At least 13 prisoners at SCI Phoenix, the Pennsylvania prison with the largest population, began a 10-day hunger strike in late June that ended on July 4. Their action was in response to the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) program, which they state has not been officially outlined and may very well be a new form of solitary confinement by a different name.
Despite much ambiguity surrounding the program, it is known that the Intensive Management Unit is filled with prisoners kept on the Restricted Release List (RRL) managed by the Secretary of Corrections, and only the secretary has unilateral authority to determine who is forced into such means of solitary confinement.
Unless prisoners are given guidelines about what constitutes IMU, they worry that it’s simply a new way to alienate them from the general population. As a reminder, international guidelines, such as the United Nations’ Mandela Rules, state that more than 15 consecutive days of solitary confinement is considered a form of torture—yet many United States prisoners are being held this way with no end in sight.
The strikers’ demands were as follows:
1) Distribution of an IMU handbook so they understand its policy and a clear path on how to return to the general population.
2) Access to actual rehabilitation, educational, mental health, and recreational programs if confined to IMU.
3) Concrete ways on how to be removed from the Restricted Release List (RRL), which allows DOC to keep prisoners on IMU for as long as they want.
Several of the strikers are members of the Vaughn 17 who were acquitted for their involvement in the 2017 prison riot in Delaware. According to the Human Rights Coalition, who has been working in solidarity with striking prisoners at SCI Phoenix, those acquitted members have still been confined to harsher solitary restrictions despite receiving no recent misconduct violations.
In a recent commentary for Prison Radio, correspondent Derrick Gibson spoke about the effects of the strike and expressed hope that the direct action would bring about positive results. Gibson shares, “This IMU program policy and procedures are alleged to be implemented by the PADOC to give prisoners held in long-term solitary confinement on the restricted release list more privileges, out-of-cell programming, and the opportunity to be phased out of solitary confinement and off of the restricted release list and housed back into general population. Hopefully, this IMU program will be properly instituted and will be an effective tool to end solitary confinement in the restricted release list here in the PADOC, but only time will tell.”
The SCI Phoenix strikers released a statement announcing a transition from the strike on July 4th, 2021, saying: “We look at the 10-day strike as a success. We got them to make some concessions like fixing our issues with the showers & phone calls. The biggest thing is they have started to allow our fellow members of the V17 off of the illegal RRL status. We feel that the main reason for this is because they feel that us in population is the lesser of two evils. They are under the FALSE hope that if our own restrictions are lessened that we will stop trying to destroy their system. They are sadly mistaken. Our sole purpose is to tear down every last brick until every last prisoner is free. Until then, we will never be free.”
Within days of the strike, they were able to secure the release of four people: Ricardo “Truth” Noble and Jarreau “Ruk” Ayers, as well as two other individuals, Mack and Lites from the Restricted Release List, back to the general population. The remaining people are pending transfer to another facility and Secretary Wetzel signed a new change in policy stating that everyone who is misconduct free for 1 year will transition off of RRL. They also achieved their demand of getting a handbook written for IMU policies which will be released in the coming days.
However, the fight is far from over. Caine Pelzer, another striker, said “It appears … that their step down is predicated upon jobs to clean showers and this false idea of us needing the ability to keep this unit up to par.”
To prevent future oppressive and arbitrary solitary confinement programs from emerging, we ask you to take action with us in Pennsylvania by:
- Calling and emailing Department of Corrections leadership to make sure that strikers will receive their handbook. Ask for a date they should expect to receive the handbook. If no date is provided, then tell them that calls will continue until released.
- Tammy Ferguson, Deputy Secretary Eastern Region: 717.728.4122
- Ann Verbiya, Staff Assistant: 717.728.4114
- John E. Wetzel, Secretary of Corrections: 717.728.4109
- Amy Schwenk, Chief of Staff: 717.728. 4107
- Calling and emailing your local representative and demand that they sign and support House Bill 1037; and your local senator, demanding that they support Senate Bill 685
You can also raise awareness and donate using the resources below:
- Donating to HRC’s Solidarity Not Solitary Relief Fund (cashapp $hrcsolitaryfund)
- Support organizations working to support The Vaughn 17 and strikers including Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Philly Bail Community Fund
At Prison Radio, we dedicate our broadcasts to the voices of incarcerated people, and many of them have told us horrific accounts about what happens in solitary confinement. Together, we can work to end one of the most inhumane practices in prison as one of the many steps toward an eventual abolitionist future. When we fight, we win!
Emma & Tom
Prison Radio Interns