Pennsylvania built a special hell for Miriam White

Yesterday, Ellen Melchiondo reported on a visit to the Restricted Housing Unit in SCI-Muncy, a women’s prison in Pennsylvania. She noted, “In one of the pods is confined Miriam White, who in 1999, at the age of 11, stabbed a complete stranger to death in Philadelphia. Miriam was sent to various institutions before landing in Muncy. I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.” Here is Miriam White’s story.

On August 20, 1999, eleven-year-old Miriam White argued with a cousin. Miriam then grabbed a knife and ran out of her South Philadelphia foster home. She ran down the street, passing some children, turned the corner, and saw Rosemary Knight, fifty-five years old. Miriam ran up to Rosemary Knight and stabbed her in the chest. Rosemary Knight died on the spot.

Rosemary Knight was a hairdresser and the principal wage earner in her household. August 20, 1999, was the twenty-seventh wedding anniversary of Rosemary and Jerome Knight. Miriam did not know Rosemary Knight.

Miriam White was a young “troubled” Black girl. Her infancy and earlier childhood was one of violence and abandonment, followed by a succession of institutionalization and foster homes. In February 1995, Michelle White Stevens took in the then-seven-year-old Miriam and her two younger siblings. In 1999, Stevens adopted the children. By all accounts, the house was a loving household.

Miriam White progressed and crashed, progressed and crashed. She has been diagnosed with severe mental illness and severe intellectual disability.

According to Miriam White, she wanted to hurt someone so that she would be sent back to a juvenile institution. She was careful not to attack children. After she stabbed Rosemary Knight, she ran to nearby hair salon, “trembling and begging for help because she had just stabbed someone.”

Up to this point, the story of Miriam White and Rosemary Knight, and all those around them, is tragic. Then it gets worse.

Pennsylvania is one of the few states in which anyone charged with first-degree murder must be tried as an adult. That includes eleven-year-old Miriam White. So Miriam White was placed in solitary in an adult jail while the adults tried and failed to figure something out. The judge tried and failed to find a compromise. The defense attorneys tried and failed to argue for reason. As her attorney argued, “Who, judge, at Muncy is going to take young Miriam through her first menstrual cycle. . . . The older, nurturing inmates?”

And so, in August 2007, Miriam White, eighteen years old, pleaded guilty in adult court to third-degree murder and possession of an instrument of crime, and was sentenced to 18 to 40 years. According to some legal scholars, it’s doubtful that Miriam White is competent to take a plea or anything else in court.

Miriam White’s “case” is littered with fine language. She “haunts” the criminal justice system. The initial judge’s ruling concluded, “I cannot exonerate Miriam just because I feel sorry for her. I cannot return Miriam to juvenile court just because her life story makes my heart weep. My oath as a judge requires that I decide this case on the basis of the proofs in court. The decertification petition is denied.” Miriam White’s case is “tragic” as it is “heartbreaking.”

That’s how the story is told, but not how the life is lived. Today, sixteen years and two months later, where is Miriam White? “I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.” Justice is served, humanity denied.

 

(Image Credit: Martin Vargas / Solitary Watch)

Pennsylvania built a special hell for women: The Restricted Housing Unit of SCI-Muncy

Women serving time at SCI-Muncy Prison in Pennsylvania

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has two state prisons for women, Cambridge Springs and Muncy; both are named after the town in which they are located. Cambridge Springs is in the far northwest and Muncy in the central region; there is no such facility for the place where most prisoners come from, southeast, specifically, Philadelphia. That says a lot right there, but I will not be commenting on the hardship for visitation this places on family, friends, the potential for educational opportunities and advocacy, the lifeblood of the women. Muncy houses the prototypical prison within the prison: the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU), which I recently visited.

To enter the RHU, one goes through a locked gate before being buzzed inside. Upon entering, you immediately get a sense of being hermetically sealed: no sounds or smells from outside, no feeling of fresh air. There are four “pods” that are triangular shaped, two on each side of the wide, sterile hallway. From the center of the RHU and above is the interior Correctional Officers watchtower, or “bubble”. There is no long line of cells that would justify being called Death Row; Death Triangle would be more appropriate. However, the two capital cases are housed next door to each other, so there is a mini-death row within one RHU pod. The two women sentenced to death are no different in their crimes than some women serving life; they just had very different judges. Inside this pod is a small multipurpose room where only they can watch TV and do arts and crafts. There is a yard connected to each pod: it is concrete with a chain link roof, perhaps to provide shade. The RHU doesn’t have tables and chairs for the women to eat or socialize. Food is delivered through the wicket, and socializing is done by screaming through the doorjamb. There is one flat screen TV on the wall, which would be very difficult to view through the small, narrow window on the cell doors. Counseling is done inside of a phone booth size, wire mesh cage; the woman sits inside this cage to receive her therapy. Each woman is in a single, solitary cell. Visitation is used as a behavioral management tool. If they act up, visitation is withheld. If a woman is reluctant or refuses to leave her cell, the correctional officers have two choices: either leave her in the cell to suffer or forcibly remove her. The correctional officers usually take the path of least resistance and do nothing. If they do get a visit, or if they are allowed a visit, it is done behind plexiglass via a phone. After the visit, the women are strip searched. It has hard to imagine why the need for a strip-search; they wear an orange jumpsuit and are handcuffed and chained are around the feet.

One pod is completely empty. It houses the Young Adult Offenders, (YAO). It is currently being transitioned into a DTU: Diversionary Treatment Unit. It is no different than the RHU pods, except for a small fitness room and the tables and chairs in the center of the pod. I say leave it empty.

In one of the pods is confined Miriam White, who in 1999, at the age of 11, stabbed a complete stranger to death in Philadelphia. Miriam was sent to various institutions before landing in Muncy. I could barely see Miriam through her window, because on it, she was finger painting with her feces, slowly, deliberately and trance-like.

Long-term confinement can last many years in the RHU. It’s mind boggling why the prison system doesn’t realize that their methods and policies are failing the women. On this particular day, I saw no therapy being conducted. No visits were taking place. No activity was taking place outside of the cells. And that was no coincidence. Sadly, it was just another day in the RHU.

(For more information on the RHUs in Pennsylvania prisons, check here for the class action lawsuit that the Disabilities Rights Network of Pennsylvania filed and won. For results of the lawsuit and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections response, check here. And here’s the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Access to Mental Health Services Handbook.)

 

(Photo Credit: Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee)

A Tour of SCI Muncy: Always an elephant in the room

Pennsylvania’s SCI-Muncy, opened as Muncy Industrial Home for Women in 1920.

On March 10, 2015 I toured SCI Muncy along with seven members of a Pennsylvania non-profit. Of the seven, four of us visit Muncy on a regular basis. The day began with a meeting with Superintendent Robert Smith, Re-entry Coordinator and media spokesperson Troy Edwards, Assistant to Smith, Renee Shrimp, the health care administrator and a couple of Unit Managers and a couple of other people.

The meeting and conversation was lead by our questions and concerns. If we didn’t ask, nothing was freely offered. No one asked us about our work with the women. They didn’t seem to really care if we were there or not. This was my second meeting with Smith, when he was Acting Superintendent and he knows how hard it is for me to keep it together when wanting better care for the women and more involvement with their confinement. All of our needs were met, though there always seemed to be an elephant in the room. If we didn’t like what we heard or if we disagreed, that line of thought quietly evaporated. We all seemed to be on our best behavior.

There’s a lot at stake at times like this. How much pushing for the real truth can I do or objecting to policy without experiencing potential retaliation and my visits becoming denied? Questions and comments had to go nameless. Situations were described with just enough detail so as not to reveal the actual source. Occasionally names were mentioned, since the prisoner’s needs and situation were so obviously known to all. I hope that some of the concerns we raised made the staff realize that we are watching and we want to be part of the solution.

In the bathroom connected to this meeting room, I noticed many beautiful black and white photos mounted on board depicting woman at Muncy with their faces turned away from the camera involved in work: sewing, washing dishes, stuffing pillows with straw. I assumed they were taken before Muncy became part of the PA DOC in 1953. They were on the floor, fallen and stuck between the cabinet and the floor, gathering dust and scratches. I wanted to smuggle them out. On the windowsill was a large box of documents that belong to a current prisoner. I didn’t have time to go through them. But it seemed rather cold and careless to be dumped there.

After an hour and 45 minutes, I had talked and listened enough and needed to get moving. As I peeked on the tour itinerary that was in front of Smith, I asked him if we were touring the unit where Sharon Wiggins lived and died. It wasn’t on the schedule, but Superintendent Smith knows my devotion to Sharon and he agreed to take us there. It was our first stop and we went into Bethune Unit.

Bethune is neither a cottage nor a trailer/modular. It’s kind of a prefab gym. I immediately noticed all the various shades of over cleaned, dull surfaces of brown and beige: the flooring, walls, painted metal. It was all metal, vinyl, plastic materials. I immediately saw my friend Naomi Blount. We were not allowed to hug, but we managed some arm holding. She showed me her cell. This was the first cell in a woman’s prison that I have seen and entered. No doubt the cell had been personalized, but the condition of the “furniture” was shockingly awful. Rickety old metal that revealed several layers of multiple colored paint. The floor space between the bunk beds isn’t wide enough to do sit-ups. The mattress wasn’t as wide as the bed frame. It would tough to lay on one’s side without touching the wall and having a foot hang off the edge. The window was tiny. Only one seat at the table. A new plastic toilet seat. Oddly, the ceiling is a drop panel type.

The setting of Muncy is rural. During the summer the aroma of cow manure permeates. The rest of the year, it smells like creosote from a rail road tie processing company across the 405. The original residential “cottages” are almost a century old. To accommodate the increase in population, they added huge, attached trailers with low ceilings. It looks cheap and shoddy, because it is.

When the women sit on the top bunk bed, their heads are a couple of feet from the ceiling. There is no privacy. The newest housing is where the new arrivals are classified; it also holds punitive punishment, various mental health “treatment” units, young adult offenders and death row. The infirmary in another kind of warren. There, the psychiatric observation cells are located, medicine is distributed, dialysis is given and terminally ill women die. No one wants to recuperate in the infirmary. It is ugly, impersonal, poorly lit and brown-beige.

We had lunch in the officer’s dining room. The walls were adorned with unsigned prisoner-made art. As you finish your tray of food, you leave it on the table to be taken away by a prisoner employee. I thought that was rude on our part as visitors.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and didn’t see the education building, library or chow hall. That will be another tour.

 

(Photo Credit: Karen M. Morin, Historical Geography Journal)

Getting A Conversation Started About Women Serving LWOP in Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Sharon Wiggins

I set up twelve wooden fold-up chairs around four long, wooden, primitively made tables that I arranged in an open square. One chair was for me. In the middle of the education building at the Solebury Meetinghouse, in a quasi-rural -suburban place an hour outside of Philadelphia I was prepping the room for a free public meeting or rather a conversation that I had been wanting to have for over a year; ever since Peachie died.

The squared stage I set up surrounded by an even dozen chairs appeared warm and balanced-conducive for a conversation about the struggles that women and girls experience while serving life without parole in Pennsylvania. If by chance fewer people showed up for the meeting, the arrangement wouldn’t look empty and feel cold. If by chance more people showed up, there was room to sit behind those seated at the table. I placed my agenda and handouts in a well made basket; a gift from a friend many years a go.

This room, I am comfortable in. In this room, once or twice a month for three and a half years I held Cub Scout den meetings. Two years a go, I welcomed the Fight For Lifers to present their educational initiatives at a meeting I had organized. Scouting and life sentences. There has got to be a connection: the responsibility that we have to be informed citizens? That might be it. By the way I am not a Quaker.

My plan was to share the devotion I have for Naomi, Marie, Sheena, Juvenile Girl, Avis, Joyce, Jessie, Tequilla and others. And to convince the citizens of Bucks County that these are just a handful of the women I have become acquainted over the last three years as an Official Visitor with the Pennsylvania Prison Society and who have earned and deserve to be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the the free world. But because I have been thinking about this problem of no parole in Pennsylvania for lifers for three years, I have come to realize that the average person in my part of the state, knows nothing about this injustice. Not only for adults, but definitely not about juveniles serving this capital equivalent sentence.

So, because of that I needed to give some historical information about mandatory sentencing, the shut down of commutation and comparisons to other states and countries in order to illustrate with as much punch as possible how Pennsylvania is in a time warp and in terms of penological practices, about as progressive as a closed, oppressed Asian nation. And I realized that before I could concentrate on women’s issues, I was half way through the meeting discussing general prison issues that affect both men, women and their families: the cost of making phone calls, lousy food and medical care, staff turnover, lack of educational opportunities, isolation in remote parts of the state affecting visitation, commutation futility, well trained staff, leadership turnover and that for lifers, doesn’t get any easier or cheaper.

I tried to illustrate all of these struggles with the views and experiences of a woman or grown up juvenile girl serving life. I shared the accomplishments that the women are proud of, the sentence of life that they received that clearly does not reflect their degree of guilt, decades of isolation and the absurdity of being deemed unworthy and too dangerous to live in the free world. Ever. The small and nearly empty visitor’s room at Muncy and Cambridge Springs speaks loudly: where are the male relatives? How can women become better and more effective leaders while incarcerated? How can their voices be heard?

The excessive power that the victim’s rights groups have over our criminal justice system and their success in hijacking any sense of compassion and mercy to our most marginalized members of our society has retarded our spiritual growth. The ignorant and lazy elected officials who do nothing to not only educate themselves about this tragedy, can’t even take the time to meet a women serving life for decades has trumped any chance of Pennsylvania to be an evolving and decent place to empathize with those who have served many decades in prison and who have served their time so well, that many have more to be proud of then those who have never served a single day in prison.

The meeting was attended by nine engaged and thoughtful people. Four of us were already in this struggle and the remaining five came with some knowledge of the absurdity of our overly punitive incarcerated state and have the desire to learn more. The woman from her book club will undoubtedly be more effective in her upcoming group discussion on the book “Doing Life.” I guess this is a step in the right and just direction.

 

(Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)