PA Dept. of Corrections Secretary answers your questions

The Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus recently hosted a Town Hall Meeting with PA Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel to discuss the recent lockdowns and its policy changes within the prison system.

Secretary Wetzel provided answers to the following submitted questions. His responses are in bold.

  1. Your new mail and visiting policies will severely affect my family. I feel hopeless that I cannot now send my brother a photo of a family event with a personal message written on it. A photo is a visit from a loved one far away. A photo speaks a thousand works, a scanned image does not. A scanned image is boot leg. I pay for the photos not a bootleg. Thank you for your comment. Although a duplicate of the photo is not on photo paper, the image copied is identical, in color and would capture any message that is written on it. In addition, we are pursuing the ability to send photos electronically on the tablets as well as other methods.
  1. This year (in Feb 2018), the PA DOC’s contract with GTL has an incentivized revenue structure; the more revenue from music, email, games, and books the DOC can get prisoners to generate from purchases, the higher the DOC’s commission rate. The contract was signed 6 months before the new policy that makes e-books people’s primary access point to reading materials. Why is the DOC profiting off limiting book access?  E-books are not the primary access point to reading. It was an option that inmates had requested. Our libraries are filled with 1000s of books. Inmates may purchase books - which many do and we have recently announced that the donation organizations can once again donate books. Finally, we have released new policy for friends and families to purchase books.
  1. Have you ever experienced a 12-day lockdown in a prison cell with a cell mate? Do you truly know the impact of your decision for the lockdown? We do understand the impact of a lockdown. The decision was made only after being faced with unprecedented number of overdoses of inmates and exposures of staff. We needed to ensure the safety of both inmates and staff.
  1. These policies are dehumanizing, costly, and inefficient. Why are you pursuing policies that damage connection to friends and family, and that decrease the ability to engage in education? None of the policies impact the ability to engage in education. No education courses were limited or terminated. Additionally, the policies represent a fair balance between maintaining the safety of staff and inmates while supporting relationships among inmates, their loved ones and the community.
  1. I am a transportation provider: have you considered the health of having no food in the visiting room? Many riders and inmates have diabetes and high blood pressure and have been getting ill after visits. Visitors who require access to food or drink due to medical conditions can submit a medical accommodation request for review by emailing or contacting the facility's superintendent's office. Food will be provided to inmates who missed meal due to a visit. Visitors are permitted to bring their own food and drink.
  1. How was Smart Communications selected, given that there was no solicitation/RFP? When did this negotiation begin? Smart Communications was selected through the DOC Drug Interdiction Strategies Committee (DISC). The DOC was looking for a third party vendor who processes mail off-site. Smart Communications is the only company in the United States who offers a program of this kind. Smart Communications was discovered by the DOC in March 2018. The CEO of Smart Communications came to the DOC Central office for the first presentation in July 2018.
  1. What specifically is your plan to reinstate free book donations and on what specific timeline? The donations will work as they have done in the past. The donation organizations may send books to individual inmates. The only difference will be that all publications will pass through a Security Processing Center.
  1. Who is profiting from the scanning and kindle sales? This is our tax money. Why is a for-profit company involved? No one is profiting from scanning. It’s a paid contract for services. There are no commissions for the mail process.
  1. What is going to happen with educational text that cannot be purchased by e-book? Inmates can still purchase books. Books are not banned in our facilities and we have constructed polices to provide inmates more opportunities to access books. Friends and family may also purchase books and send to their loved one. All publications must go through the Security Processing Center at the following address:
               Security Processing Center
               Inmate Name, Inmate #
               268 Bricker Road
               Bellefonte, PA 16823

     
  2. Why are visitors at SCI Phoenix being prevented from visiting at 8pm when hours are over at 9pm? It takes a significant amount of time to process a visitor into a visit and it takes even more time to process an inmate into a visit. Arriving just an hour before visiting hours are over, does not offer enough time for a substantial visit. What is being done to correct quality of photos for people of color? Smart Communications uses a software to improve the quality of photos. This software is used on all photos before the electronic copy of the mail is sent to the institution. Often times the original quality of the photo is so poor there is not much editing that can be done to enhance the quality. We will continue to work on policies for the future that would enable access to photos.
  1. Why can’t volunteer and education programs bring in their own materials? When will that end? Policies will be finalized by the end of the 90 day transition period.
  1. Why are you giving inmates new mattress and taking pillows away from these inmates? New mattresses with built in pillows are being offered. However, they have also been provided a separate pillow. These mattress/pillow combos are more cost effective, more durable, while still providing an equal level of comfort.
  1. You said this problem manifested in July. So you’re saying the scanner, the books vendor and food vendor all came about since July? The effects of drugs and contraband has been an ongoing problem in our facilities. From May 2018 to September 2018 33 inmates and 60 staff members experienced side effects from dangerous unknown substance exposures. Since 2010, the new admissions with an opioid addiction more than doubled. Currently, a quarter of DOC admissions who identify a “drug of choice” indicate heroin or opiate prescription drugs and 20 inmates a month are sent to the emergency rooms due to drug overdoses. Following the lockdown the DOC did not change its food vendor. We created new policies and procedures for Mail, Legal Mail, Visits, Staff, Books/Publications, Drones, and New Commits.
  1. Why can the mail be sent to Shutterfly? Smart Communications will process photos from ShutterFly. Photos are limited to 25. We are exploring additional options for photos.
  1. With the mail delay inmates are missing court dates. How are you going to fix it without penalty to the inmate? Smart Communications has ordered six new mail scanners to accompany the DOCs mail volume. At the end of this transition period (within the next 30-60 days) the goal is to have inmates receiving their mail within 48 hours of its reception in Florida. If an inmate experiences legal penalties due to the mail delay, proof of injury should be provided by the inmate to the DOC and the Legal Department will review.
  1. How is it that a newly built prison “phoenix” is having so many problems such as leaks? And what is being done about the destroyed and missing property of inmates?  Although this prison recently accepted inmates, it has been operational in some parts for several years. These types of things are outside of the control of staff. Our maintenance staff address issues in a reasonable fashion as they arise.
  1. I’m a reporter for the Philadelphia inquirer. An inmate in confinement who spoke with me for a story on suicide, he tells me he lost his job as a direct result and is facing further repercussions. Is this official policy? If not, why is this happening? Inmates are free to speak to reporters without repercussions. It happens frequently. If you want to provide specific information, please contact Diana Woodside at dwoodside@pa.gov.
  1. If only 1% of inmates are testing positive, why are 99% being punished? Any time drugs enter into a SCI, it creates a ripple effect. One piece of paper soaked in K2 can be ripped into 20-30 pieces and sold to other inmates. Inmates find themselves in drug debt, assaults increase and treatment is ineffective when drug use continues.
  1. Why are only the inmates and their families being punished when it’s clear that the COs aided in bringing illegal substances? We are addressing all potential avenues for drugs entering into the facilities, including staff.
  1. Inmates should get a better portion of food. The Department of Correction’s Master Menu is analyzed using computer software. The DOC menu, as written, when served the standard portion sizes an indicated on the menu, meets the current Recommended Dietary Allowances and Dietary Reference Intakes, Males and Females, 18 to 50 years, as identified by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council. Every facility uses measured portion utensils, pre-portioned items, or scales to ensure the standard portion is served. Many people are not used to managing or limiting their food portions to those recommended for a healthy lifestyle. It is our hope that inmates can learn what healthy portions look like so they can in turn carry that forward once released.
  1. What happens when an inmate needs original documents for the courts in fighting for his legal rights? In the rare case that an inmate needs an original document, it will be held for him/her until needed. The inmate must grieve and show that an original is required.
  1. What happens when an inmate finished programs as jail support, good behavior for over 10 years and is denied because they feel he didn’t show remorse. That’s subjective. What’s the incentive to having good behavior? Parole decisions are within the discretion of the Parole Board. The programming and lack of misconducts are cut and dry issues. However, the interview process is subjective, and will be influenced by all of the factors – not just the programming/behavioral ones. If someone fully accepts what they did, exhibits tremendous remorse, understands the effects of their action - but they are still getting misconducts after being inside for 10 years then they are likely going to be denied for that reason instead.
  1. What is the process for someone on a probation or parole to request to leave the state? It depends if this questions refers to traveling out of state for a visit or permanently leave the state. You should speak to the parole agent or see the link here.
  1. Are you not breaking copyright laws by scanning cards that were sold by authors? No.
  1. If there was an alternative program to the DOC’s punitive and restricted policies, would you be willing to listening to it? We are always attentive and consider feedback.
  1. Books through Bars and Black and Nobel have been supporters of inmates for years. When will we be able to use them again? The new book donation policy has been announced. We have also announced a new policy that will enable inmates, friends and families to purchase books.
  1. He’s being abused by COs in the hole in SCI Phoenix. Have folder of entire event needs to talk to head of correction department- Amir Thomas #LP2341. You can report any abuse by going to our website here because you provided the name and number, this matter has been referred for investigation. You can also call 717-728-2033 or 24/7 number is 800-677-0330.
  1. With all the new methods of screening inmates, mail and visitors, what enhancements have been made to screen staff of contraband? They are searched and subject to the same electronic drug detection equipment (EDDE) that visitors and inmates are processed with. At the end of the rollout, all facilities will have at least 2 EDDE machines; one designated for inmates and visitors and another designated for staff. This will allow us to increase our level of drug detection for staff, inmates, and visitors.
  1. How can we file a complaint against an SCI facility or officer who makes the process of seeing an inmate difficult? What is the follow-up process? Why is there no food in the visiting room? A moratorium has been placed on the use of vending machines inside DOC visiting rooms. Visitors who need to eat due to medical reasons can submit a medical accommodation request for review. They can email or contact the facility's superintendent's office to make the request. When will food return? This has not been determined yet.
  1. Could you not have found a company closer than Florida to perform the mail scanning? No, Smart Communications is the only company in the United States who offers a program of this kind. Families travel for 4-5 hours to visit their loved one. What is the purpose of having no food or at least drink for 90 days? Why not 30 days? A moratorium has been placed on the use of vending machines inside DOC visiting rooms. Food from the vending machines was used as tool to transmit contraband from a visitor to an inmate. The time frame for this moratorium has not been determined.
  1. What happens original documents are needed? When an inmate is composing package documents for the court. In the rare occasion that an original document is needed, the inmate may put in a grievance and explain why the original is necessary. If so, DOC will provide the original.
  1. Why are you enacting expensive policies that will make it harder for people who are doing time to ever come back to our neighborhoods whole? These new policies were enacted to protect staff, inmates, volunteers and everyone who visit all DOC facilities from future dangerous substance exposures. It also promotes treatment so those who do come back to the communities are no longer addicted to drugs.
  1. Is it true that the inmates who have been in for a long period of time and had single cells will continue to have them? Why were they treated like dogs? Searched, shacked, and humiliated. This is so unjust. They were also stripped from head to toe and they lost precious belongings, pictures, etc. Older facilities were built for solitary confinement and had a significantly larger number of single cells, than our modern prototypical designs. The department no longer utilizes the program code designated for a long term single cell. Any inmate who still has this code, staff are working with them to reach a cell agreement. However, an inmate who meets a certain criteria (i.e. dangerous to self/other, certain medical conditions, high risk victim/predator etc.) can be staffed to be housed in a single cell. This code is not a permanent status and it is reviewed on an annual basis.
  1. Why do we have to send our letters, cards, all the way to Florida? A lot of time wasted! Why corruption and not devotion? Smart Communications is the only company in the United States who offers a program of this kind.
  1. How do publishers get books into the prison? New policy was released that allows inmates, as well as family and friends to purchase books from publishers/ book stores with direct shipment as follows:
    Security Processing Center
    Inmate name, Inmate #
    368 Bricker Road
    Bellefonte, PA 16823
  1. Why was plan done so haphazardly; nor thought out; this is definitely not the most cost effective. Not my tax dollars. Why punish all when a few does wrong? There was careful consideration given to all new policies.
  1. Regarding probation and parole, my husband was denied parole with jail support and no write ups for close to 10 years. The reason was because the interviewer said he did not show remorse. I was told we could not appeal. What can we do? Parole decisions are within the discretion of the Parole Board. The programming and lack of misconducts are cut and dry issues. However, the interview process is subjective, and will be influenced by all of the factors – not just the programming/behavioral ones. If someone fully accepts what they did, exhibits tremendous remorse, understands the effects of their action - but they are still getting misconducts after being inside for 10 years then they are likely going to be denied for that reason instead.
  1. Can you speak to the news article in the LNP about doctors doubting mass sickness stating that toxicology reports said there was no synthetic cannabis sickening the guards? Is this true and therefore all these policies are not necessary?  The CDC recently released a report outlining symptoms of the exposures to K2. The risks were real and placed our staff and inmates in dangerous situations. See the attachment here.

      Also, other prisons are having similar issues:

https://www.roanoke-chowannewsherald.com/2018/11/02/one-jailed-another-sought-for-attempting-to-deliver-contraband-to-private-prison/

https://www.correctionsone.com/contraband/articles/481753187-spice-and-cellphones-fla-prisons-see-new-wave-of-contraband/

  1. What percentage of drugs enter the system are by way to staff? Do you have at least a general estimate or idea of any states regarding staff? What, if anything, is being done to address mental health after a 12-day lock down like this? If the problem is drugs coming in the system, what’s being done now to address the demand for it? Two staff members were criminally charged for the introduction of drugs in 2018. Medical, psychology and unit staff are available resources to inmates. We have also implemented Medical assisted treatment, including the delivery of Vivitrol with in our facilities.
  1. In a radio interview you said you don’t like to talk about staff being compromised. Why does DOC seem to primarily cast blame on inmates and visitors when discussing this issue? We are not casting blame on inmates and visitors. We are addressing ALL avenues where drugs are entering facilities.
  1. California has just been allowed conjugal visits. Can you see that happening in PA? It is not currently under consideration.
  1. When will there be a full investigation into the K2 overdose story? Many scientists and people who work with cannabinoids are very skeptical of that story and the stakes are way too high here to rely on hearsay possibly (especially that of biased COs) Please see response to #40 above
  1. Can I be a PA DOC family representative to carry messages to family members?  I’m not sure I understand this question. It sounds like the role of the PA Prison Society.
  1. How is banning water in the visitor’s rooms preventing the spread of K2? For the length of time that you’ve been secretary, can you please describe in depth what progressive policies you’ve put in place that benefits the lives of the prisoners? Why are free books on Gutenberg library being sold for $20? The DOC implemented a 90-day moratorium on access to vending machines as this was an avenue used to pass contraband. These procedures are under review by a committee which will make recommendations on this topic.
  1. What is the state of PA doing to reduce the tax payer’s expense toward corrections and reduce the rate of incarceration?  We have reduced population by approximately 4000 inmates. We continue to reduce costs by reducing population. Our current legislative priority for next session is to pass Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). This legislation would further reduce population and save the Commonwealth over $45 million.
  1. There has to be a way of testing the mail without the cost and time of sending it to Florida? What do the vending machines have to do with the drugs when the inmates are not allowed to use the machines at SCI Dallas? A moratorium has been placed on the use of vending machines inside DOC visiting rooms. Food from the vending machines was used as tool to transmit contraband from a visitor to an inmate.
  1. Why don’t you drug test all DOC staff? What happens when staff test positive for drugs? Why don’t you ion scan all staff? The Department does have a policy for employee drug and alcohol testing. Each facility manager ensures the drug and alcohol testing program is implemented, coordinated, and maintained at their respective facility. A series of consequences exist which are dependent on the factors surrounding each positive test (i.e. levels etc.). With the implementation of the additional EDDE machines at each facility we will have more resources available to increase the level of screening for staff, inmates, and visitors.
  1. The human rights defense center acquired the DOC contract with Global Tel Link through FOIA. According to that contract, the Doc has an incentivized revenue structure, meaning that the more revenue you get from incarcerated people’s purchases of products like email and books, the higher the DOCs commission percentage. Since these policies were put in place, people are reluctant to send in mail. It is just a coincidence that the policies that prevent free books and handwritten mail benefit the DOC financially?  Books are not banned in our facilities and we have constructed polices to provide inmates more opportunities to access books. The only thing that has changed is the procedure in which inmates obtain those materials. Inmates can get free books from their institutional library, book donation organizations may process requests and now families and inmates may purchase books. Families can still send handwritten mail to the new address. Smart communications will receive the mail, scan all mail (including letters, greeting cards, photos and news clippings) and forward the electronic mail to the SCI where the inmate is located. Envelopes will also be scanned and included with your mail. SCI will print mail and deliver to inmate.
  1. Up until this time, it appeared that corrections leadership was interested in trauma-informed care approaches of doing things, is that still a priority approach given these latest restrictions/controls? Yes. It is still a priority.
  1. What is the relationship between the nationwide strikes of incarcerated people across the country to this repressive set of policy? None.
  1. Last year 551 inmates attempted suicide, 13 succeeded. This year 14 to date! Why are so many people committing suicide?
  • Our number of inmates on the Mental Health roster increased by 93% (almost doubled) from 2006 to 2018.
  • The latest national report on prison suicides is published by the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and only goes through 2014. There is no reliable source of data after 2014, and no reliable source of data comparing suicide attempts in prisons across the nation. Here’s a link to the BJS report.
  • According to the BJS report, the suicide death rate in prisons increased nationally by 25% between 2007 and 2014. In PA during the same time, our suicide death rate only increased by 13%, so below the national average increase.
  • Also from the BJS report, the overall annual average suicide rate per 100,000 inmates nationally is 16 per 100,000 inmates. Pennsylvania is far from the highest state, and is right at the average at 16 suicides per 100,000 inmates.
  • The data reported on attempted suicides is not reliable because that data was manually collected and our collection/reporting efforts have gotten better over the years. Attempted suicides were under-reported in earlier years of those numbers provided. So the increase in attempted suicides is very misleading and not reliable data. The most reliable data is on the number of actual completed suicides.
  • Suicides have increased among the general population in Pennsylvania. Here is a link to a report showing that suicides in PA have increased by more than 30% since 1999. In that sense, DOC inmates are a microcosm of what is happening among the general population.
  1. Boots were banned. When will new boots be available? Books are not banned and NEVER were banned. Thousands of inmates visit our libraries every day and take advantage of the free books available for loan. We also have over 8500 e-books for inmates who choose to purchase digital reading material. There have been over 5500 downloaded e-books, an indication that the inmate want this option. Also, donations from book organizations have started and new policies were released to enable family and inmates to purchase books. Every single inmate who wants a book and wants to read is able to do so with many options!
  1. With the purchase of so many iPads can you introduce internet and educational courses?  We are looking at this option.
  1. When you say a percentage of that revenue from media goes to “inmate welfare”, what does that mean? What kinds of things does that afford folks on the inside?  Our inmate general welfare fund – IGWF- is only used to benefit inmates. In the past, we have purchased weight lifting equipment, sporting equipment, etc.
  1. Why did the DOC not use rubber gloves (which do not cost $15 million) as per federal policy? DOC staff were using gloves as approved by the Center for Disease Control. What factors were considered when PA instead decided to send mail out of state breaching confidentiality and deliver poorly copied mail? Why are images from apps (no human contact) still being sent for copies? Direct mailings from photo companies like ShutterFly can still be compromised. We are working to find a solution for photos.
  1. It is hard to believe that all of these changes were implemented so quickly. How was a multi-year, million dollar contract implemented in less than two weeks without legislative oversight? Oversight for the contract was provided to the DOC by the Governor. Governor Wolf declared the State-wide lockdown a State of Emergency and this contract was put forth as a solution to the state of emergency.
     
  2. We need a fast response communication to family members when there’s a shut down. We immediately provide the information on our website and other social media.
  1. My son is in SCI Phoenix being abused in the jail, the hole by Cos, I have a folder of it. Amir Thomas. Please report any inmate abuse to the SCI.
  1. Do people serving a life sentence get a single cell? No
  1. My loved ones want books that are not on the stupid list. Did I hear you say it will be changed in 4 weeks? Books are not banned in our facilities and we have constructed polices to provide inmates more opportunities to access books. Inmates, friends and families may now purchase books through a book store or vendor.
  1. Why can’t the DOC just scan the mail themselves with technology being available? The DOC compared doing this project in house vs. contracting this project out. Contracting with a third party was actually more cost effective and less time consuming than doing this project in house.
  1. Books- I have always sent and continue to send my brother books on technology. He works in AV room and is always looking to learn. I order these books from amazon. He gets books that he uses for reference. Why is it we cannot order from amazon? The DOC has received books from Amazon that have been compromised. We believe that the senders are duplicating Amazon boxes and we have no way of knowing. We have implemented a new publication policy for inmates, families, friends and donations. All books must pass through a Security Processing Center. (See question 37 above)
  1. You “the DOC” say that you don’t want riots in prison. But if they insiders are staying right because of their loved ones and yet you do everything to make things harder also for the families. How do you expect riots or hunger strikes to happen? We encourage family contact and recognize the importance of that connection. However, we also work to rehabilitate inmates who are addicted to drugs. Inmates are purchasing drugs on the inside. Inmates are getting into drug debt on the inside. Inmates are being assaulted on the inside. Inmates are going into the RHU on the inside. Inmates are overdosing on the inside –all because of drugs. It must stop. We can’t expect to change behavior when the drug abuse continues.
  1. E-books on tablets can be very expensive is a crime against people in prison, and is actively discourages self-education and participation in outside educational programs. Why are you restricting access to education materials? The DOC is not restricting access to educational materials. The only thing that has changed is the procedure in which inmates obtain those materials. Inmates can still purchase books through the publication review icon on the kiosks. Books are not banned in our facilities and we have constructed polices to provide inmates more opportunities to access books. Why are you coming up with more ways to milk money out of family? These policies were enacted to protect staff, inmates, volunteers and everyone who visit all DOC facilities from future dangerous substance exposures.
  1. My mother is considered to our family as a card connoisseur. She can spend hours at a rite aid or CVS reading cards and picking out the best card for any occasion. It has to be the perfect card! She underlines, and adds words to it or cute little drawings. My brother’s birthday is coming up in November and she already has his card. She’ll plan to send it out on an exact day to he will get it on his actual birthdate. How personable do you think a scan copy of that card is, in which she paid for, to then be copied and sent, again bootlegged, and it may not arrive on his birthday as she has done for 22 years. The new policy was enacted to protect inmates as well as staff. Greeting cards were a primary method of drug introduction and we have many cases where Suboxone was hidden in cards. Smart Communications scans the greeting cards, both front and back. The SCI prints those cards in color. The image and notes will appear exactly as the image is. In the future, we are looking for a manner to direct ship cards to inmates.
  1. Would you support a third party investigation by the PLBC or Philadelphia Delegation or other governmental body/caucus from the legislature into these alleged occurrences? PSP has been involved in these investigations.
  1. The report of over 20 guards hospitalized for days means there should be hospital records, please provide this to the public. Health information is confidential and is protected under HIPAA. It would be unlawful for a hospital to release such records.
  1. K2 is essentially Potpourri melted down, and is unable to cause a contact high through touch or handling of materials, this has also been reported through various media and doctors/scientists. Would you provide proof this was the substance reported or evidence to substantiate these claims. Please see Question #40 above.
  1. Was there an open bidding process to contract Smart Communications? Can you provide records to this? Smart Communications is the only company in the United States who offers a program of this kind, to this scale, and to this depth. The Governor declared the State-wide lockdown a State of Emergency and this contract was put forth as a solution to the state of emergency. Had the DOC gone with the traditional route for a contract it would have been a sole source contract, not an RFP.