Hunger strike at FCJ brought improvements

Two opposites

A hunger strike last week at Franklin County Jail apparently worked in getting at least some of inmates complaints corrected.

Word reaching inmates families over the weekend is that the situation is so much better that some inmates have gone on record acknowledging the jail staff’s work to correct deficiencies at the jail.

“From what I’m told several of the inmates who signed the original letter have gone on record both over the phone and on video with Joe from the PA Post regarding the conditions and treatment in which lead up to this peaceful protest,” the wife of one of the inmates said in an email Sunday morning to FCFP.

A number of inmates in the jail’s Block F staged the hunger strike a week ago after trying unsuccessfully to send a list of grievances to Warden Bill Bechtold.

Among those grievances were complaints of mental abuse by one guard, a lack of face masks, gloves and sanitizing supplies for both inmates and prison staff, and issues such as a lack of working tablets and enough charging stations to keep them charged.

The use of tablets is commonplace in many jails and prisons to allow inmates to submit complaints to administrators, as well as communicate with families on the outside. Communications within the jail system are free. Inmates pay for usage outside the system, such as email, texts and video chats.

Jail complaint process

Some inmates said last week that the outside (paid) part of the tablets worked but the internal program was not working.

Bechtold said he had received only one complaint from a inmate in the 10 days before the hunger strike began and that inmate was not in Block F.

He said he did not receive inmates written list of demands either. A family member said she took over and emailed the written list to county officials after inmates complained the warden had not acknowledged the written complaint.

She provided the Free Press with a copy of those communications as well as the list of inmate grievances. Franklin County Commissioners discussed the issue Wednesday. Bechtold returned a call to FCFP that afternoon.

In spite of improvements, including prison staff wearing gloves and masks while bringing food trays to jail cells, representatives from Pennsylvania’s Prison Society and the ACLU have not been able to reach the warden about complaints filled with those organizations, one family membeo said.

Some families still concerned

Other inmates families say that while the situation for some inmates has improved in recent days, that’s not the case for their inmates.

The wife of one inmate said she hasn’t heard from her husband in over a week but hears from other inmates that the hunger strike has spread to the cell block where he is being held in “the hole,” a disciplinary isolation cell on Block E.

The word she received from others is that he isn’t eating and is not being checked regularly. The message she received said a nurse in the medical unit said “she doesn’t care if inmates don’t eat. Let them starve.”

Another family member said she had also heard that some inmates in disciplinary cells on Block E weren’t eating. Another inmate on Block E was denied a tray after returning to his cell following a visit from his attorney. The visit occurred during meal time.

The jail is required to get a court order and begin force feeding after an inmate misses nine meals, Bechtold said Wednesday. That normally involves providing nutrients through an IV.

FCJ’s inmate population last week was about 340. The jail has eight separate housing units, or cell blocks. The majority of the inmates are in jail for offenses such as DUIs, thefts and non-violent crimes, Bechtold said.

As of last week, 26 inmates were in jail for violent crimes such as murder, attempted murder and aggravated assaults. Many are awaiting trial and cannot make bail.