In July, 2,637 inmates and 175 truckloads of property were moved from the nearly century-old Graterford Prison to the most modern and expensive facility the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has to offer: the $400 million State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County.
According to the DOC, it went smoothly. "The number-one thing the inmates are saying when they walk into Phoenix on an 87-degree day was 'wow, air-conditioning,'" spokesperson Amy Worden noted in one email.
Since then, though, inmates have said a lot more. In letters and phone calls to family and reporters, and in official grievances, they've reported a raft of complaints about the conditions in the new prison and, especially, about loss, vandalism, or destruction of their personal property during the move. Several described racial slurs and graphic imagery drawn on photographs of their loved ones — acts the inmates describe as "hate crimes."
One man, Malik Gilmore, provided copies of photographs he said were defaced by the DOC's specially trained Corrections Emergency Response Team, which managed the move: one with a swastika inked on his brother's forehead, another with a penis drawn over his son's mouth. Another, Eugene Myrick, found "squeeze cheese" poured into a box containing the legal documents for his case, which is active in Philadelphia courts. And Carmen Calvanese said that during the move, he had inconsistent access to the insulin needed to regulate his Type 1 diabetes, and that he ended up in a hospital intensive-care unit as a result.
More than two dozen men described in letters shared with the Inquirer and Daily News a range of incidents including spice packets, canned sardines, pickles, and peanut butter emptied into their clothing; paint dumped on their personal effects; and religious objects, legal documents, and personal photographs missing or shredded.
"We were dehumanized. Our property was … treated as trash," inmate Steven Reph wrote. "One elderly gentleman had his dentures taken or misplaced. How is this man supposed to eat now?"
Now, many inmates say they are being reimbursed with taxpayer dollars, though how much they'll get is unclear. One man reported getting $40 for three towels, sweatpants, and a jar of mayonnaise; others said they'd rejected offers so they could pursue legal action against the department.
"All property discrepancies are being reviewed and are in the process of being resolved," Worden said in an email, but said she could not address specific claims until that work is complete. "The agency is working to make whole any inmates who have legitimate complaints regarding damaged or lost property. However, there were multiple issues involving inmates who tried to move more items than are allowed or moved items that are now forbidden under DOC policy." Such items, she said, were confiscated. Those could include items once sold by the prison commissary, such as the Timberland boots banned after an inmate wearing such boots beat and kicked a guard to death in Somerset County earlier this year.
Complaints are also mounting over conditions at Phoenix, including limited access to water fountains and restrooms in various areas of the prison, a lack of hot or cold water, and what inmates claim is the state's most-restrictive telephone policy.
In recent weeks, letters circulating the prison called on inmates to boycott the commissary and telephone services beginning Sept. 2 — to "temporarily suspend the financial enrichment of the system until such time that the administration addresses our issues." It's an approach that bears a passing resemblance to the prison labor strike reportedly underway in a handful of prisons around the country.
That was preempted, however, by a systemwide lockdown declared Aug. 29. Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said the measure is a necessary precaution after a series of drug busts and staff illnesses in central and western Pennsylvania prisons. The DOC believes the outbreaks were connected to a substance similar to K2, the synthetic cannabinoid.
Dana Cooper of Emmaus, whose husband is incarcerated at Phoenix, collected dozens of letters, some from inmates as old as 75, who complained about the long walk to the medical offices, the lack of seating in the yards, and policies that allow them to return to their cells during recreational time to use the restroom but then prevent them from leaving again.
Above all, though, they complained about the destruction of property.
Henry Goodelman said his uncle, inmate Jonathan Margoles, found his tefillin — an item used by some observant Jews during prayer — confiscated. Danny Liptrot, a Muslim inmate, said in a letter that his prayer rug and kufi cap were stolen. "They replaced it with a nude picture of a woman, and an athletic supporter," he wrote.
Anthony Wright said in a letter that his watch and several other possessions were missing, and that "swastikas and derogatory images" were drawn on his photos.
"I just think," he wrote, "even an animal deserves to be treated with dignity and respect."