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

 

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.

 

Youth has constitutional significance: Ending life without parole

 

Sharon Wiggins died last year. Wiggins was a 62-year-old Black woman living with serious health problems. But it wasn’t her health that did her in. What killed Sharon Wiggins was the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Sharon Wiggins died behind bars at SCI-Muncy, the maximum security and intake `facility’ for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania, as well as the site of its death row for women.

Wiggins entered Muncy at the age of 17, convicted initially to death and then to life without parole. She spent 45 years behind bars. When she died she was the oldest and the longest serving woman prisoner in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has more prisoners who began as juvenile lifers than any other state in the Union. This means Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any place else in the world. It’s the Pennsylvania way.

South Carolina has a better way.

A couple weeks ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court took the United States another step towards ending life without parole, LWOP, for those convicted of having committed crimes while juveniles. The Court’s decision in Aiken et al v Byar has been described as “notable for its breadth” and “groundbreaking.” It could be.

Fifteen South Carolina prisoners, including Jennifer L. McSharry, petitioned the Court to reconsider the constitutionality of their having been sentenced to life without parole, to death-in-life, when they were children. The Court largely agreed with the fifteen, arguing, “Youth has constitutional significance. As such it must be afforded adequate weight in sentencing.”

The Court’s judgment is based on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v Alabama, which decided that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. That decision built on, and expanded, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v Florida, which found that life without parole for juveniles who had not committed murder was unconstitutional. Each decision has expanded the space for decency, common sense, and humanity, and these from a Court not renowned for any of those qualities.

The South Carolina Supreme Court had to decide on whether Miller v Alabama was retroactive. That is, if it’s wrong today, does that mean it was wrong before we came to our senses? The Court answered decidedly Yes: “We conclude Miller creates a new, substantive rule and should therefore apply retroactively. The rule plainly excludes a certain class of defendants— juveniles—from specific punishment—life without parole absent individualized considerations of youth. Failing to apply the Miller rule retroactively risks subjecting defendants to a legally invalid punishment.”

Sentences have consequences, and they too must be subjected to at least a constitutional review. There’s more to the South Carolina decision, and it all expands the application of Miller v Alabama. Would that earlier courts had decided that perhaps the impact of punishment should be thrown into the equation, rather than rely on mandatory sentences. Would that earlier courts had decided, and long ago, against a system that cared more waging a war on this and a war on that than it cared about the actual individuals and whole populations thrown into increasingly overcrowded, underfunded, toxic environments. Would that all of this had never had to come to courts at all.

Would that this had all happened long before Sharon Wiggins ever entered prison. Since 2008, the number of women sentenced to life without parole has risen precipitously, and who are they? “Among the females serving LWOP for offenses committed in their teenage years, the vast majority experienced sexual abuse in their childhood.” They are the abandoned, the sacrificed. But the end may be near. For Jennifer L. McSharry in South Carolina and thousands of women across the land, a change could be coming. They stand a chance, a bare chance, of not becoming another such sacrifice.

 

(Photo Credit: TakePart.com)

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)

A specter haunts Pennsylvania

 

Sharon Wiggins

Sharon Wiggins died in March. Wiggins was a 62-year-old Black woman living with serious health problems. But it wasn’t her health that did her in. What killed Sharon Wiggins was the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Sharon Wiggins died behind bars at SCI-Muncy, the maximum security and intake `facility’ for all women prisoners in Pennsylvania, as well as the site of its death row for women.

Wiggins entered Muncy at the age of 17, convicted initially to death and then, a few years later, to life without parole. She spent 45 years behind bars. When she died she was the oldest and the longest serving woman prisoner in Pennsylvania. That’s no mean feat. Pennsylvania has more prisoners who began as juvenile lifers than any other state in the Union. Effectively, this means Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any place else in the world.

Reports suggest that Wiggins set out, early on, to improve her life, to atone for her crimes, sins, and mistakes. She finished a degree at Penn State and when on to tutor and to manage tutoring programs. She completed thousands of educational certificate programs. She mentored others; she took care of women and helped women grow, and not only women prisoners. Nancy Sponeybarger, a former counselor at Muncy, has said, “As I got to know her a little bit, she was the one person who always made me feel my humanity.”

On another occasion, Sponeybarger elaborated, “She’s grown into a really insightful, compassionate, capable older woman – despite all the odds, because it’s not like you have a ton of role models when you’re in prison, especially when you’re tossed in there as a little girl.”

Especially when you’re tossed in there as a little girl.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to mandatory life sentences without parole. Wiggins applied for release, and she and her lawyers and supporters hoped that she would be released, at last: “I want to know what it feels like to wake up by myself. Here, you live on public view. There’s always a big piece of glass on your door. I want to wake up by myself. I want to know how it feels to walk down the street. I want to know how it feels to sit in the car and hear the rain just beat down. I want to know how it feels to sit with my sister and have a cup of coffee.”

The State dragged its feet, and Sharon Wiggins died. She never got to know.

Pennsylvania leads the nation and the world in the incarceration of children for life without parole. Last year, nationally, close to 1600 people were serving out juvenile life sentences without parole. Of the girls, almost 80% reported physical abuse, and over 77% reported sexual abuse.

And it gets worse. Historically and immediately, juvenile justice institutions are designed for boys. They don’t work for boys, mind you, but for girls, they’re particularly and specifically toxic, lethal even. The research on this systematic `oversight’ is abundant and easily available.

Custody for girls virtually guarantees that that their unique needs are not met and they react differently to their treatment than boys. Sentencing young girls to LWOP (life without parole) in adult court exacerbates girls’ unique issues in several ways. First, with the small number of women in the prison population, girls are often sent to women’s prisons with adult offenders rather than to separate units for youth offenders.  Girls are all too often subjected to sexual abuse and rape while in prison. Male corrections staff at women’s prisons may use coercive methods to initiate sexual relationships with inmates, or may abuse their position to obtain sexual favors. Sentencing girls to serve a life sentence in adult prison creates circumstances that are very traumatic and that should raise the specter of a punishment that is cruel and unusual.”

A specter haunts Pennsylvania, the specter of a punishment that is cruel and unusual, the specter of compassion and decency, the specter of justice for Sharon Peachie Wiggins. It is the specter of those children tossed in there as little girls.

 

(Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)