New Pa. prison policies only oppress prisoners


(Illustration by Maria Heines | Staff Illustrator)

By Jason Henriquez, For The Pitt News

Pennsylvania’s prisons have always been punitive — but on Sept. 5 their policies became indistinguishable from those of totalitarian regimes.

After nearly 30 staffers and an unspecified number of inmates across 21 Pennsylvania prisons became ill from suspected exposure to illegal drugs delivered via mail in August, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections unveiled a set of bureaucratic policies designed to prevent such drug trafficking incidents — this includes permanently denying entrance to visitors after three strikes, heavy surveillance of mail and most appallingly, a ban on all paper book donations.

“The safety and security of our employees is my number one concern,” PADOC secretary John Wetzel said in a press release.

But these autocratic policies won’t protect prison employees or inmates. They’re just another blatant attempt to further disenfranchise prisoners under the guise of law and order.

PADOC claims the transportation of mail and books between inmates and prison guards allowed dangerous drugs to spread throughout each of the prisons — but these assertions are highly dubious, according to University of Pennsylvania toxicologist Jeanmarie Perrone.

“We know that skin absorption is very unlikely, and we also know that inhalational sickness is also not going to occur from transient exposure,” she told WITF in a Sept. 5 article.

Perrone believes the cause may actually be anxiety or fear about drug exposure — not actual contamination.

“[I]f you think you’re about to die associated with the exposure that you just had, it’s certainly easy to see patients nearly fainting or feeling very unwell,” she said.

Because these new policies are so oppressive and were implemented based on such thin evidence, it seems PADOC doesn’t actually care about the welfare of prisoners — it wants to punish inmates and will find any excuse possible to do so.

Through banning paper books, PADOC has almost completely eliminated inmates’ access to literature — a great source of education, especially since only a few programs allow prisoners to get a degree while imprisoned.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if prisoners had access to adequately stocked libraries — but prison libraries are woefully understocked and underfunded, limiting inmates to a tiny selection to choose from. Banning paper books and insufficiently funding libraries is just a calculated attempt to keep prisoners ignorant and trap them under the boot of the prison system — but this is just the latest installment of PADOC’s war on the incarcerated.

Prisoners are essentially slave labor — across the country they earn an average minimum wage of 86 cents per hour, a shockingly low number, but still generous compared to Pennsylvania inmates’ average minimum wage of 42 cents per hour. So buying an e-reader like a Kindle or tablet — which provides access to a list of 8,500 e-books from a PADOC contractor — is now the only way prisoners can access books not in prison libraries.

The prison system has a stranglehold on seemingly every facet of incarcerated people’s lives. It puts inmates who protest their inhumane conditions in solitary confinement. It denies basic accommodations to disabled people. It deprives pregnant women in labor of necessary health services.

A healthy society should aim to rehabilitate criminals rather than punishing them relentlessly — punishment only increases anxiety among prisoners and makes it harder for them to integrate back into society once released. These policies appear to tackle crime because they’re tough on prisoners — but they just exist for show. They won’t protect victims — especially since they don’t lower recidivism rates.

Prisoners, guards and civilians drew attention to this inhumane treatment in a South Carolina protest in August — their demands included an end to prison overcrowding, access to sentencing reform and an end to wage slavery. This is a fight that everyone should join. In 13 states prisoners can’t vote even once they’ve served their sentence — so it’s up to everyday Americans to join this fight and combat the inhumane practices of the prison system.

We can donate to groups like the Amistad Law Project — a public interest law center that provides free legal services to incarcerated people in Pennsylvania. We can sign its petition to undo the policies recently implemented by PADOC — a petition that has thousands of signatures already.

We can call our governor, state representatives and state senators — and hold their feet to the fire, demanding that they disband the prison system that oppresses so much of the incarcerated population.

Most importantly, we can keep fighting back against injustice — the corrupt prison system won’t fix itself.