This article appeared on PA Post.
Two-dozen prison reform activists recently rallied at Department of Corrections headquarters in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, pushing for changes to solitary confinement and calling for an inquiry into alleged “abuses” at one corrections facility.
Speaking into a bullhorn, many of the protesters said they’re on hunger strike to support at least 11 prisoners who were on hunger strike in July at State Corrections Institute Fayette.
Those prisoners were on strike to protest alleged abuses they faced while in solitary confinement, according to Jackson Kusiak, a member of the group Human Rights Coalition, which organized the rally. Kusiak said he communicates with the inmates by mail.
Prisoners’ rights advocate Patricia Vickers said people are being kept in solitary confinement for months or years, though the rules only allow them to be confined up to 90 days.
Vickers says that’s happening through corrections officers taking advantage of a policy that allows them to extend solitary confinement for prisoners who don’t follow the rules.
“It’s been testified by doctors that if you stay in there over 15 days it’s harmful to you,” Vickers said.
Human Rights Coalition is pushing for the passage of a bill that would limit how long a person can be held in solitary confinement. That bill, HB497, hasn’t seen movement since it was referred to the judiciary committee in February.
The group also has called for an inquiry into water quality at SCI Fayette. The prison was built on a former strip mine and has been plagued by bad drinking water, leading to lawsuits from corrections officers.
Last December, the prison was under a boil-water advisory. Inmates have said that, during that time, they were denied bottled water, according to documents provided by Kusiak.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Maria Finn said water at SCI Fayette is tested every month.
“We contract with a local company, H and H water testing, and it is also tested quarterly by our county supplier, Tri-County,” Finn said in an email. “We are not aware of any issues with the purity of the water, however we are happy to provide the test results upon request.”
Finn said the DOC is also looking into complaints of abuse.
“All of the allegations received from the Human Rights Coalition are currently under investigation with the Bureau of Investigations and Intelligence,” Finn said.