On Jan.26, 1998, there were 213 prisoners on death row in Pennsylvania. One hundred eleven of them were at SCI-Greene, located in Waynesburg, south of Pittsburgh, an eight or nine hour drive from the Philadelphia region, where most of the inmates on death row are from. A long, expensive, usually impossible commute for loved ones, supporters, and even the inmates' lawyers. Locating prisoners far from their base of support is not unintentional in Pennsylvania.
I made the drive to visit a young man on death row at SCI-Greene with whom I had been corresponding for some time. His name is Jimmy Dennis. He is innocent. He has been on death row for six years.
Driving up to the parking lot at SCI-Greene, I felt like I was entering a high tech biotechnology lab or perhaps a brand new conference center where no one had had time to do any landscaping. Although I know it has been there for a few years, it was unsettling in its pristine spotlessness and modernity. Inside everything is bare and clean, floors polished to a high shine. Empty. Efficient. Devoid of any sign of humanity or life. I found it more profoundly unsettling than the noisy, old, crowded, dirty state prison where I work as a volunteer.
Once past the guards' station, a huge door opens onto a very long hallway and I walk forward, alone. There are cameras for surveillance, but there is no other human being in this space. It is sterile and frightening. One heavy door opens, and closes, after another as I walk down one hallway after another, until I come to a room with doors on the sides and, at the far end, a glassed in "control room where there are two or three guards, the first humans I have seen in this long walk. I am directed to one of the doors and enter a space only slightly larger than a phone booth, with a stool, and a glass partition. Jimmy sits on the other side and we say hello.
That was nearly two years ago. Jimmy is still on death row. And life on death row at SCI-Greene has become unbearable for Jimmy and the others. On March 5th, 1998, the prison retaliated against its death row prisoners for lawsuits against the prison. Guards tore through the cells, removing all property that would not fit into an orange-crate sized box, taking all clothing except a jumpsuit and two pairs of underwear. All food was banned from the cells. Furthermore, all visits were to be limited to one hour! Exercise time was cut and all radio and TV antennae were removed. Fifty-five prisoners went on a hunger strike in response, and after 12 days, the prison promised to return all privileges and the hunger strike ended. But two days later, the prison released new regulations and officials renege on the agreement made. Crucial to the lives of these men is access to legal documents pertaining to their cases, which after the crackdown Continue to be severely restricted. On April 6, Jimmy and 30 others again go on hunger strike to protest these restrictions, hoping for media attention and public support for their Situation.
I haven't heard from Jimmy since April 9, the fourth day of the hunger strike. He had had to write his letters since the crackdown with the hollow inner plastic ink tube from a ballpoint pen, not being allowed to purchase either a pencil or a pen from the commissary. He was beginning to feel the physical effects of the hunger strike. I have not ready anything about the crackdown or either of the hunger strikes in the newspaper or heard anything about it on the television or radio.
Jimmy and the others are using their bodies, their lives, the only thing they have, to express their frustration at inhumane treatment, treatment that reflects the inhumane and inhuman quality of the facility itself.