By Richard Sean Gross
An account of the move from SCI Graterford to SCI Phoenix
in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
For several years leading up to the move, Graterford was awash in rumors and speculation. A hyper-active rumor mill cranked out possible dates and likely circumstances surrounding the move. The staff did nothing to quash bad rumors, even participating in the rumor-mongering. I did too. I remember speculating on what the new prison might be like based on a TV documentary I saw about a new jail in another state. Before the day was out I was hearing rumors which echoed my own speculation. After that, I didn’t believe anything I heard about the new jail, and rightly so, as very little that was predicted has actually materialized.
An atmosphere of uncertainty and impermanence pervaded Graterford. The administration repeatedly set dates for the move from January 2015 on, encouraging all to reduce their property before the “pending move.” Memos told us to ‘voluntarily’ reduce property before it was done for us. The less property we have, the easier it is for staff to search our cells. It was part of an intentional effort to cajole us into reducing our own property years before the actual move. Policy limits us to a footlocker and two boxes (my whole life in a footlocker and two boxes). A television doesn’t have to fit in the boxes but if you prefer books as I do - they must fit. I was forced to part with reference books I wanted to keep including my Bible. Do I take all my books and forgo underwear? Na.
We had a ‘content search’ a few months before the actual move which let me know that this time it was actually going to happen. I was ordered to get rid of a box right there on the spot. A lieutenant said I could send it home. I’m doing life. No guarantee that I’ll ever get out. How could I ship a box to someone and ask them to hold it for ten, twenty years? Maybe forever? I removed some stuff I wanted to keep from a box and then tossed it out onto the tier, demonstrating visible compliance with the searching officer. A guy two doors down argued about property rules and was stuck debating multiple staff members for four hours. After that scare, I got serious about reducing my property. I made tough choices, practiced packing and eventually made it down to the limit, my junk so carefully packed that no air was in the boxes. In the last months at Graterford, books and other property sat on the radiators free for the taking. As I parted with my books by dumping them out there, I saw those left by others, ones I would’ve liked to read. Not enough time to read them and not enough space to take them. I felt like the man in the classic Twilight Zone episode who finally has all the books in the world and time to read them and then breaks his glasses.
They reduced Graterford’s population in the last year of its use, from a high of over 3,800 down to about 2,600. I even had a few months alone in my cell, a rare treat in my 15 years at the Fort. No one knew if they were getting shipped. You would see someone one day and then never again. “I think he got shipped,” someone would tell you weeks later. Villanova University offers a free degree program at Graterford. Many Villanova students were shipped out with the expectation that they would get back to the Villanova program at Phoenix sometime later. I haven’t seen any of them come back even as others are getting promotional transfers to Phoenix for Villanova enrollment. A lot of guys considered troublemakers were shipped, perhaps to prevent trouble at Phoenix. Or maybe the administration simply took the opportunity to dump their undesirables at a time when other prisons had to take them. Prisons sometimes play ‘hot potato’ with human beings.
One day after breakfast they locked us down. I knew this was it, so glad that it would finally be over! The rumors, the worries, the waiting and the confusion. I’ve come to believe that there must be some correctional philosophy about using uncertainty as a tool of control. When they cannot openly, legally harm you; they have only the fear of the unknown to scare you with. It was Friday the 13th of July 2018 when they came for me. Graterford’s staff had largely moved over to the new jail; the moving was done by the CERTs (Corrections Emergency Response Teams). They were efficient and impersonal. The moving of 2,600 men took five days.
They had brought hundreds of blue carts recently, assembled them and had them staged. One for each prisoner and big enough to hold much more than a foot locker and two boxes. On the day at around 11am, a CERT rolled up to my cell door - asked if I was ready. “Yes,” I answered emphatically. It will probably be worse, I expect to hate it, I don’t want to move and yet after eight years of people yakking about the new jail I was more than anxious to get the stupid move over with. I placed my footlocker and two boxes into the cart and pushed it off to B block into the main corridor. I stood in line with my cart for a while, then was relieved of my belongings and taken into the school building for a search process. Metal detector, strip search (everything including my dentures) and a dog search. The woman told me to sit in a chair and then ran this orange dog around me twice. She complained of the dog being lazy which seemed off to me because the dog did sniff me but found no drugs because I had no drugs. After a month at Phoenix I met a guy coming out of the hole after a 30 day ‘investigation’ because his dog barked at him. No drugs were found. That ‘lazy’ orange dog maybe did me a favor.
When I saw the blue cart again it was on T block at Phoenix around 2 in the afternoon. I was pleased to see it so quickly, thankful that they needed it to move others. The cart was half full of my jumbled belongings. They didn’t even try to repack it as tightly as I had it. It took me quite some time to figure out what was there and what was not. Some contraband made it over while things I’m allowed to have did not. Typical of the hit or miss searches that I’ve been through dozens of times since coming to jail. I tell them to “take what you want just don’t hurt me.”
The move itself was marked by the mass vandalism and theft of inmate property; ostensibly by the CERT teams and very clearly intentional. A message was sent to us by the DOC hierarchy. A statement about their attitude toward us and how little they care about our personal items such as family photos. It was not done by a only few bad apples. The extent of it indicates that it was allowed and likely encouraged by supervisors. Much of the vandalism was weird and immature: sausages stuck in peanut butter etc.
Something red was smeared into the crotch of a pair of my briefs. The briefs were then neatly refolded and placed with the other pairs. I didn’t even find it right away. Phoenix’s laundry was not yet operational so they sent our laundry by truck across the state to another jail. One week T block’s laundry was left off the return truck and I got down to the last of my clean underwear. Finding the vandalized pair, I was creeped out and quickly threw them away. Who does stuff like that? I mean, besides junior high school dorks in a locker room. I didn’t complain. I don’t want to talk to them about it. Not sure I want to talk to them at all.
The new prison is cold and sterile; built of concrete, concertina and hate. While other states are closing theirs, PA builds a 400+ million-dollar monstrosity. The design is called ‘proto-typical.’ It is built to quickly isolate one block from another. One quad from the next, the East side from the West. It is not built for the easy movement of people. Cumbersome for both staff and residents, it is less safe for both. Doors are opened remotely and often involve a long wait. Staff and resident get stuck between doors in sally ports where the two doors are opened from different locations. One from within the building, the other from a control room at the front of the prison. The architecture of isolation leaves us standing in the cold talking to a person through an intercom, one who is distant in attitude as well as location.
The prison was designed with four yards. One for each quad. The yards were not ready upon arrival and we did not get out there until October. A year later we are lucky to have yard every other day. They never open all four at once. Usually only two, often one, or none. Why design a prison with four yards and then leave them unused more often than not? Graterford had a yard for seniors which I loved and miss.
They thought this jail could operate with less staff than Graterford and now they find it would need more to run as it is designed. This beast was supposed to pay for itself by needing less staff. Many staff have quit since we arrived. So many that a few of the longtime employees are working a good deal of overtime to keep it going - costing more money than an adequately staffed facility would require. The total cost in dollars and human misery may never be calculated.
|Smart Communications/PA DOC|
Richard Sean Gross FF9878
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733