Dining Hall Boycott at Pennsylvania’s Coal Township Prison

by Incarcerated Citizens Coalition

From PHN Issue 22, Fall 2014

From June 16 to 23, men at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Coal Township in Pennsylvania initiated a 1-week, peaceful boycott of the Inmate Dining Hall in response to the implementation of the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) “efficiency diet” at the prison. The men supported one another by sharing food and commissary items on the units. The boycott was overwhelmingly successful on the West Side of the prison, where over 70% of the men participated, with only 20 to 25 individuals per unit/wing going down to the dining hall per meal.

The “efficiency diet” severely reduced the portions on the men’s trays, to the point that older men were suffering hunger pangs. The meals’ main portions were deliberately placed in the small slots in the food trays to further reduce the portion amount.

The men were also protesting the disregard for basic rights and privileges they were entitled to by law and DOC policy, the withholding and censorship of mail, failure to respond to grievances, lack of medical care and a doctor, the illumination of general population cells throughout the night by a red light which disrupted men’s sleep and contributed to depression and anxiety, excessive telephone rates, and the uncomfortable atmosphere in the visiting room.

The men at SCI Coal released a list of 22 Requests for Change, which was published in a local newspaper and can be reviewed online at http://decarceratepa.info/22demands.

The men were supported by family, friends, and organizations on the outside, who called SCI Coal and the DOC Central Office, supporting the men’s concerns and stand. Several men also filed grievances requesting that if the efficiency diet was caused by budget concerns, as alleged by staff, then the Staff Dining Hall should also have their entitlements reduced.

At the conclusion of the boycott, the administration dug in its heels and ignored the men’s requests and concerns. Follow-up boycotts were considered by the men but never got off the ground, due to the demoralization of many of the men following the prison administration’s failure to grant any concessions. Unfortunately, many of the men could not see that change takes time and continual struggle, and when they saw no results, many slumped back into indifference.

The administration subsequently retaliated against some of the men it believed were organizers of the boycott, especially the men who filed grievances, and transferred them to other prisons. Despite this, the boycott was successful in demonstrating that under certain circumstances, prisoner unity in a peaceful manner is possible. To the participants, it was a great experience in human solidarity in an environment that does everything possible to strip people of their sense of humanity and sanity.  

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