An Open Letter to the Incarcerated of Pennsylvania

by Anonymous

June 16, 2022

It has been more than a year since the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections vaccinated its inmate population. Mask mandates have been lifted. The unvaccinated have been allowed off quarantine and spread throughout general population. And yet here we are, another year gone, and the pandemic restrictions limiting activity and quality of life within the prisons remain. The PADOC has successfully used a deadly pandemic as a smoke screen to institute many of the wide-ranging and destructive restrictions it’s wanted all along.

Many of us served as “essential” workers during the pandemic, tirelessly disinfecting the blocks, preparing food and distributing trays. We toiled for long hours to keep the prisons running, with the understanding that Covid was an unprecedented situation that required all of us to work together. Besides those few lucky enough to work, the majority of us were stuck confined in our cells for days and weeks and months on end. It was tough on all of us, but we made it through, and to show its appreciation for our cooperation the PADOC has chosen to keep its pandemic restrictions in place indefinitely.

Former DOC Secretary John Wetzel admitted as much in his 2022 budget report: “Some institutional operations established during the pandemic are here to stay.” These new operational standards include: reducing large congregations of inmates through zone schedules, adopting permanent infrastructure to maintain the integrity of the zones (so constructing separate yards and buildings for each zone), and reducing unnecessary inmate movement by providing services directly to the housing units, including chow.

We’ve all suffered the stress and frustration that come with less dayroom and yard time, fewer programming opportunities, more isolation. We have all felt the impact on our mental health, being forced to live in the cell with another person for so many more hours a day than had been the norm before. We’ve all eaten cold meals, witnessed the decline in variety on the trays, and the low serving standards. The DOC uses claims of violence to justify their restrictions, saying the prisons are safe when we’re locked up as much as possible, but do they really think the prisons are becoming safer as we grow more stressed and fed-up, as staff antagonize us and laugh at our condition more and more? They use claims of drug use to justify their claims, the same drugs that their own heartless mail policies supposedly solved years ago, and yet they refuse to help those of us with addictions, or offer us any productive alternative uses for our time, and vilify us and our families as the source of these drugs while their own staff fuel our dependencies and line their pockets with a market on contraband they cornered with millions of tax-dollar paid policies.

Haven’t we had enough of all this?

Luckily, there’s a simple solution, and it’s called Civil Disobedience, or the peaceful refusal to obey rules and orders based on our moral objections to them. We all feel in the pit of our guts that these restrictions are wrong, that they’ll only end up turning us into the animals that the DOC already claims we are. Unless we resist these policies, we’re all complicit in them. Some of us might feel that peaceful resistance isn’t good enough. We’re frustrated and pissed off, we’re locked in all day and just want to scream and rage. Any human being under the same conditions would feel the same way. But peaceful disobedience is crucial to our hopes of reversing these restrictions. Why? Consider our other options: We do nothing, and the DOC assumes that we’re just fine with the way things are, and they maintain the restrictions forever. Or we resist with violence, and the DOC is able to justify their restrictions to the public. Violence and staff assaults only serve to beef up the statistics they use against us in the media.

But when we resist peacefully, we’re able to bring their entire churning immoral machine to a grinding halt. Refuse orders, calmly return to our cells. Don’t report for work. Don’t buy their commissary or overpriced Securepaks or linkunits. File grievances on everything they’re doing wrong. And when they lock the prisons down in response, we bide our time and wait. We’re used to being locked down, it’s nothing for us, hardly worse than an average day for us now anyway. We can last a few days, a few weeks, no problem. Sooner or later, they’ll be the ones who give. They’ll realize they need us to run the kitchens, and fix the plumbing, and mow the grass. Can we all agree to unite for one more lockdown for the sake of ending the endless lockdown we’re all currently living through?

Many of us are anxious to go home someday. Some might worry about the consequences of resistance, about write-ups and parole. Many of us depend on those measly paychecks we get each month from slaving away for the DOC. But we have to remind ourselves of our glaring reality: even before the pandemic, the DOC adopted the careless strategy of punishing us collectively for their own failures to perform the duties expected of them by the public. They are lazy, and want easy solutions that require them to do the least amount of work possible. And they will continue to take things away and make life harder on us unless we stand up to them. There are almost 40,000 of us. They can’t send every one of us to the bucket. They can’t physically process that many misconducts. We must resist them collectively, just as they punish us collectively, if there’s any hope for change to occur.

Security will always be a factor in prison life, but the DOC has chosen to favor security over every other consideration of our well being. They must find a balance between security and meaningful rehabilitation. They must  consider our mental health, our connections to home, or they’ll just be sending us back to our communities someday even more broken than when we left. We need meaningful visitation hours with our families who travel far distances. We need more time out of our cells. We need more fresh air and social interaction. We need our religious volunteers and role models to return. We need hot meals. We need real opportunities to better ourselves, and to keep our minds occupied in productive ways. We need jobs with a livable wage, a wage that shows we’re appreciated for the work we provide for the DOC’s operations. We need to open up the prisons!

If you feel the same way, join us in an act of collective peaceful resistance to the ongoing DOC pandemic restrictions for the week of Columbus Day, October 10th-14th 2022. Spread the word. Mobilize your loved ones to join in. Don’t work. Don’t pay. Don’t obey. Change will come!

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