."


As a result of the struggle of the inmates and the work of their supporters on the outside, the prison authorities have been forced to launch investigations into the brutality carried out within SCI Greene.

On April 9, Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections Martin F. Horn announced that his department has begun investigations into the actions of 40 officers at SCI Greene who were suspected of using "unnecessary force" on 36 inmates in separate incidents over 12 months. All of the officers being investigated worked in the Restricted Housing Unit. Though they have been temporarily reassigned to other units in the prison--they remain on duty in the prison where they can still threaten and abuse prisoners. Though prison managers are always present during transfer into the Restricted Housing Unit, none of them are being investigated.

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