On Sept. 5, Gov. Wolf visited the most oppressive of Pennsylvania's 25 state prisons, SCI-Greene, and met with correctional officers. It was one of the few times the governor has set foot inside any of the walls or fences that lock almost 50,000 people apart from the rest of the commonwealth.
"The recent spate of staff exposure to unknown substances in several state correctional facilities" is the reason given for his rare appearance. Immediately after the meeting, Wolf and Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced some of the most punitive policy changes I've seen in all of my 23 years of confinement.
Our mail is now sent to a private company in Florida, where it will get opened, scanned, and emailed to the prisons. At some point thereafter, copies of our mail are printed and delivered to us. The originals will later be destroyed. Under this policy we will never again receive original photographs or actual holiday cards.
Legal mail will now be copied and given to us, with the original — and highly sensitive — documents kept on file for 15 days. Body scanners and extra officers will be added to the visit rooms. Our access to books and magazines is dramatically reduced.
Who is paying for all this? The taxpayers, at a cost of $15 million.
It's unfortunate that Wolf didn't take more time during this visit to meet with those of us who will be hurt most by these policies: the incarcerated population, our families and friends, and the legal community.
Politics being what they are, it's no coincidence that he wanted to score points with the guards' union two months before Election Day. But he failed to recognize that each of the 50,000 human beings trapped inside Pennsylvania's cages has at least one supporter who will be voting in November, if not dozens. Many of us enthusiastically supported Wolf four years ago, praying for relief from the draconian policies of his predecessors during the "tough on crime" years.
That's why this announcement, at this time, is especially hard to fathom.
Wolf says the DOC will be working to "put in place the necessary protections and procedures to ensure staff safety." It's clear that staff lives are of higher value and priority than those of the people they are charged with protecting and caring for — some of whom were likewise sickened during the event that sparked all this. And it's still not known for sure that drugs are the cause, and if so, where they came from.
Incarcerated people's lives matter, too.
By now the injustice and harm of mass incarceration is well-documented. Being tough on black, brown, and poor people has not solved our social ills, but has created deeper ones. And so will these new policies. They are a three-decade step backward. We can no more punish our way to drug-free prisons than we can imprison our way to a drugless nation.
But it's not too late to do the next right thing.
Gov. Wolf, I urge you to visit another prison. Talk with those who have to live in these places for years and decades. Take a ride to Philadelphia, from where most of the DOC's population is drawn, and meet the families who already suffer enough and would break under any additional hardship. Meet with the legal community. Hear about the years of litigation Pennsylvania taxpayers will have to pay for because of these new, unnecessary violations of attorney-client privilege.
You'll hear that we, too, care about public safety, including the safety of those employed by the DOC. These policies won't get us there. It's not a choice between whom to protect. We're all worthy.