Dramatic New Developments at SCI Greene:
11 Ranking Guards Disciplined
By C. Clark Kissinger
Revolutionary Worker #958, May 24, 1998
In an attempt to contain the exploding scandal at Pennsylvania's maximum security "SCI Greene" prison, the highest ranking commissioned officer at the prison was demoted and two of his lieutenants were fired. This comes only two weeks after the demotion and transfer of the prison's superintendent.
The cause of these actions has been the exposure of brutality by guards against prisoners in the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU), popularly known as "the hole." The hole is where prisoners under disciplinary confinement are held, and it also holds 113 death row inmates including the internationally known political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The actions taken against the supervisory guards include: Maj. Robert Sparbanie, demoted to lieutenant; Lts. John Tustin and Scott Nickelson, both fired; Capt. Dennis Lantz, demoted to lieutenant; Lt. William McCombie, a 15-day suspension; Lt. Robert Esmond, a 10-day suspension; Lt. Robert Berberick, a 5-day suspension; Lts. Jeffery Forte and David Grainey, 3-day suspensions; Capt. John Kingston, and Lt. Charles Plavi, written reprimands.
In addition, Greene County District Attorney David Pollock has announced that he is looking into possible criminal charges against the guards.
According to Department of Corrections officials, the actions stemmed from complaints by an inmate last November, but in actuality there has been a struggle between prisoners and guards since SCI Greene opened in 1994. Last fall, the international head of Amnesty International visited Mumia at the prison and then denounced conditions there at a public press conference. There have also been a series of lawsuits by prisoners, including one by Mumia.
Speaking with this reporter, former SCI Greene counselor Robert DeBord described some of the incidents that eventually led to his resigning and complaining to state officials. In one instance a prison official disparaged having educational programs for Black inmates with crude racial epithets: "What's the odds of any of these fuckin' n*ggers getting any jobs, once they get out, working with computers? But look at all the money they're spending down in the school puttin' computers in."
In other incidents he saw prisoners isolated in the RHU with bruises that could only have been administered by guards.
In yet another instance, there was a prisoner who was accused of threatening other prisoners. He was brought in by prison officials with Mr. DeBord present. He denied the charges, but he was transferred to the hole anyhow. The next day, when Mr. DeBord read the disciplinary action report, it stated that the prisoner had cursed out the female supervisor, calling her a "kinky headed bitch" and threatened her with violence. The only problem is, Mr. DeBord was present at the whole session and this never happened. It was simply put in the prisoner's file to justify his transfer to the hole.
This was reported by Mr. DeBord to the prison superintendent, and a few days later the prisoner was released from the hole. But the guards who fabricated the disciplinary report were not disciplined. When no one is there to blow the whistle on such conduct, false charges like the ones described become part of the prisoner's permanent record and are read by parole boards in considering whether the prisoner can be released.
For his principled action, Mr. DeBord was threatened by other prison employees and eventually felt that he had to resign before he was either assaulted or had contraband planted in his office.
Prison officials at Greene have not only abused individual inmates, but actions have been taken against the entire prison population. In late February, the prison was put under lockdown, with no visitors allowed. Then on March 5, prison officials confiscated all the correspondence school and legal materials from the cells of prisoners on death row, and ordered them to begin wearing heavy canvas striped jump suits.
With international attention being focused on conditions at Greene, in mid-April the state head of the Department of Corrections suddenly announced that 40 guards at Greene (10 percent of the guards at that institution) were under investigation for brutality, and the Superintendent was sacked. While the U.S. media normally only reports on repressive conditions in foreign prisons, the state government seemed intent on "getting on top of" the growing scandal.
At this point officials are still refusing to publicly document the incidents of brutality, but admit that a number of them were captured on videotape by surveillance cameras inside the prison. Apparently guards at SCI Greene felt secure in committing acts of brutality with the cameras rolling.
(May 6, 1998)
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)