THE HUNGER STRIKE

   by Julian Heicklen

On February 18, 2000, seven inmates started a hunger strike at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) in Greene County, PA. The strike ended shortly before March 17, 2000. Some or all of the inmates involved in the strike are members of the religious group "Nation of Islam (NOI)." The seven inmates involved are:
 

1. Matthew Chesson DS­2836
2. Vincent Napper, BJ­5832
3. Abdul Raheem DE­9118
4. Jerome Gibson CS­4482
5. George Harris DQ­2948
6. Horatio Nimley CY­9214
7. Alfonso Salley CC­6790
 

All the participants in the hunger strike have been separated by moving them to different locations. They cannot communicate effectively with each other. I received letters from four of these inmates. Their stories follow.

Matthew Chesson claims that he is harassed daily and that his legal papers have been stolen by the guards. He and another inmate were in the law library on February 17, 2000, on I block. They overheard a conversation where Captain Kingston was instructing several police officers how to cover up an assault on Vincent Napper BJ­5382. Captain Kingston also gave instructions on how to poison the inmates' food.

Mr. Chesson claims that he has four affidavits from inmates who have overheard his counselor say that he should denounce his religious beliefs in order to be released from solitary confinement. He also was told to stop teaching. All of his religious literature (books, Bible, and Koran verses, etc.) was taken and destroyed.

I have a copy of Mr. Chesson's Inmates Request to Ms Balestrieri dated February 24, 2000. It says that during the conference on Thursday, you (Ms. Balestrieri) stated that because of my leadership skills or being a part of the Nation of Islam or FOI is why this administration feels he (Chesson) should remain on AC (administrative custody) status. But why do you feel that it is justified when your position is to help me as a counselor? How can you support the administration decision? Ms. Balestrieri responded on February 25, 2000. She said: "I happen to agree with the administration, so I support it for that reason. I am not expected to support an inmate's negative behavior. This is not my function as a counselor, whatever you may think. I will not discuss the decision to maintain you in AC or the decision not to transfer you again."

Mr. Chesson claims that he was called racial slurs, and that the prison tampers with his mail. Several prisoners are in the same situation. The prison targets the religious believers. To justify long-term solitary confinement, the prison falsifies prisoner records and lies by saying that an inmate is a threat to security or a gang member, etc.

Jerome Gibson wrote to me that on February 17, 2000, they were on I-block A- pod. He was housed in cell #8. Mr. Chesson was in cell #7. Chesson and Napper went into the library. While they were in there, a white shirt (captain or lieutenant) came to I-Block to the sergeant's office, which is directly across from the library. When Mr. Napper and Mr. Chesson were in the library, they overheard the white shirt telling the guards to poison the inmate's food, as a way to cover up the beating. When the guard realized that Chesson and Napper were listening to them, he closed the sergeant's door. Then a few moments later, the guard brought Napper back to his cell. When Napper came back, he called to Gibson's cell and told Gibson what the white shirt and guard's plan was. So they went on a hunger strike that day. Gibson is a death row inmate, who was doing 60 days in the hole (Restricted Housing Unit) at the time this happened. He was placed back on death row L-Block on February 24, 2000. He has not seen Mr. Chesson or the other inmates since then.

Horatio Nimley participated in the hunger strike, because he got tired of seeing the guards consistently antagonizing and infringing on the rights of RHU (Restricted Housing Unit) prisoners. He simply was lending support. He does know that Inmate Napper was assaulted by guard Schifko. He was not an eyewitness, but he was an earshot witness to this incident, since he was housed on the bottom tier under Mr. Napper.

George Harris wrote that he was on the hunger strike, because he was physically abused and assaulted at SCI Camp Hill. That resulted in the loss of hearing in his left ear. In his right ear, he only retained 25% of his hearing. He uses a hearing aid. He had an infected (illegible) untreated for over 5 months. The same guard who assaulted him destroyed his personal property and eyeglasses (2 pair). He could not deal with the continued mistreatment that he suffered. It was frustrating, because the administration acted as if nothing had happened. He had been telling people that he could not hear and about the pain and vertigo that he was suffering. Mr. Harris claims that he was the one who heard the guards in the library. He has seen guards chop an inmate's fingertips off. Also he has seen them drive a man to his death because of the abuse and retaliation.

Mr. Harris asked staff and personnel why he was placed in DHU (Disciplinary Housing Unit). He claims that he was never told why or given a straight answer. He was told that he was from Special Management Unit (SMU). For 3-1/2 months, he was housed in DHU, denied phone calls, contact visits, and other privileges that are provided to all prisoners upon arrival to the Department of Corrections (DOC). He is seen by the institution's psychiatrist, Dr. Clark, who said that Harris should not be confined to RHU given the traumatic condition for which he is being treated, and that Harris is not a disciplinary problem. Dr. Clark said that such an environment would be more harmful than beneficial. Mr. Harris was told that he would be kept in RHU until transferred to his permanent prison. He was moved from DHU to SMU on October 8, 1998. At no time (over 4 months) did he receive a disciplinary infraction. He was told that he was in restricted housing, because of a previous infraction at Allegheny County jail. Mr. Harris claims that when he received this infraction, he had not been sentenced by the courts and that he had been released for good behavior.

Mr. Harris claims that the ventilating system in his cell is bad for his lung conditions. His breathing is impaired, he has sinus pain, constant nose bleeds, and migraine headaches. The Superintendent claims that Harris does not have asthma. On February 2, 1999, at 1:45 AM, Harris had a severe asthma attack. The shift commander, Lt. Thomas, with medical personnel, stated he could not believe how hot Harris' cell was. Lt Thomas said that Harris had asthma, and he did not know how Harris was able to breathe under such conditions. Lieutenant Thomas gave a direct order to remove the shield from Harris' door. As medical personnel were administering oxygen and breathing treatment to try to stabilize Harris' vital signs, Lieutenant Thomas ordered that Harris be transferred to the prison hospital until he could be seen by a physician. On April 22, 1999, Harris was transferred to SCI Greene County. Harris claims that the head psychiatrist of the DOC said that Harris should never have been placed in RHU.

Prior to his transfer of November 19, 1998, Mr. Harris claims that he was given a false misconduct report for allegedly trying to assault an officer while being escorted to a review meeting. This was an excuse to keep him in RHU for 5 months. The alleged assault occurred out of eyesight of any witnesses other than the correctional officer (CO) and his co-worker. Harris was handcuffed, waist-belted, and shackled. Harris admits that he expressed an attitude of disrespect. He was snatched from the chair, dragged and pushed down a flight of stairs and then assaulted while he was handcuffed, waist-belted, and shackled. He was told that he had an attitude problem and that niggers better realize who is in charge. Harris was punched and slammed (head and chest first onto a metal food serving cart) about the body and legs, which is a common practice so as to not leave any visible marks. Later he was given a disciplinary sanction for allegedly assaulting the officer. The officer then destroyed his designer eyeglasses, asthma inhaler, and personal property when he was being transferred on April 22, 1999. Mr. Harris claims that the institution acknowledges in writing that his property was destroyed. Mr. Harris has been without his prescription glasses for 8 months. Mr. Harris continues to suffer migraine headaches from strain of focus. He continues to be placed in solitary confinement.

In an entirely separate and unrelated correspondence, inmate Jerome Prevet AM­5561, also at SCI Greene County, wrote about the racial and religious discrimination and the falsification of reports by prison officials. He has been locked down since November 15, 1998, because two inmates were fighting with each other. One of them is Robert Hall DP­1779, who is a friend of Prevet. Mr. Hall was transferred last year. According to Mr. Prevet, Mr. Hall told the state police that Prevet had nothing to do with the assault on him on November 15, 1998, on B-Block. Mr. Prevet says that he received no Misconduct Report. He was locked down anyway on AC status because of his religious belief in the Nation of Islam. On January 5, 1999, Mr. Prevet saw Deputy Superintendent Stowitzky. Deputy Stowitzky asked Prevet if he was a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI) under the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Mr. Prevet said yes. Mr. Prevet is considered a security threat group member. He is a minister in the NOI. Mr. Prevet has filed a federal law suit against the prison.