Prison Radio
Sergio Hyland

Sup everybody. It’s Uptown Serg, and I got this piece that I want y’all to listen to.

When I arrived at SCI Chester back in 2016, one of the very first elders I met and befriended was Tommy Pirant. He was a gentle giant in the seventies and walking with the aid of a cane. Prison conditions had destroyed both of his knees, eventually putting so much strain on his back that he needed multiple surgeries.

When it got really bad, I forced Tommy to let me push him in his wheelchair as we both made our way to the medical department for our daily shots of insulin. See, like me, Tommy was a diabetic, but he had it under control. I remember getting a good laugh whenever I see this big old man walking around the unit with his tiny Chihuahua named Penny. Man he loved Penny, and Penny loved him. He treated that dog like family, but that’s how Tommy was and everybody knew it.

In fact, not long ago, he received a letter from the family of the person he was in prison for killing. They had forgiven them and wanted to know if there was anything they could do to help him to get out of prison and rejoin his family and community.

Soon after receiving the letter, he started the commutation process, hoping for relief from the life sentence that he’d been serving for nearly 30 years. That relief, however, never came. On January 23rd, 2021. My elder Tommy Pirant died from COVID-19. The deadly virus was Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wessel has allowed to spread uncontrollably throughout the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

With the elderly most at risk of succumbing to this virus, many people believe that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is turning a blind eye to the danger, hoping that the virus will finish what the government started.

In Pennsylvania, a life sentence is a death sentence. And with the aging population of prisoners steadily increasing, so too is the prison budget. This leaves many of us to wonder if the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and government officials are conspiring to rid themselves of costly financial liabilities.

Such a cynical thought shouldn’t be summarily dismissed. In fact, many years ago, the federal prison system embraced the policy of death by attrition with political prisoners and other elder leaders would be thrown into solitary confinement until their deaths. The idea was to let these leaders die off through old age and other health issues. Since this pandemic has begin, several of our elders have died. Several more remain sick but are still fighting.

When I heard that Russell “Maroon” Shoatz was sick with COVID-19, I felt an ominous pain in my stomach, similar to the one I felt when I received news of my own father’s death. Like Tommy Pirant, Russell Shoatz is in his seventies. He has been incarcerated for nearly five decades straight. And during those 50 years, Russell Schoatz has been a leader, mentor, teacher, and father figure to innumerable young men who entered prison with diseased and corrupt mentalities.

I should know, because I’m one of them. I’m one of those men who wants to embrace the culture of self-hatred and violence. But because of Russell Shoatz and men like him, my life is completely different today, as so on the lives of countless others.

And July of 2019, several string legislators came into SCI Chester and watched the video of aging lifers making their case for compassionate release. Each of these men has spent at least 30 years in prison and suffered from serious medical issues among those men were Dennis McElany, Alvin Joiner, Tommy Pirant, and Leroy Ponzo.

Nobody, especially me, would have guessed that all of these men would be killed by John Wessel’s reckless mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. And while these shameful, spineless, ruthless bureaucrats continue in their efforts to deceive, I will continue risking my life and freedom to shine a light in the dark crevices where society has decided to hide the monsters that they hope to create.

Thanks for listening. You can follow me on Instagram @uptownserg.

These commentaries are recorded by Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.