This account of life in Special Management Unit at SCI-Fayette in Pennsylvania comes to us via the Human Rights Coalition, a Philadelphia-based prison reform and social justice organization. As HRC describes it: “The Special Management Unit, or SMU, is billed by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections as a program designed to alter the behavior of prisoners who, in the langauge of prison administrators, are ‘unable to adjust successfully to a correctional settting.’ In practice this means that, as with other forms of solitary confinement, the SMU is used to isolate and punish prisoners who have angered prison officials.” The account begins with the prisoner’s arrival at Fayette.
I was immediately taken off a prison transport van by four guards and a lieutenant and cannon-balled straight to the SMU on L-Block. The pod was eerily silent that day, but I guess you can say that was the quiet before the storm because the next day all hell broke loose amongst the prisoners as they commenced to yell, scream, argue, bang on doors, throw urine and feces out their cell doors, threaten others, as well as threatening to mutilate or kill themselves. I then noticed the many psychiatric observation camera cells prisoners were confined in and how all of them were receiving psychotropic drugs. It then dawned on me that the SMU at Fayette State Prison was actually an “INSANE ASYLUM” for mentally ill prisoners and that I was placed in the thick of it all. Damn. Just my luck!
SCI-Fayette SMU L-Block
Fayette state prison is located in the Appalachian mountain range in rural Western Pennsylvania just a short drive from the city of Pittsburgh. SCI-Fayette has two Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) blocks, J-Block and L-Block. J-Block is used to confine prisoners on Disciplinary Custody (DC) and Administrative Custody (AC) status in the hole. And L-Block is used as the SMU program block to confine SMU prisoners.
The SMU (L-Block) consist of four pods labeled LA, LB, LC, and LD. Each pod has two tiers, a bottom level and a top level, which consist of twelve cells on the bottom and top levels making it twenty-four cells in all. Each of the twenty-four cells on the four L-Block pods are single-celled, which means the cells are to only confine one man per cell. On LB-Pod, cells 07 to 12 are equipped with psychiatric observation cameras, a shower in the cell and a back door leading to an adjacent caged area for yard exercise.
Each prisoner on SMU L-Block has to complete five levels that the SMU has designated before ‘graduating’ the behavior modification program. These levels are called Phases, and proceed from the most restrictive level- Phase 5, the beginning level for most prisoners- all the way down to Phase 1, which is release into another prison’s general prison population on a six month probation period. If the prisoner acquires a misconduct report during his probationary period he is returned to the SMU program to do another two-year stint beginning at Phase 5!
An Insane Asylum Disguised As A SMU Program
I had been placed on LB-Pod in the SMU program. The cell, typical to most empty cells on the pod, was filthy! Food had been splashed on the walls, dirt and tumbleweed-like dust balls covered the floor, the sink and toilet smelled of urine, and the smell of feces wafted into the cell from outside of the cell’s door. To make matters worse, the pigs refused to give me cleaning supplies that I may G.I (clean) the cell down, so I improvised with soap, water, and the t-shirt off my back and scrubbed the entire cell clean. Days later the pigs moved me on the top tier (with the other SMU prisoners) to another trifling cell!
There, the other SMU prisoners — some I’ve known from other prisons for years and others I just met — began to school me on the PA DOC/SCI-Fayette’s con-game, their so called SMU. Here, the SMU prisoners exposed the lie of the SMU program at SCI-Fayette and the PA DOC “hypocrisy” in regards to mentally ill prisoners and SMU prisoners. So let me tell y’all what’s truly going on at this isolated prison’s SMU program on L-Block.
The PA DOC and SCI-Fayette are really running a full-scale Insane Asylum operation for mentally ill prisoners under the guise of the SMU program, in which the PA DOC gets to kill two birds with one stone, figuratively speaking. They get to continue to receive Federal Grant money for operating a SMU program while really using the SMU program to run an insane asylum for mentally ill prisoners!! That’s the con-game aspect of it.
According to PADOC DC-Adm 6.5.1 Policy regarding the SMU program, the SMU prisoners must be ‘isolated’ – as super maximum security prisoners – from all non-SMU prisoners, such as RHU prisoners on DC/AC status and mentally ill RHU prisoners. But this is not the case at SCI-Fayette’s SMU L-Block. Here mentally ill DC status RHU prisoners are confined on the same L-Block pods that the SMU program prisoners are confined to!
On LA-Pod (Phase 5) there are ten SMU prisoners, and the remaining fourteen prisoners are mentally ill DC-status regular RHU prisoners. On LB-Pod (Phase 4) the twelve cells on the bottom level are all occupied by mentally ill DC-Status RHU prisoners whom we refer to as “the crazies” and whom are “suicidal” prisoners juiced up on psychotropic drugs such as Elevil. Every day there is drama with them, I’m talk’n capital “D” drama! The top level of LB-Pod (cells 13 to 24) confines supposedly SMU prisoners only, but mentally ill DC-Status regular RHU prisoners are confined on the SMU top tier as well. On LC-Pod (Phase 3) there is also a mixture of SMU prisoners, regular RHU prisoners on DC/AC status, and mentally ill prisoners. And on LD-Pod (Phase 2) there is a mixture of SMU prisoners, protective custody (PC) status prisoners, and one prisoner confined on Restricted Release List (RRL) status.
As of the date of this writing, there were only three SMU prisoners – including myself – on the SMU top tier on LB-Pod while all of the bottom tier cells are filled to capacity with “the crazies”! Two of the SMU prisoners have completed Phase 4 and were moved to another pod on Phase 3. Currently, I am the only SMU prisoner on LB-Pod! I am the last of the Mohicans left on LB-Pod Phase 4/SMU, surrounded by “the crazies.”
Punishment as Treatment = Hypocrisy!
Imagine that you encountered a group of people who treated their sick by sending them outside in the dead of winter to sit in that weather for 48 hours to cure their illness. You would think that such a people were foolish, right? Crazy, even! But this is exactly how the PA DOC officials think in regards to everything they do concerning prisoners, expecially the mentally ill and SMU prisoners. The PA DOC believes they can heal mentally ill prisoners and rehabilitate SMU prisoners by punishing and torturing them and treating them like animals and worse.
I have been on Phase 4 for a month now and during that time I have witnessed several mentally ill RHU prisoners threaten to commit suicide. I have observed how RHU prison officials eagerly geared up in black Star-Wars helmet, body pads, shields, pepper spray and stun guns and were just itch’n to use their new toys against mentally ill RHU prisoners during cell extractions. I have witnessed the SMU/RHU counselor and unit manager come on the pod and leave just as quick as they came, without even as much interviewing and evaluating the psyche of the prisoners, let alone addressing their concerns. The Psychologist does the exact same thing. What occurs is that the mentally ill RHU prisoners’ minds deteriorate even worse to the point of insanity from the years of total isolation in solitary, forced cell extractions, beatings, restraint chairs, stripped cells, semi-starvation on food loafs, constant harassment by guards, and psychotic drugs.
The SMU prisoners are also punished in this ordeal because we are forced to live around these same mentally ill RHU prisoners – who direct their madness against SMU prisoners – and are subjected to an “insane asylum” type environment. Consequently, half of the SMU prisoners are going “crazy” and are stuck on Phase 5. And SMU prisoners are now being treated as mentally ill prisoners. The psychological behavior of the mentally ill is having an adverse affect on the SMU prisoners. But, the PA DOC claims they wish to rehabilitate SMU prisoners.
Mentally ILL Prisoners Need Human Rights, Too
As I pen this report, even I am being taken through “Psych Warfare” by the crazies, they have no picks of who they direct their madness to. In the two cells below me are two insane (non-SMU) prisoners, and in the cell next door to me is another insane, non-SMU, prisoner. In the below two cells, one prisoner has “multiple personality disorder” while the other prisoner is manic depressive. The prisoner next door to me is soul-less, his mind is gone, he’s not even on this earth anymore. He urniates and defecates on himself every day and never bathes unless the guards force him to. He stinks so bad that the reeking odor of his body and waste drifts into my cell and outside his cell onto the entire top tier. The stench chokes you. My assigned cell and the other three cells’ air ventilation ducts are connected, and so every single day I am suffocated by the foul stench of my neighbor while the mentally ill prisoners in the two cells below me bang on their doors and scream at me through the air ducts. They are continuously cursing at me, disrespecting me, calling me the foulest of names, threatening to rape and kill my family, threatening to throw piss and shit on me and every other vile thing one can say to a person. This occurs 24-7!
I excuse their behavior and tolerate their insanity only because they are mentally ill. Although I have been placed through the wringer like this on many occasions throughout my 23 years of imprisonment as a juvenile Lifer, I can’t say I am not affected. Who wouldn’t be? I just drunk my first cup of coffee to calm my nerves, the bad part about it is I don’t even drink coffee! The crazies made me do it!
The HRC is calling on the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to “end the warehousing of mentally ill prisoners” in Fayette’s SMU, and urging others to do the same. More information can be found here.