ABOVE PHOTO: Former prisoners Nathaniel Lee and LuQman Abdullah.
Former prisoners LuQman Abdullah and Nathaniel Lee testified last week at a Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee Hearing about abusive conditions inside solitary confinement units (also known as the “hole”) in PA’s state prisons. The hearing also featured testimony by human rights investigator Bret Grote, Pennsylvania Prison Society Executive Director William DiMascio, and Department of Corrections Deputy director Michael Klopotoski. The former prisoners, who are both now social workers, gave detailed accounts of Pennsylvania’s use of solitary confinement, which is the practice of holding prisoners 23 or more hours a day in small bathroom-sized cells with little or no contact with other people.
The hearing was convened at the Yeadon Borough Hall by Rep. Ronald Waters and Thomas Caltagirone. Rep. Vanessa Brown was also in attendance.
“Isolation is used arbitrarily and often when there is no threat of violence or mass disturbances involved”, said Nathaniel Lee. This observation was echoed by LuQman Abdullah, who related his personal experiences with the “hole”. “I was first put in solitary for holding an educational study group,” said Abdullah, who spent over a year and a half in the “hole” at State Correctional Institute (SCI) Rockview before being transferred to SCI Greene, where abusive conditions continued unabated. “I have witnessed guards at SCI Greene ram a baton up another prisoner’s rectum and punch, kick and stomp prisoners down to the ground until they were unconscious, as was done to me.” LuQman spent a total of five straight years in solitary. Both men, whose combined experiences total more than 40 years inside prison, highlighted the general atmosphere of impunity and abuse within the units. “No one will develop respect for the law when governed by those who abuse the laws they wish to instill respect for,” Lee said.
Their testimony was supported by that of Bret Grote, an investigator with the Human Rights Coalition who has spent the last three years documenting widespread abuse within Pennsylvania’s solitary confinement units such as physical assault, racist slurs and threats from guards, retaliation for filing grievances, and inadequate mental health care. Grote gave as an example the 2009 suicide of Matthew Bullock at SCI Dallas: “Mr. Bullock had attempted suicide multiple times while incarcerated, and had his medications cut prior to hanging himself… days later we received reports that guards had been encouraging him to commit suicide.”
“Walk through one of these special housing units and you will be stunned by the demented wailing and catatonic stares of the inmates and chilled by the exercise cages where for one hour a day . . . they are held like dogs in a kennel”, said William DiMascio, whose testimony highlighted the damage wrought upon prisoners’ minds by Pa’s “holes”. “The effect of this psychologically devastating strategy heightens the prospects for violence against staff and, ultimately, the citizenry, and fails to in any way correct the aberrant behavior that led the person into the criminal justice system to begin with.”
Also present was Michael Klopotoski of the Pa Department of Corrections, whose testimony chiefly consisted of a recitation of DOC policy regarding the units. Klopotoski left before he could be questioned about the rampant abuse at SCI Dallas during his tenure there as Superintendent. No evidence was provided in support of the DOC’s allegations that solitary confinement is a necessary and fair practice.
The 25 people in attendance consisted almost solely of prisoner rights advocates, many of whom have family serving time in the state prison system. Calls for the abolition of solitary and sweeping changes to the entire prison system were met with approving nods and cheers. In contrast, Klopotoski’s testimony generated audible frustration, with many audience members feeling compelled to voice their criticism of the DOC.
As the hearing drew to a close, Rep. Waters spoke of the need for advocates to educate the public about the reality of torture and abuse inside the state prisons in order to mobilize public opinion in support of change in the system. It is uncertain what the House Judiciary plans on doing following this hearing.