Incarceration Nation

Visit to a Jailhouse Environmentalist

By Suzanne Ross

On Monday, February 13, 2017, Joe Piette of International Action Center in Philadelphia and I, of International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal in New York City, headed from our respective cities to meet in Frackville Prison (Frackville, Pennsylvania, just a few miles away from Mahanoy where Mumia is housed,) to visit the environmental activist prisoner, Bryant Arroyo. Joe arrived a little before I did. By the time I got there he had already been told he was not on the approved list, that there was no record of his scheduled visit, and that he could not visit Bryant. We asked the guards to check the list again, which they claimed to do, but they refused to show Joe any of the documentation they were supposedly reviewing.

They did allow me in, two hours later. They claimed the delay of my visit was due to Bryant not being in his cell. Bryant told me that he had never left his cell, and had noted to the guard that he was remaining there, even cancelling his law library visit, just to be sure not to miss us. A not very auspicious beginning, and one highly suggestive of targeted hassling of particular visitors.

Both Joe and I wrote letters to the Superintendent of Frackville about the disturbing behavior of the prison authorities in dealing with our visit. Bryant, on his end, has filed a grievance on the disruption of his visitors’ ability to see him and of his ability to receive them. This morning, I received an apology from the Superintendent for the delays.

When I finally got to see Bryant, I was struck by how calm he was, as I showed up without Joe and so many hours after we had said we would be there. Life in prison inures people to arbitrary delays, postponements, cancellations for so many reasons out of the prisoners’ control, ones they often don’t even get to have explained later. People “adjust.”

I had spoken with Bryant many times on the telephone and we had corresponded some as well but this was the first time I was meeting him. I was struck by his polite, informal, and very respectful manner. Now in his mid-forties, he has been in prison for 23 years. He has fought to establish his innocence throughout those many years. It now looks as though his legal filing for wrongful conviction will finally be heard in court within the next year or two. He is very encouraged by that, and hardly refers to the length of time this struggle has taken as being outrageous.

Bryant grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in a Puerto Rican family that owned different small businesses over the years. He was a tenth-grade high school dropout when he became a father, but earned a GED. He later studied computers, drafting and, more recently, “the science of law.” He was sentenced to Life in Prison Without Parole (a sentence that is being challenged across this country as unconstitutional.) Because of the upcoming likelihood of court action, I am respecting Bryant’s request not to discuss the details of his case, which are, nonetheless, available on the Internet.

Bryant says he has managed to keep his focus through his more than two decades in prison for a crime he vehemently denies committing by his determination to prove his innocence, get out of prison, and continue the work he has begun while incarcerated, but on a larger level when he gets out. He states proudly that he has never taken any psychotropic medicine, and has never spoken with a psychologist or psychiatrist (noting humorously other than with me, a practicing clinical psychologist.) He says philosophically or out of his faith, that he has turned this nightmare that was forced on him into a blessing.

I contacted Bryant when we learned several months back, through Mumia, that the water at Mahanoy was dark and smelly, and that this situation was affecting other Pennsylvania prisons as well, including Frackville. Bryant had brought a legal suit against a corporation that was going to build a coal-processing plant next to SCI Mahanoy where he was then housed, and won the legal battle. The plant was not built! When Mumia met Bryant after his own release from Death Row in 2011, he was obviously impressed.

Bryant has filed several grievances about the water at Frackville, but without any improvement in the quality of the water available.

Bryant’s description of the water situation at SCI Frackville

As Bryant sees it, the water problem in the Pennsylvania prisons is not unique to the prisons but is a community problem. It is, however, almost always a problem at the prison. It is very noticeable when brown or black but even when looking clear, it foams in a way that suggests an impurity and often smells of sulfur. There is something wrong with it chemically. The brothers at the prison constantly go to the infirmary for intestinal problems, frequent visits to the bathroom, especially if they drink say a pint or so of water in a single gulp. At Frackville, clean bottled water can only be purchased in the visiting room, not in the commissary. The guards’ dining room has bottled water available all the time. The prisoners have no option but to drink the polluted water which makes them sick.

Bryant has written to both the Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency but he doesn’t believe their reports are truthful. First, the monitors who come to the prison do not test the water on the block but rather on somewhat cleaner water. Second, one government branch often covers up for another (didn’t we see that in Flint, Michigan?)

The county in which Frackville, Pennsylvania is situated, Schuylkill, has been called a cancer hotbed because it is so polluted and the cancer rate is so high. Bryant feels the government has both the funds and the resources to clean this up.

We will surely be hearing more from Bryant Arroyo as he has become a passionate and very skillful and fighter for justice, one who challenges the authorities whenever they violate the rights of prisoners, and who is determined to make people aware of these human rights violations.

—February 20, 2017

Write to:

Bryant Arroyo #CU-1126

SCI Frackville

1111 Altamont Blvd.

Frackville, PA 17931