DOC says safety is paramount, policies have already cut drug incidents in half
Story & photo by Cindy Bailey, GreeneSpeak Editor/Publisher
Rices Landing–Brenda Emerick, 59, of Rices Landing, sent GreeneSpeak a very articulate Letter to the Editor regarding controversial mail and security policies implemented recently at PA state prisons. These measures were announced in September, after 57 staff were sickened at prisons statewide. The state Dept. of Corrections linked the illnesses with expo- sure to synthetic cannabinoids.
ick’s son has refused to accept his legal mail and has filed a lawsuit against the DOC.
Emerick sees the introduction of body scanners and x-rays as a violation of privacy.
The new regulations concern legal and non-legal inmate mail, body scanners, drone detection, ion scanners which can detect synthetic cannabinoids, and visiting room prac- tices and books.
Also, the vending machines had been off limits, but are supposed to be available by Dec. 10th. “To restrict visitors from purchasing food is detrimental to building family ties,” she said, adding that she always looks forward to buying her son a treat, as visitors are not permitted to bring in food. Emerick’s saga began April 30, 2002. According to the Pocono Record, on that day, her son Heath Gray, then 22, was with a man named Keith Young, 25, who started a fire that killed a five-year-old boy. Eventually, both men were convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life without parole. Young avoided a death sentence by testifying that Gray helped start the fire.
Emerick and her husband who raised the boy with her since he was seven moved to Rices Landing in 2004 from the Williamsport area where this all transpired, so they could visit Heath more often. Through the years, this plucky mom has become quite knowledgeable about prison life and inmates’ rights, penning articles for a newsletter called “Fight for Lifers” and joining the PA Prison Society advocacy group, where she became a “friendly visitor,” meaning she can visit anyone at any state prison.
After more than 16 years, Emerick has become accustomed to wending her way through a life nobody really wants. She looks forward to every minute of the six days each month she’s permitted to visit Heath, where they talk and play Scrabble and formerly enjoyed sharing a snack. She sees the these hastily adopted security policies as unconstitutional and something that could derail the fragile and few joys they can still share together.
In fact, a number of lawsuits have been filed by plaintiffs who say the policies violate the First Amendment, including the ACLU, Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project.
But Wetzel emphasizes that safety is paramount, noting, “After an unprecedented number of exposures to dangerous sub- stances and 14-day lockdown, we’re are pleased to announce progress, an expansion of our book policy, and the data that indicates our staff, inmates, and visitors are safer today than
But DOC Secretary John Wetzel maintains that, “These policies were put in place for safety and to eradicate drugs from the prisons.” A 45-day report, issued Oct. 19, indicated that the policies “are working.”
Gray, now 39, maintains his innocence.
According to DOC statistics, emergency room visits for employee drug exposure dropped from 48 to 8; drug finds dropped by 46 percent; positive drug tests from random inmate drug tests dropped by half; inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults declined; and drug-related inmate misconducts were cut in half.
At home in Rices Landing, Brenda Emerick holds her favorite photo of her son Heath as a preschooler.
they were late last summer.”
State Corrections Officers Union President Jason Bloom said,
“Our union supports these policy changes…because they protect our staff, who are dedicated public servants and who deserve to come home safely each day.”
Meanwhile Emerick is coping with the situation, knowing that her son accepts his fate, believing that his bad decision to be with a violent person one night may have caused him to loose his freedom but saved his soul.
“He has found God and has read the Bible numerous times,” she says. “He teaches Bible classes and writes Bible study les- sons that he mails to people. He’s an awesome person.” Look- ing back, her voice still trembles as she says, “When they came and arrested him, I was in shock, I couldn’t eat, sleep, read, finish a sentence or complete a conversation.” But these days she says, “I do what I have to do to keep living life to its fullest.”
And that includes continuing to advocate for Heath and other inmates, in regard to these questionable security practices that she sees as efforts to silence inmates, adding, “These policies are dehumanizing. Prisoners need to connect with their families, the DOC is trying to take any meaningful communication away, yet expecting the prisoners to be docile.”
But Emerick, whose son is incarcerated at SCI-Greene in Waynesburg, says, “I’m outraged that the state will spend $15 million a year for idiotic policies that are detrimental…. These new policies are so upsetting because the DOC
is abusing their power while oppressing the already op- pressed.”
Non-legal mail is now being shipped to a Florida process- ing company which scans and emails the items, which are then destroyed. The images are printed out at the various prisons.
“So a child making a birthday card for someone: that card will never be touched by the recipient, ” Emerick says. Nor- mally she corresponds with two dozen inmates who have no family, but this year she refuses to send Christmas cards that will be thrown away. Photos printed out are often unrecog- nizable and four pages of material are squeezed onto one letter-sized sheet.
Legal mail is opened, copied, stored for 45 days, and destroyed. Inmates receive copies which have been handled by several people. Concerned about confidentiality, Emer-
By Cindy Balley