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Revolutionary Love: Fighting Prison Injustice From Both Sides of the Wall

Even peaceful resistance to brutality in prison is seen as defiance and can lead to more brutality from the guards.

Just as peaceful resistance to brutality on the streets is often considered threatening — and even cause for a protester to be harmed — resistance to brutality behind the walls is seen as defiance of the natural order of things. (Photo: Vicki Watkins / Flickr)

I identify with the movement of mothers whose children have been brutalized or murdered by police. I am very fortunate: I will see my son again, while most of these mothers remain to mourn their children. However, when I see my son, it is behind bars.

I am a mother who was forced to be a warrior for prisoners. I advocate not only for the rights of my son, but for the human and civil rights of all prisoners.

Fighting injustice is imbedded in my DNA. I am not wired to be a bystander. It is my duty to fight for those whose voices too often go unheard. Prisoners are not heard because of the way they are kept invisible from society. When I began investigating my son’s experiences in prison, I could not in clear conscience turn my back. I was faced with the reality that many prisoners were experiencing the same brutality, starvation and torture.

I may be “biased.” After all, I am a mother and a protector. But this mother has an arsenal of facts to prove her points about solitary confinement. I am armed with the truth: the truth of what happened to my son and what happens in solitary confinement not only in Pennsylvania, where we live, but throughout the United States.

Before the explosion of cell phone videos and social media exposing police brutality, American prisons were videotaping brutal beatings, torture and sometimes murder of unarmed prisoners. Those videos seldom surfaced or became public. Around 2011, I had the unfortunate responsibility of viewing videos of the brutal cell extraction of my son, Carrington Keys at SCI Dallas, in Dallas, Pennsylvania. I couldn’t watch. In fact, I didn’t watch it in its entirety until 2016. Even then, I lowered my gaze to avoid the pain.

This nightmare began in April 2010 when I received a letter from my son asking me to call and check on him because it “may get bloody.” His life had been threatened by correctional officers (COs). This was shortly after my son contributed to “Institutionalized Cruelty,” a report generated by Human Rights Coalition (HRC). The report detailed beatings, torture and inhumane conditions at SCI Dallas. When the report was viewed by prison officials, the names of prisoners who contributed to the report became known. Subsequently, all of their lives were threatened. A weeklong rampage of beatings began.

The Dallas 6 Incident

The Dallas 6 were among a brave group of men in the Restricted Housing Unit at SCI Dallas who contributed to the HRC report on prison conditions. The retaliation against them began not long after the report was released. The guards were beating anyone whose name was in the report. On April 28, 2010, Isaac Sanchez was tortured in a restraint chair overnight for complaining that Anthony Kelly — one of the Dallas 6 — had been denied food trays. After they tortured Isaac Sanchez, they promised the Dallas 6 that they would be next.

The prisoners decided to hold a peaceful protest by covering their windows. In solitary, in Pennsylvania, prisoners cover their windows to get the attention of the lieutenant, who supervises the prison guards. They don’t have access to phones or visitors. Their letters to government officials had been returned to prison officials — essentially, the state was asking prison employees to investigate themselves. Letters to the district attorney and state police were ignored. The men thought that maybe, if they could talk to the lieutenant, the guards would stop their brutal retaliation against the whistleblowers.

Instead, each man was brutally assaulted and forcibly removed from his cell by guards dressed in riot gear, using military weapons. On video, the men were tased on their genitals, excessively pepper sprayed from vents behind their cells, which is illegal, and beaten with batons and handcuffs. Once extracted from their cells, they received no medical treatment and were left bloody and covered in pepper spray for up to 12 hours. They were then evacuated to other prisons, except for Duane Peters, who was held at SCI Dallas for another five years and continuously tortured.

The courageous prisoner whistleblowers all wrote to HRC, which filed a criminal complaint with the state police. My son, a jailhouse lawyer, filed a lawsuit against the district attorney because she ignored repeated complaints about abuse. No one ever investigated any of the prisoners’ allegations, not even the state police with whom HRC filed a criminal complaint. At the April 2016 trial, State Police Corporal Wilson testified that he tried to question the men and was denied by prison officials.

Four months after the HRC complaint and days after an article was published about my son’s lawsuit, the district attorney, Department of Corrections and the state police charged six men with riot for covering their cell windows. In addition to the riot charge, my son was charged with six counts of assault.

At the preliminary hearing in 2010, guards claimed they were coerced into entering the cells because windows were covered. They didn’t tell Magistrate Tupper that the windows were uncovered two hours before they entered the cells. The fact that they knew windows were uncovered wasn’t revealed until five years later, in 2015. Nor did they show him extraction videos. Coincidentally, they fought to suppress the videos, saying they were not relevant.

The word “riot” implies serious violence being enacted upon guards. Individually celled prisoners peacefully covering their window and remaining silent do not constitute a “riot.”

It took six years to bring the Dallas 6 case to trial, at an enormous cost to taxpayers, including the expense of transporting the Dallas 6 to their preliminary hearing with a sheriff helicopter hovering above a procession of cars from all over the state. Another expense was the security at each hearing. All who attend undergo a search and metal detector to enter the courthouse. Once upstairs, two guards at the courtroom door re-search court-goers, and six to eight guards inside guard everyone. We believe that these extreme security measures are aimed to deter people from attending court, because we have many supporters. As a court watcher, I’ve witnessed many trials and never seen this amount of security, not even at a murder trial. Not only do I believe this level of security portrays an extreme level of danger, but it also can influence the jury. A juror may see all this security and naturally assume the defendants are threatening.

On April 4, 2016, a jury trial was held for the last three of the Dallas 6. Andre Jacobs and my son Carrington Keys defended themselves, while Duane Peters was defended by attorney Michael Wiseman from Philadelphia. Wiseman also served as a standby attorney for Andre and Carrington.

The eight-day trial became an exposé on solitary confinement: how it breaks the spirit, and how there is a lack of accountability. Court reports were posted daily. The jury was deadlocked, after only a couple hours of deliberation. The men claimed victory. Months later, the district attorney dropped the riot charges, but decided to retry my son on assault charges.

Retaliation Is Standard Procedure

On March 13, 2017, my son will go to trial for assault. We believe this is retaliation for the active lawsuits he has filed, naming court officials and Department of Corrections staff. He has experienced retaliation while at SCI Retreat every time he is transported there for court. Under the watch of Superintendent Vincent Mooney and Jim McGrady, father-in-law of the District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis, legal materials have been destroyed. Personal property gets “lost,” leaving him without hygiene products or underclothes. Most recently, he was placed in a psychiatric unit in a suicide-watch cell. The thought traumatized me. I had visions of what happened to Sandra Bland. It took a call alert to get him removed from danger. HRC uses a network of people to make calls to prison and government officials on behalf of prisoners whose lives are being endangered.

The history with Superintendent Mooney started at SCI Mahanoy where my son was sent upon his initial incarceration in 1999. Superintendent Mooney was a CO there at the time and his name is prominent in HRC abuse logs. When my son began studying law and helping others, he became a target for abuse by guards. After an incident with another prisoner, he was ordered to spend 90 days in solitary confinement — yet the guards kept him in solitary for nearly 10 years. While in the “hole” he began to be starved and beaten by guards. He was denied showers, yard time, mail and visits. I was lied to by staff, who said I couldn’t visit (although under the prison’s rules, those in solitary can still receive visits). Sometimes he stayed in his cell even when they offered to let him out, because sometimes when they let him out, they assaulted him, even throwing him down a flight of stairs at one point.

For years, I lived in fear and had endless anxiety. I was always worried that my son would be killed inside the walls, just as men are dying on the street at the hands of police.

Working with the Human Rights Coalition became an awakening time for me. Naively, I thought the abuse of my son was isolated. However, I learned these practices are standard procedures of the Department of Corrections. I began a letter-writing campaign only to find that all letters to public and government officials were mailed back to the Department of Corrections to investigate itself. I also built a network between the prisoners, so that if one was being attacked, another could contact me and I would contact their family. This went on for years. For years, I wrote, called and faxed then Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Jeffrey Beard’s office once a week or more. Beard later became Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in California, where over 30,000 hunger strikers protested against some of the same issues the Dallas 6 were fighting.

After my son was tortured at SCI Mahanoy for many years, I wrote a letter in 2008 pleading with Beard to move him immediately before he died. Guards then put glass in my son’s food. I now know this is a common occurrence: I receive letters from prisoners in solitary who describe being drugged or poisoned, and finding foreign objects in their food like metal. Shortly after my letter, Carrington was transferred to SCI Dallas. With this move, Vincent Mooney still had control over my son’s life: He had moved up to become superintendent at SCI Dallas. When I heard about his promotion, I wrote a letter to Superintendent Mooney and said he knew my son was not a bad person and this should be a fresh start. Mooney actually agreed, and released my son into general population.

I was finally able to see my son. He had visibly lost a tremendous amount of weight and at 6′ weighed 120 pounds. It was heartbreaking but nonetheless a joy to see him.

That joy soon faded. One day, while my son was in the prison yard, COs ransacked his cell and removed legal documents in which he was building a case against them. When Carrington complained, he was thrown back into solitary. While in the hole at SCI Dallas, he began experiencing and witnessing a much more depraved torture than ever before. This was when the seeds of the HRC report were planted. For a year, Carrington and others put their lives on the line to report the abuse and torture they experienced to HRC. They had hope that exposing the brutality and inhumanity of solitary confinement would prevent such atrocities in the future.

Solitary Is Everywhere

While in some ways the experience of the Dallas 6 is unique, in others it is disturbingly commonplace. Nationally, there are between 80,000 and 100,000 prisoners in solitary. Pennsylvania holds 2,500 prisoners in solitary. Recently, the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh was part of a team that won lawsuits for prisoners with extreme solitary times. Russell Maroon Shoats spent nearly 30 years and Arthur Cetewayo Johnson was held in solitary for nearly 37 years. Both men, now in their 70s, exercised and read books to keep themselves sane and fit. Though elderly, they were feared and considered escape risks.

What happened to my son is widely reported from prisons across the United States. For many years I was afraid I would be getting that call that no family ever wants. Such a call had to be made to John Carter’s family, who was killed by guards at Pennsylvania’s SCI Rockview from a brutal beating and excessive use of tear gas. Jailhouse lawyer and prison activist John Carter was retaliated against by being put on food loaf, which is a compressed loaf of vegetables and starches given to prisoners as punishment. When he complained it was time to be off the loaf, he was murdered. Because of the strong guards union, COs are rarely fired. If a guard doesn’t go along with the gang mentality, he may be harassed, beaten up by other guards or set up to be attacked by prisoners. For example, Officer D. Lee Martin feared for his safety from other guards. He lost his job at SCI Camp Hill because he was so afraid, he didn’t “snitch” on guards who set an inmate up to be assaulted. The system is set up to cover up and even condone abuse by guards, particularly when it comes to people in solitary confinement.

Going to Court

When my son goes to court, I am happy that he will have his say about what happened to him. On that day, it will be clear that when he and the rest of the Dallas 6 took a stand against injustice, it wasn’t just for themselves but for everyone. They were taking a stand for everyone who had tired of people dying and lives being squandered due to medical neglect, guard-coerced suicides, starvation and brutal beatings. They were tired of the toxic environment — of drinking brown water and living in stench. They risked their lives to make a statement.

Just as peaceful resistance to brutality on the streets is often considered threatening — and even cause for a protester to be harmed — resistance to brutality behind the walls is seen as defiance of the natural order of things. What is the price people pay when they stand up for themselves? On March 13, 2017, my son Carrington Keys will stand in court and hope that the verdict comes down on the side of justice — for himself, and for so many others suffering at the hands of prison guards.

For more information about the Dallas 6, watch this video: Price Men Pay: Falsely Accused for Standing Up for Justice.

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