Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) Secretary John Wetzel has announced a number of new punitive policies that explicitly violate the rights of Pennsylvania prisoners and their families.
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These new policies include a ban on all physical copies of books, restrictions on taking photos and using vending machines during family visitation, and a strict ban on mail that requires family and friends to go through a 3rd party mailing service in Florida. These restrictions went into effect immediately and apply across all 24 PADOC prison facilities.
According to the department, the new measures are necessary because 57 correctional officers reported falling ill after being exposed to synthetic cannabinoids, or K2, while handling incoming books and mail. Experts in toxicology, however, say that mere physical contact with synthetic cannabinoids would not lead to such symptoms, only ingestion or consumption would.
"In a word, it's implausible," said Dr. Lewis Nelson, chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and former president of the American College of Medical Toxicology. "One thing we know about [synthetic cannabinoids] is that they don't cause the effects these folks are having, and certainly not by the route that they're being exposed. … The symptoms are much more consistent with anxiety."
"There is some great concern that it's psychogenic," said Jeanmarie Perrone, director of medical toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. That is, a sort of contagious hysteria fueled by fears of dangerous exposure.
Under the guise of protecting employee safety, the PADOC has managed to strip Pennsylvania prisoners of their fundamental rights to privacy and information.
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"They've implemented a system where our friends & family must write an address in Florida who will photocopy their letters & pictures & then send them to us! These new mail policies are rushed & directly violate the legal precedent set under the 1st amendment case Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974)," wrote a jailhouse lawyer at SCI Fayette in La Belle, Pennsylvania.
“Also, books have been banned unless they come in e-book form, specially requested through D.O.C. avenues or an account is set up by family that the D.O.C. can take $ out to purchase the books for me. They've complicated the process to such a degree that their new policy of denying mail & books is reminiscent of slavery!”
The PADOC has signed a $4 million contract with a Florida-based digital delivery company to open, scan, and forward all incoming mail to the appropriate facility. The original letter will be destroyed and a scanned copy will be sent on. No longer will incarcerated people be able to touch a letter that their loved ones wrote with their own hands.
The new e-book policy has cut off prisoners' access to long-standing volunteer-run free books programs, including Books Through Bars and the Pittsburgh-based Book 'Em. Instead, the PADOC has signed an expensive contract with the tablet and e-book provider, GTL.
The role that tech industries play in profiting from these new punitive policies is indisputable. The PADOC surveillance budget has been increased immensely, including new high-tech body-scanners for visitors, drone-detection equipment, and body cams for corrections officers. In total, these surveillance changes will cost taxpayers $15 million.
We must take immediate action to reverse the ban on physical books and lift restrictions on mailing and visitation in Pennsylvania prisons.
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> Pennsylvania: Announcement of New Policies
> Philadelphia Inquirer: Pa. prisons spend $15M after guards were sickened by K2. But what if it was just in their heads?
> Philadelphia Inquirer: Pa. prison books and mail policies draw protests, petitions, and possible legal challenges