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“Dallas 6” Prisoners Face Trial for Protesting Abuse in Solitary Confinement

Six men risked their lives to protest brutal prison conditions. One of them is my son.

The Dallas 6 should not be on trial for standing up for their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

In April 29, 2010, six Black men held a peaceful protest against the physical and mental abuse and starvation inflicted on them and other prisoners, as well as against the guard-assisted suicide of a white prisoner named Matthew Bullock, and the restraint chair torture of a Latino prisoner in the Restricted Housing Unit at the State Correctional Institution at Dallas (SCI Dallas) in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. These men are collectively known as the Dallas 6. One of them is my son, Carrington Keys.

On that day, the prisoners covered their cell windows and peacefully requested outside intervention. Instead, they were assaulted with military weaponry by armed guards in riot gear and forcefully removed from their cells . They were stripped naked and left bloody, never receiving medical treatment. These six unarmed men, who protested from within their single cells in solitary confinement, are charged with rioting. Preceding this incident, members of the Dallas 6 notified the district attorney and state police about ongoing abuses at SCI Dallas. Neither responded nor investigated.

After the Dallas 6 were brutally assaulted, a criminal complaint was filed with the state police by the Human Rights Coalition, a prisoner rights group based in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A lawsuit was also filed against then District Attorney Jackie Musto Carroll by the Dallas 6’s Carrington Keys (my son). Four months later, after a local newspaper published an article about the lawsuit against the DA, the PA Department of Corrections, the state police and the district attorney filed riot charges. Initially, the members of the Dallas 6 were charged with refusing to obey an order, for which they would have received a simple disciplinary sanction. This was an attempt to cover up rampant human and civil rights violations committed against prisoners. It was also a retaliation.

Long before April 29, the Dallas 6 had been both witnesses to and victims of violence and inhumane conditions, which they reported to the Human Rights Coalition. From these accounts, the coalition compiled a 93-page report entitled Institutionalized Cruelty. The report revealed that at SCI Dallas, prisoners were subjected to extreme cruelty by guards in the Restricted Housing Unit. Reports contained complaints of starvation, foreign objects in food such as metal and glass, feces and urine in food, denial of access to showers and the yard, denial of access to incoming mail and the destruction of outgoing mail. The report also included prisoners’ accounts of the brown water they are forced to drink to survive. This same water causes white laundry to turn brown. The prisoners also reported that rogue guards often do “contraband” searches to ransack and remove legal materials when there is a case against the guards or the Department of Corrections.

Video evidence that could exonerate my son, Carrington Keys, from additional charges of assault was withheld for five years.

Solitary confinement is often portrayed as the place where only the worst and most violent prisoners are sent. However, the reality is five out of six people in solitary are there for nonviolent reasons. Abuse is not limited to SCI Dallas, but is widespread throughout the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections as detailed in the many abuse complaints collected by the Human Rights Coalition from prisons all over Pennsylvania.

In 2013, after a thorough investigation, the Department of Justice found that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ use of solitary confinement was a violation of prisoner’s Eighth Amendment rights. Though this was a major breakthrough, it only addressed the use of solitary as it relates to the rights of those with intellectual disabilities and mental illness who are covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Solitary still continues to be used in Pennsylvania: They just change the name of the units and pretend they are not used for solitary confinement. And these units are still filled with Black and Brown people.

“Rioting” in Solitary

Are you confused about how unarmed men locked separate in cells could be charged with “riot”? The answer is a broken and corrupt justice system. After all, Dallas, Pennsylvania, is in Luzerne County, the same county where judges Mark Ciaverella and Michael Conahan were convicted of sentencing children to a private detention center in exchange for millions of dollars in kickbacks. The Luzerne County courts aid and abet the perpetuation of this false riot charge and continue to push it through the courts, even after it was determined that the basis for the charge was discounted. To prove riot, the complainant has to prove coercion into official action. In the initial complaint filed against the Dallas 6, there were claims that the guards were forced to go into the cells because the windows were covered. In a separate trial for one of the Dallas 6, video evidence exposed that coverings had been removed from the windows two hours before the guards brutally attacked Dallas 6.

The current judge on the case, Lesa Gelb, was previously an attorney who represented the family of Matthew Bullock, the prisoner who the Dallas 6 reported died from a guard-assisted suicide, causing the family to file a lawsuit and reach a settlement. She became Judge Gelb after being elected to the bench in 2011. In 2012, she wrote an opinion to overturn the 2011 dismissal of the riot charges made by Judge Cosgrove. Soon after, she became the judge on the Dallas 6 case. One would think this would be an advantage. Such has not been the case. Most of her decisions in the courtroom are in favor of the prosecutor even amongst a myriad of supporting case law in favor of the Dallas 6.

The Dallas 6 should not be on trial for standing up for their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

The irony is that had the Dallas 6 not been whistleblowers in reporting the incident, no one would be the wiser. In fact, their whistle-blowing was tantamount to the torture and retaliation they received in April 2010. Due to the judge’s work on the Bullock case, it is assumed that she understands the circumstances and the brutality of solitary confinement. But, in the courtroom, it would appear that she has a vested interest in helping prove these men guilty, possibly because that would mean her 2012 opinion to reinstate the charges would be an error.

Video evidence that could exonerate my son, Carrington Keys, from additional charges of assault was withheld for five years, and only surfaced because the court was informed the video was mentioned in transcripts from an earlier proceeding. Video tampering and countless instances of official misconduct and due process violations have been brought to the judge’s attention — but instead of throwing the case out, the judge has repeatedly remarked, “Take it up on appeal.” This suggestion would imply that the men will be found guilty.

The Dallas 6 are whistleblowers and jailhouse lawyers who are defending themselves pro se. Some of these men have been successful in litigating lawsuits against the Department of Corrections, which has made them targets. Within prison walls, those who sue the department are often retaliated against, and sometimes face extended time in solitary (The Dallas 6 each spent 10 or more years in solitary).

In the Dallas 6 case, the fact that the men did not use violence did not matter. Their unity was considered dangerous, especially because it exposed official misconduct. Even to this day, Dallas 6 members are retaliated against by being denied access to their legal materials, having these materials destroyed, and being threatened with a return to solitary confinement. Supporters frequently do call-alerts to protect Dallas 6 members from further retaliation.

On January 15, 2016, a peaceful protest and press conference was held at the Luzerne County Courthouse in honor of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who is known for both nonviolent protest and the fight against racism and injustice in our court system. On that day, statements were heard from my son and from Duane Peters, another member of the Dallas 6, as well as from family members and supporters. A petition was delivered to the district attorney demanding the charges be dropped.

When trial finally does begin for the last three of the Dallas 6, the spotlight will be on abusive guards and their official misconduct.

During that protest, family members were shocked to learn that the planned February 1 court date had been rescheduled to April 4, 2016, the day that Dr. King was murdered. Family and supporters did not consider this change of date to be a coincidence, but instead consider it to be a deliberate message to those who seek justice for the Dallas 6. Currently, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches is circulating a sign-on letter throughout the faith community asking for charges to be dropped on grounds of moral decency. That letter was delivered to the Luzerne County district attorney as well. So far, over 75 faith leaders throughout Pennsylvania have signed on.

The Dallas 6 should not be on trial for standing up for their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Many believe that prisoners lose their rights when they enter the prison gates. They do not. Prisoners lose their right to live in a free society, but not their human rights and not their civil rights. Prisoners have a right to fair and equal treatment in the justice system.

Time and time again, justice fails to succeed when a guard or police officer is involved. When trial finally does begin for the last three of the Dallas 6, the spotlight will be on abusive guards and their official misconduct, on solitary confinement, and on the judge and district attorney who pushed this case through the courts for six years, wasting hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. In the days leading up to trial, the question is: What will prevail in court — true justice or unbridled corruption?

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