Family members say Franklin County Jail inmates are staging hunger strike over coronavirus concerns

Inmates drafted a letter demanding basic hygiene supplies last Thursday

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari

Family members and friends of inmates incarcerated at the Franklin County Jail say prisoners are engaged in a hunger strike to protest what they say is a lack of sanitary items to keep themselves protected from a potential coronavirus infection.

Three family members of inmates also said their loved one told them a corrections officer threatened to infect the inmate population in an attempt to kill them.

William Bechtold, the warden of the prison, could not be reached by phone and didn’t respond to three emails and two calls seeking confirmation of the hunger strike or the corrections officer’s alleged statement.

A series of text messages reviewed by PA Post shows that the fiance of one inmate participating in the protest spent Tuesday notifying the family members of 16 prisoners who had signed the letter demanding better conditions and sanitary products.

She wrote that some inmates who raised concerns were placed in solitary confinement.

“If you haven’t heard from your loved one this is why,” said the text message.

The inmates’ letter, written last Thursday, was later sent to the fiance via the jail’s messaging platform, GettingOut, and was posted to Twitter on Tuesday afternoon by the fiance of a different inmate who is participating in the strike.

“The [Centers for Disease Control] has mandated the requirement of antibacterial soaps as well as antibacterial cleaning products along with masks and gloves,” the inmates wrote. “However facilities such as FCJ is not following these regulations to limit inmates exposure to covid-19.”

The Franklin County Jail’s influenza pandemic policy – overseen and instituted by the jail’s medical service provider PrimeCare Medical, Inc. – states that inmates should be given access to soap at all times and staff should be wearing masks during an influenza outbreak.

Speaking over the phone on Tuesday evening, multiple family members said inmates claim they have not been issued soap regularly, don’t have access to hot water, and have not been provided with clean masks.

It’s unclear if the warden read that letter, which was handwritten and signed by the “Inmates of Unit F.” The letter included the full names of inmates and their relatives’ contact information. The inmates also emailed their demands to the warden and deputy wardens. PA Post also received a copy of that email.

In the letter, the inmates also requested access to news reports about the coronavirus, as well as expanded phone and video visitation privileges.

Like other jails across the state, Franklin County’s facility is on lockdown as corrections officials try to avoid a coronavirus outbreak. As a result, inmates told family members they are only being granted one to two hours per day outside their cells. The facility also stopped visitation privileges to family members on March 17, following the state Department of Corrections’ lead.

PA Post attempted to contact all 16 inmates who signed their names. None had responded by Wednesday morning.

Three family members told PA Post that their incarcerated loved one told them he was refusing to eat the jail’s food before corrections officials moved them to solitary confinement.

Amy Wagaman, whose boyfriend signed the letter of demands and is participating in the hunger strike, said she hadn’t heard from her partner since Sunday, despite speaking to him almost daily up until then. Referring to the conditions of the jail mentioned in the letter, she said: “If he’s saying it’s happening, it’s not a lie.”

Seven other people who spoke with PA Post said they couldn’t confirm that their loved one in custody at the jail was participating in the protest, but each said they had been told about the hunger strike.

According to their family members, inmates said a corrections officer who works on the F block threatened to deliberately become infected with COVID-19 and bring it into the jail to infect prisoners. The officer allegedly said he hoped to get the virus so he could come in and “kill” the prisoners.

In an email, Julia Lehman, a spokesperson for the county commissioners, said that the jail is investigating the alleged threat by a guard. She said inmates should file grievances “so that a full and fair investigation can be conducted.”

Lehman did not comment on the hunger strike.

“It’s cruel,” said Bryheem Cunningham, Sr., who was made aware of his son’s possible involvement yesterday afternoon. “It took me by shock. I couldn’t believe it.”

This is a developing story, we will update it as we learn more. 

 

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