by Vern Robinson
This month Pennsylvania shut down its oldest state prison, SCI Graterford, and moved the thousands of men housed there to a controversial new prison, the $400 million SCI Phoenix, on the same grounds in Montgomery County, outside of Philadelphia. Vern Robinson is one of the dozens of lifers who made the move. Most of those lifers, who had earned a single cell, would now be double-celled. There has already been one suicide, as of July 16.
Vern writes, “I know that Graterford was an oppressive institution as well, but the design of these new prisons is meant to oppress, but stagnate any communal growth as well … I see no good at all in minds that devise machinations of this magnitude. They seem to be devoid of empathy.”
It’s July 14th, and for some reason I feel compelled to write down my feelings. I’m lying in bed, and I’ve just watch Serena lose her Wimbledon championship match. I’m locked in this cell with my tablet and the rest of my property. As much as I enjoy the time in my cell alone, this time is eerie.
I’m in the State Correctional Institute Phoenix. The cell is brand-spanking new, and I am the first occupant this cell has endured overnight. Everything in here smells new and has that state-of-the-art look. But I am not titillated — or fooled — by the modernized environment I’ve stepped into. I am fearful of what’s behind this façade of fresh paint and air conditioned cells.
On Tuesday, which was July 10th, I had a bad feeling. The mere thought of our impending move from Graterford to Phoenix enveloped me in intense feelings of fear and panic. I wasn’t afraid of any of the men that would be moving with me or any of the other jailhouse mysticisms that instill fear into the uninitiated. I can gather that my trepidation was born from the prospect of an unknown future, but the intensity of these feelings was sort of alarming, given how much I’ve already been through in my twenty-seven years of incarceration.
Then on Wednesday the 11th, we were locked down for the move. Having a single cell makes these lockdowns more tolerable, but this one signaled the end of an era. So I lay in my cell and slept or watched TV until it came time for me to go. They started taking people off my block on Thursday the 12th. It was crazy watching brothers leave the block with a big cart full of personal property, escorted by the men in black (CERT team members). And even though my time to move was coming, there was this sense disconnection as I watched each of these men leave before me. I wasn’t even close to most of them, but they were part of my life for many years. If they had been going home, I would’ve cheered for them. But their movement didn’t warrant celebration — nor a memorial. So what do I feel?
On Friday the 13th, one of the men in black stopped at my cell.
“Mr. Robinson, you’re moving.”
I had already packed, so I just had to put my belongings into the moving cart. I left a lot of stuff in the cell, knowing that they would discard many of my belongings. Dealing with the CERT team in the ’95 raid left me with an impression that our belongings were the least of the CERT team’s concerns. But I have to say that the CERT team members’ attitudes were nothing like those from the raid of 95'. They seemed more…patient. Matter of fact, the officer that was escorting me might have lulled me into a false sense camaraderie — not as if we were friends, but was if he saw me as human. I don’t want to assume he saw me as anything but human, but the illusory moment — more than likely an early stage of Stockholm Syndrome — was shattered by what I encountered once the officer escorted me off the block.
When we got off the block, I saw a long line of brothers in browns. All of us were pushing our carts, and we each had an officer in black escorting us. All of us had to stop at various tables to check in our electronics. The hallway was saturated with CERT team members and peppered with the men in brown pushing their property per orders of the officers. Once the electronics were checked, our property bins were taken from us and we were escorted to the school building, which was the point where we’d be prepared to board the bus.
The school building was a snap-back moment to reality. I still had my respectful escort with me, but the visuals made his attempts to assuage my anxiety a moot point. The school corridor had CERT team members lined up with faces of stone. This environment was more suffocating than the hallway ’cause the stern looks of the officers seemed indicative of a desire to utilize their tactical training skills.
We went through various checkpoints to check for contraband on our person, culminating in our shackling. I need to tell you what this looked like? Dogs, chains, naked!
This trip on the bus was literally five minutes from Graterford to Phoenix. Nothing much to say about that. Entering Phoenix would have been invigorating — if it hadn’t been a prison! It looked like a sprawling campus with technological advances that many of the men of Graterford had never seen; but the fact that the manicured lawns and futuristic resources were used for prison made these things less appealing and not awe-inspiring.
I was escorted, along with the men on the bus with me, to a cell block. Entering the block, I realized that the structure resembled the newer structures that I had seen on the television shows documenting prison life, like “60 Days In.” I was told what cell to go to, and I was locked in.
After sitting in the cell for hours, I noticed something. I think that we took for granted the “liberties” we were afforded at Graterford. I know that Graterford was an oppressive institution as well, but the design of these new prisons is meant to oppress, but stagnate any communal growth as well. Now I see why the men and women upstate stuck together more. While the design’s intention is separate, it ultimately brings the community together because of its oppressive atmosphere. Graterford wasn’t an amusement park, but it surely wasn’t this.
I’ve never been an advocate for making prison conditions better ’cause I’m not an advocate for prisons at all. But with no alternative in sight, what am I to lobby for? In spite of all that ails the world, I still search for the good in individuals. I mean, if I want forgiveness, I have to give it, too, right? But I see no good at all in minds that devise machinations of this magnitude. They seem to be devoid of empathy.