By Patrick Middleton
In the backyard of the Pennsylvania Department of Correction’s Central Office sits one of the most brutal and inhumane restricted housing units (RHU) in the entire Commonwealth. Having recently spent over a hundred days there, I witnessed staff brutality and DOC policy violations on a daily basis.
It blew my mind to watch some inmates being denied meals for one and two days at a time, all because they were guilty of talking out loud or being child molesters. At every single meal I watched someone getting burned because he wasn’t standing at the precise angle in his doorway when the food cart passed by, or he wasn’t dressed properly, or he’d been observed having a conversation with his neighbor. Once a prisoner who’s been denied his meal shouted out this passage from the DOC Inmate Handbook: “Denying food will not be used as a form of punishment.” The hateful guard shouted back, “This is Camp Hill, fellow. We do what we want here!” And they surely do.At ever shower period on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, mean are denied showers on a whim. First, the guards scoff at any prisoner who asks for a shower during his first week. Then if a man is in the RHU for violating some infraction against a staff person, he is further punished by being repeatedly ignored when he asks for a shower. They rake nine men to the showers at one time. If there are eleven prisoners on a tier or section who want to sower, two of these men are going to be burned. They’ll enter the cells and find some graffiti on the wall or some other excuse to deny men a shower. Then there’s the matter of the water temperature – it’s determined by the particular mood of the guard in charge that day! One day it might be scalding hot, the next day ice cold. If any man is heard uttering a word once the water is turned on, everyone is punished – they cut all the showers off, and everyone is forced to go back to his cell lathered in soap. Finally, when a holiday falls on a Monday, there are no showers that day.
Another violation of both PA and federal laws comes in the form of denying an hour of daily exercise. The exercise cages are all there, but no once in my hundred plus days was I afforded the opportunity to go out in the exercise yard. When I asked a lieutenant why they don’t allow yard, she said, “That’s preposterous. All you have to do is sign up.” My sister called the prison one day to inquire about my yard, and she was told that the log book showed I’d had yard that very day. That was a vicious lie. (A couple men did get to go out in the exercise yard while I was there. These men were, I was told, on long term administrative custody status.)
Once I watched two guards enter the cell next to mine and beat a fellow until he couldn’t cry out anymore. All the while, a female lieutenant stood on the tier watching. When she said “Okay, that’s enough fellows,” one of the guards shouted back, “We’re not done yet, LT.”
The sickness doesn’t stop here. I personally saw them handing out confiscation slips to an inmate whose mail included a newspaper mailing or two. Once this same fellow was denied mail that was labeled “legal” and “religious materials.” All of this confiscated mail was places in his property. What about phone calls? Well, here’s another blatant DOC policy violation.
In the words of the RHU’s Program Review Committee Chief. “We don’t do phone calls.” What about additional commissary items for men on long-term administrative custody status? “We don’t do that either.”
At every turn Camp Hill’s RHU is designed to break a man’s spirit in every way possible. A building without air conditioning, the place is a festering hot box in the summer with temperatures reaching 115 degrees at times. The walls of cinderblock cells are covered in sheets of metal which serve to keep the heat intense. Men who try to write letters in this sweltering heat find themselves dripping sweat all over the paper. Thus, we learn to write in the middle of the night when it’s not as hot. During the day those who have been there long enough have learned to flood the floor and lay in the cool water in an effort to bring one’s body temperature down and make things a little more bearable. Then there are the cockroaches and waterbugs the size of matchbox cars running around interminably. Once I was awakened in the middle of the night to find one of these giant bugs crawling in my hair and after that, I made a habit of sleeping with a towel over my head. Throughout the day you can hear several times in every hour the slap! Of men’s shower shoes as they kill bug after bug and curse like sailors in the process.
Every single day I spent in the RHU, I thanked my lucky stars for my loved ones who kept me grounded in hope and restraint. There were days when mail came to my door and I cried with gratitude, just for the reminder that I was loved. Feeling that love was the perfect antidote for the hatred and rage I’d built up inside of me all day toward these vicious guards. I have always believed that my spirit could withstand the harshest treatment and conditions that could come my way. I don’t believe that any more. As vigilant as I was, I couldn’t shield myself completely from their brutality. They confiscated a piece of my mail almost daily and placed it it my property, sending me a confiscation slip with an explanation that the envelope was too big or it contained religious materials. Twice, too, they came in my cell on shower day and denied me a shower after they found someone else’s scribbling on the wall.
No. The oppression prisoners are subjected to in the RHU would crack the toughest human’s spirit. On those days when would watch my fellow prisoners being physically and mentally tortured, I cried for them and thanked God it wasn’t me. I was torn and dejected nevertheless.
After observing these guards for all those weeks and months, I came to realize how truly self loathing they are. Treating prisoners cruelly is the way they validate their own existence, it’s the key to their power.
What amazes me more than anything about the brutality and the inhumanity that continues to take place in the RHU is that it is condoned by high level staff. All of these men are aware of what is taking place there, and each has his own spin tactics for denying the truth. These men are professionals and they’re good at what they do. When they sat brutality and inhumanity don’t exist in their back yards, who’s to argue with them? And who cares anyway?