COAL TOWNSHIP — The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is reviewing 22 demands from inmates at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township that follow a prison imam’s federal lawsuit against the lockup and convicts’ weeklong hunger strike.
The demands were sent to Coal Township Superintendent Vincent Mooney and state Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.
More than 1,300 inmates responded to meal cutbacks and a menu change by boycotting the prison dining hall.
The boycott ended peacefully. Inmates then assembled a list of changes they want to see.
Even the Department of Corrections agreed the change in meal portions should have been better communicated with prisoners.
“They (inmates) could have been better informed,” Sue Bensinger, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said Thursday.
“We have received a copy of the demands and we look at every complaint very seriously.”
Bensinger said she reviewed the 22 demands that include rescinding a policy of cutting the food and condiment portions of meals and returning the portion sizes to the level they were prior to Mooney’s May 26 memo authorizing the portion reduction for budgetary reasons.
Inmates claim breakfast consists of a half a cup of cream of wheat or oatmeal, two slices of bread and two packets of sugar, which prisoners say contain no nutritional value.
Inmates are also demanding an investigation into the operation of SCI-Coal Township’s mailroom for delaying the delivery of prisoners’ letters, not informing prisoners when their mail is denied or rejected, and arbitrarily denying or rejecting publications critical of prisons.
Inmates also want the lockup to stop using nondelivery of mail as punishment on days when the prison is under lockdown for an emergency or for searches of prisoners’ cells. SCI-Coal Township could deliver the mail on these days, inmates say.
“We looked at these and there are ways to get some of things they (inmates) are asking for to be looked at,” Bensinger said.
“They need to file all grievances with the prison first because those are the people that work with them every day. From there they can appeal if they choose and then we would get it and we have a team of people to look through everything.”
Another incident that sparked concern from inmates was a lawsuit filed by Mustafa Abuomar, an imam employed at Coal Township.
Abuomar claims in the federal lawsuit he endured a co-worker’s religious and racial slurs, and after a confrontation with the lockup’s leadership, was paraded like a prisoner through the complex to the jeers and taunts of inmates.
Abuomar, of Mount Carmel, claims his Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and 14th Amendment rights were violated and is suing the state Department of Corrections, Mooney, and Majors Edward Baumbach and Dennis Brumfield.
Abuomar states he suffered after filing a complaint with the Department of Corrections’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission following a corrections officer’s inappropriate ethnic, racial and religious slurs about him.
Bensinger would not comment on the lawsuit but said the state takes every complaint seriously.
“I can tell you we look at everything,” she said. “We are well aware of what is going on and we are speaking with prison officials.” Mooney did not return a call.
The list of 22
Demands made by inmates at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township to the lockup’s superintendent and the state Department of Corrections:
1. Rescind its policy of cutting the food and condiment portions of our meals and return our portions to the level they were prior to Superintendent (Vincent) Mooney’s memo from May 26, 2014, authorizing the cutting of our portions/rations for budget reasons. The meals we are getting at breakfast — often consisting of a half a cup of cream of wheat or oatmeal, 2 slices of bread and 2 packets of sugar — contain no nutritional value. We request the return of adequate meal portions and variety in the menu.
2. Rescind staff dining hall entitlements and privileges. Staff should be served the same meals and portions that prisoners eat from on the DOC Master menu. The staff dining hall should no longer offer multiple menus, desserts, numerous soda/juice/milk options, daily salad bars, gallons of specialty ice cream, etc. Staff Dining Hall entitlements are a waste of the DOC’s budget which, if eliminated, would save far more money than cutting back on prisoners’ already diminishing food portions.
3. Allow prisoners to form cultural associations and host cultural events in the institution’s chapel/gym. SCI-Coal Township presently has no cultural associations for prisoners to celebrate their culture and help younger prisoners focus on the positive attributes of their cultural heritages.
4. Process grievances by prisoners in a timely manner and stop destroying and/or obstructing the filing of grievances by either not responding to grievances or responding to grievances well outside the guidelines of DC-ADM 804 Inmate Grievances policy. Prisoners are often forced to wait weeks for their grievances to be processed and then, sometimes wait months for a response to those same grievances. Furthermore, we request an investigation into the manner in which SCI Coal Township’s grievances are processed, including the backdating of grievance responses by staff members.
5. Pursue an investigation into the operation of SCI-Coal Township’s mailroom for delaying the delivery of prisoners’ mail, not informing prisoners when their mail is denied or rejected, and arbitrarily denying or rejecting publications critical of prisons.
6. Stop using nondelivery of mail as punishment on day when the prison is under lockdown for an emergency or for searches of prisoners’ cells. SCI-Coal Township could deliver the mail on these days.
7. Hire a full-time doctor in the medical department. Presently, prisoners are seen by a physician’s assistant who has numerous grievances pending against him for the disrespectful manner in which he treats prisoners.
8. Stop charging fees for prisoners with chronic care symptoms when they sign up for sick call to see a physician or physician’s assistant to have a medical issue addressed that is associated with their chronic symptoms.
9. Rescind the 2/24/14 photo memo that restricts the type of photos which prisoners may take and send to their loved ones. This memo requires prisoners to take forward-facing, mug-type photos and prohibits prisoners from wearing T-shirts in the photos, requiring us to send photos home to our loved ones in state-issued brown uniforms. Photos sent to our loved ones should not be taken in a manner that forces unnecessary pain and depression upon them.
10. Put an end to the constant disrespect that our family members endure in the context of the SCI-Coal Township visiting room. Board games and cards should be added to the visiting room, so that prisoners and their families can play family board or card games.
11. Change the seats in the visiting room. The present seats are uncomfortable and are not padded as at other institutions. Tables should be available for families of four or five so that prisoners and their families can see one another and sit across from one another, instead of everyone having to sit in a row.
12. When the visiting room photo machine is broken, SCI-Coal Township should have an alternative photo-man employed from the general population to take pictures until the photo machine is repaired. The photo machine in the visiting room breaks down frequently and prisoners and their loved ones have no opportunity to take a photograph with each other when that happens. This is especially troubling for families who do not get to visit their incarcerated loved ones very often.
13. Stop exploiting the families of prisoners by requiring them to purchase a $20 Venda-card in order to purchase soft drinks and snacks in the visiting room. Reduce the Venda-card minimum to $5.
14. Eliminate the use of red lights that illuminate the prisoners’ cells throughout the night. No other PA DOC institution keeps the night lights on constantly throughout the evening/night for general population cells. The constant illumination of prisoners’ cells throughout the nights has been found to create depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.
We request that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in general:
15. Allow prisoners to purchase alternative protein powder tubs and supplemental vitamins from approved vendors, so that we may supplement the nutrition that the Department of Corrections has taken away from our meals due to budget cuts.
16. Allow our families to mail in 50 pounds of food a month so we may supplement our nutritional needs. The Departments of Correction in New York, New Jersey and Ohio all allow this.
17. Conduct an investigation of SCI-Coal Township’s decision to spend money to pave the West Yard from 6/16 to 6/19 when the yard track was not in damaged condition and money used to pave the track could have instead been used on prisoners’ meals.
18. Stop exploiting prisoners by refusing to sell us amplified digital antennas and making us purchase nonamplified digital antennas that get no reception in rural/mountainous areas, forcing us to purchase cable at $16.70 a month. We request the DOC make available amplified digital antennas on its master commissary list.
19. Renegotiate its telephone contract with the inmate telephone provider and reduce prisoners in-state call fees to $2.10, instead of the current $5.55.
20. Amend its restrictive housing unit policies to allow prisoners in the RHU on disciplinary custody status to order two boxes of crackers with their commissary order so they can supplement the poor diet they receive in the RHU, where the food served on prisoners’ trays is absolutely dreadful and results in prisoners losing weight during stays in the RHU. Food should not be used as a disciplinary measure.
21. Begin audio recording all program review hearings conducted on prisoners in the restricted housing units, special management units, and special needs units to insure that Department of Corrections’ policy is being implemented fairly.
22. Amend its H-Code policy to put procedures in place to insure prisoners are properly classified as H-Code security risks and so that a prisoner may appeal an H-Code placement. We also request the department require institutions to stop discriminating against H-Code prisoners by restricting them from employment, as well as educational and vocational programs, thus adversely impacting their parole interests.