Behind 12-day statewide Pennsylvania prison lockdown: Control, power, money

by Major Tillery

The caption under this photo in a rural Pennsylvania newspaper reads: “Medical personnel at Grove City Medical Center wear hazardous material (haz-mat) suits as part of the cleaning process Monday night after six staff members from SCI Mercer were contaminated with an unknown substance.” – Photo: Gary Diday, The Herald of Sharon, Penn.

The lockdown of 47,000 prisoners in all 25 Pennsylvania prisons began Aug. 29, 2018, and lasted for 12 days. Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary John Wetzel backed by Gov. Tom Wolf said the lockdown was an emergency measure to protect prison guards. They claimed there was widespread illness of guards from physical contact with synthetic drugs. This is false.

For every prisoner, the lockdown was 24 hours locked in his or her cell, most double-celled; a minority, one-man to a cell. No yard time; no time outside the cell on the block; infrequent showers. Food brought to cells by guards.

No law library. No commissary. No contact with the outside world. No mail, no phone, no visitors. Prisoners missed court dates – no transport of prisoners was allowed. No medications for several days.

Even mail from the court and DAs addressed to a prisoner was “returned to sender.” Those conditions were worse than solitary confinement, the “hole.”

The lockdown looks like it was a planned pre-emptive action so that the National Prison Strike didn’t spread to Pennsylvania prisons. The “drug emergency” was a pretext to isolate, repress and control prisoners.

Not only during the lockdown, but to set up permanent restrictions on visitation and personal mail, ending confidentiality of legal mail, ending prisoners’ ability to purchase newspapers, magazines and books, and putting this all totally under the control and complete censorship of the DOC. All incoming letters, newspapers, magazines are being digitally copied and retained by the DOC. Prisoners get lousy paper copies.

The lockdown looks like it was a planned pre-emptive action so that the National Prison Strike didn’t spread to Pennsylvania prisons. The “drug emergency” was a pretext to isolate, repress and control prisoners.

The estimated costs for these changes in visiting procedures, mail and book purchases, including paying for drones in the name of security measures, are expected to be $15 million to start and then at least $4 million a year for the mail processing.

But the DOC says they don’t have the money to treat and cure the 6,000 prisoners who have the deadly hepatitis-C virus. They do nothing about the toxic contaminated water prisoners have to drink and use to wash up and shower. They refuse to provide adequate medical care and social programs for elderly prisoners. There are over 10,400 prisoners over the age of 50, almost a quarter of the inmate population.

For the past year I’ve submitted proposals and grievances to get SCI Frackville to provide medical, housing, clothing and social programs for elderly prisoners. Only the “50 and Over Life Enhancement Program” was set up.

On behalf of a class of elderly prisoners, I filed a complaint on Oct. 2, 2018, to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro as well as DOC Secretary John Wetzel and SCI Frackville Superintendent Kathy Brittain asking for a “forensic audit” because of “misappropriation of funds” by Activities Manager CO Damiter.

CO (Correctional Officer) Damiter’s attitude to the elderly prisoners and his racism is shown when he said to me: “If it means pretty Nikes on my children’s feet, I’ll put my foot on every old prisoner’s neck.”

Truths about the lockdown

The word from a guard on the block was the lockdown was about the prison strike.

The DOC banned newspapers with articles talking about the planned strike – like SF Bay View and Workers World newspapers. After the prison strike ended and the lockdown lifted, the prison gave me those newspapers.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) records and the expert opinions of toxicologists and doctors does not support the “drug emergency/guards sickened” pretext. The DOC’s own records show that the prisons were not “flooded” with new synthetic drugs. There are no reports of any mailroom staff being “exposed” or reporting symptoms. The DOC records do not support actual illness, testing or treatment.

The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on Sept. 7, 2018, with the headline, “Pa. prisons spend $15M after guards were sickened by K2. But what if it was just in their heads?” “[T]oxologists say one likely diagnosis for the staff illnesses may be ‘mass psychogenic illness’ – that is a sort of contagious hysteria fueled by fears of dangerous exposure.” The director of medical toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine is quoted saying, “Mass psychogenic illness happens all the time. We see it all the time with law enforcement.”

The word from a guard on the block was the lockdown was about the prison strike.

What the DOC doesn’t talk about is the prison guards smuggling drugs and selling them to prisoners. This is a money maker for the guards. Where are the records of incidents of corrections officers’ drug use and sales into the prison? In Frackville, they sent out the drug dogs and caught two guards in the parking lot. Has anyone checked the records of prison guards in drug treatment programs and suspensions for drug use?

Instead of the DOC giving treatment and dealing with the aspects of why prisoners want drugs and work toward solutions, the DOC response to any problem is retaliation and punishment. There is no attempt to deal with a problem with humanist aspects – but to control through punishment.

Prisoners react to the lockdown

The water at many Pennsylvania prisons, including SCI Frackville is dirty and contaminated. For a short time after complaints from family and friends and prisoners’ grievances, we got bottled water. The DOC insists the water is safe. But the guards continue to get bottled water!

During the lockdown the temperature was high. My cell was hot. The prison gave out bottled water every day to inmates to tap down and stop arguments.

And at first, guards acted like the lockdown wasn’t their fault. That changed when the rank and file guards realized they had to do the work normally done by prisoners. They were angry. They complained when they delivered and picked up food trays, trash, swept up.

From the first night of the lockdown, the food on the trays was all messed together. Jello was running through the other foods. It looked as if the food was tampered with. Prisoners were worried and complained. Guards said, “You all eat what the f— we give you.” We were being treated like animals.

A prisoner strike began after that. It was incited by the guards’ actions and hostility. By the third day, 80 men on B-wing of B block (BB) refused to take trays. This strike continued through the whole lockdown.

DOC officials tried to stop the strike from spreading through the prison. They sent in 14 or 15 “negotiators.” These were guards and staff, including nurses and CPS workers (prisoners who are certified peer specialists.) They all wore black t-shirts with the word “Negotiator” printed in white letters.

Posted on the Amistad Law Project’s Facebook page is this poster with this caption: “This Friday join us for a call-in day as we call on Gov. Tom Wolf to respect the rights of incarcerated people and their families. Time to do the right thing and cancel the new dehumanizing DOC policies. For a call script, phone numbers and more info:”

The negotiators ignored older prisoners, including me, those of us who frequently stand up for prisoners’ rights and file grievances and legal challenges. The younger guys were targeted.

The “Buckeyes” – guys always looking for favors from the administration – tried to discourage other prisoners from solidarity action. But we heard that on other cell blocks prisoners refused food trays.

When the prison began to open up and aspects of the lockdown lessened, small groups of prisoners were brought out to the kitchen, given ice cream sandwiches and some extra food. This was to get things to cool down and take the temperature of the jail.

This was to get BB prisoners to stop the food strike early. Not all prisoners took this bribe. When the prison ended the lockdown on Sept. 9, there were still 14 men from BB refusing trays.

Afterwards, officials broke up B wing. Three guys were taken off the block. A young prisoner on the mental health list was put into the hole, investigated for instigating the strike. He had mental problems and was just yelling from the stress of being locked in his cell around the clock. Other guys stood up for him. Unit Manager Rita Styka made it clear he was ill. But he didn’t get out of the hole until Sept. 21.

New repressive policies follow the lockdown

When the lockdown was called off by the DOC, the bottled water stopped. I complained to Superintendent Kathy Brittain, who said giving bottled water to the prisoners “was a courtesy” and that she gave the tap water to her children and “made them Kool-Aid pops.” This is unbelievable – the water is very dirty. Frackville prison guards and staff still get bottled water.

The DOC announced a 90-day prohibition on purchasing food in visiting rooms or taking photos. The prison officials say they are reviewing visiting room procedures to make sure no drugs get into the prison using the food and drink vending machines and taking photos. This is ridiculous.

The only reason for this is to punish families and dehumanize prisoners. It means fewer visitors and shorter visits.

The prisoners are mostly Black and Hispanic and come from the larger cities. The prisons are in rural areas, hours away from the cities where prisoners’ families live. Not being able to get vending food and drink prevents visits from children, older people, people with medical problems. That is the point.

The only reason for this is to punish families and dehumanize prisoners. It means fewer visitors and shorter visits.

This is an attack on the social values of Black families. In the first days after the lockdown ended, there were more guards than visitors in visiting room. Guards were heard saying things like: “This is how it should be,” and “Why were they visiting? Don’t these people have jobs?”

The other new rules are to prevent us from getting mail directly from family and friends, to stop communication and dehumanize us. They are also interfering with legal mail.

The changes to visitation, mail, including legal mail, as well as getting books and newspapers are intended to be permanent, no matter what they say now.

The sick, the elderly, the lifers

Major Tillery

The conditions here and the DOC’s hostility to prisons’ medical care, conditions of confinement and rights should cause concerns that a prison strike could spread into Pennsylvania.

There are over 47,000 men and women in Pennsylvania prisons. Pennsylvania has the second highest percentage of elderly prisoners in the U.S. As of Jan. 1, 2018, the DOC reported 10,442 inmates over the age of 50. There are roughly 5,400 inmates serving life without parole (LWOP) in Pennsylvania. These are men and women who have little to no hope of getting out of prison alive.

Prison medical care is inadequate; it is mostly negligent. Add that to being elderly with decades of prison life, including the quality of the food and now the bad water.

The leading causes of death in the state’s prisons are heart disease, cancer and liver disease. Over 6,000 prisoners have active hepatitis-C, which often results in liver cancer and has many secondary symptoms including skin conditions and arthritis.

Although hep-C can be cured, the DOC refuses treatment until a prisoner is so sick he is close to death – because of the cost. In Mumia Abu-Jamal’s lawsuit, the federal judge ordered the DOC to provide the cure and ruled that the DOC’s argument it costs too much is unconstitutional.

Some of us have been able to get the hep-C anti-viral pills, but only after the threat of a lawsuit. And even then, prisoners have died within days of receiving the first few treatments.

Prison medical care is inadequate; it is mostly negligent. Add that to being elderly with decades of prison life, including the quality of the food and now the bad water.

Prisoners health and lives are not considered worth the money. But Pennsylvania is spending tens of millions of dollars over the next years for punitive so-called security measures to stop a relatively minimal problem of drugs into the prison.

Since December 2017, with the support of other elderly prisoners, I have tried to get remedial policies to stop the disrespectful and abusive treatment of seniors at SCI Frackville. This is for housing unit adjustments, additional blankets and cold-weather clothing – gloves, hats, turtleneck shirts – as well as an activities program for seniors and a mentoring program with younger prisoners. The DOC denies these accommodations for elderly prisoners.

For months I’ve worked to get adequate programming for elderly prisoners at SCI Frackville (those 50 years and older). Other men also are helping with this. Every step has been a fight. Requests for provisions are denied for lack of funds.

I’ve filed grievances and we have tried to get out the word. There are 70 of us who are now in the program. We were supposed to get two hours a week, now it’s down to one. There are unreasonable and nonsense restrictions. No funds are allocated toward the “50 and Over Life Enhancement Program.” Men can’t bring in newspapers to read, because CO P. Damiter, the activities manager, said he “doesn’t like it.”

Prisoners health and lives are not considered worth the money. But Pennsylvania is spending tens of millions of dollars over the next years for punitive so-called security measures to stop a relatively minimal problem of drugs into the prison.

The money for the activities programs comes from DOC budget allocations as well as from the inmate welfare fund, which is profit from the prisoners’ commissary. From records we got a hold of, CO Damiter sends large payments to friends of his to teach basketball, soccer and football to Black and inner-city prisoners.

These positions were never put up for a bid; no African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans have been considered for these jobs. It seems like Damiter is getting kickbacks. There needs to be an accounting of the funds.

DOC policies of punishment and harassment

Confiscation of all inmate boots without compensation: Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania DOC punished all Pennsylvania prisoners for the alleged action of one prisoner, confiscating expensive property without compensation. In February 2018, one inmate, wearing Timberland boots, was accused of stomping a guard who died days later.

Major Tillery and family

As punishment, the head of the prison guards’ association called for banning and taking boots from all prisoners in the state. The DOC ordered all prisoners to give up their boots. Maybe half the prison population owned these boots and had paid over $100 a pair.

The DOC took the boots without compensation. We were told if we wanted to mail our boots to a charity, the DOC said they would pay for the mailing of boots – out of the inmate welfare fund. At Frackville there were at least 300 grievances.

Prisoners across the state filed legal cases in state and federal courts to stop the DOC from seizing the boots. There are differing legal grounds including the taking of prisoner’s property without due process and violating medical orders for some prisoners.

The DOC tried to get one judge to rule on all the filed cases without even giving notice to all the plaintiffs. This was challenged, and the judge reversed himself. These separate and spontaneous actions speak to the underlying rumblings among prisoners state-wide. There hasn’t been a court decision yet.

Other abuses and harassment against prisoners: Inmate legal files were destroyed or damaged by guards at the new $400 million high tech prison complex named Phoenix. There was increased harassment of visitors and prisoners at Frackville prior to the lockdown targeting women visitors, sending them away or only allowing non-contact visits.

This included an 80-year-old grandmother who traveled from New Jersey to visit her grandson who had to turn around and go home – because the body scanning machine is set to go off if a bra has even the smallest metal hook and eye. Prisoners are upset. Visitors were angry.

When it comes to health care, aging, family and visitors, legal and personal mail, books and newspapers and all conditions of imprisonment, there is no aspect of the DOC policy that deals with humanity and respect. The prison system is corrupt and repressive.

You can help

Tell the Department of Corrections:

  • End the new restrictions on visitation, personal and legal mail and buying newspapers, magazines and books
  • Do the audit of SCI Frackville Prisoner Activities Account!


  • DOC Secretary John Wetzel: 717-728-2577
  • DOC Eastern Region Deputy Secretary Michael Wenerowicz: 717-728-4122 or 4123
  • SCI Frackville Superintendent Kathy Brittain: 570-874-4516


Call and write:

Send our brother some love and light: Major Tillery, AM9786, SCI Frackville, 1111 Altamont Blvd., Frackville, PA 17931. Visit his website, Tillery’s investigation is ongoing. He badly needs funds to fight for his freedom. Contribute via to Major Tillery AM9786 PADOC.