8 men allege poor conditions and treatment inside Lancaster County Prison

Emmanuel Woods is desperate to get back to state prison.

The 31-year-old was previously staying in the State Correctional Institution at Dallas, Luzerne County, before authorities brought him to Lancaster County Prison in April to attend a hearing on new drug charges against him. The proceedings have been postponed until September, Woods said, yet officials have not returned him to Dallas in the meantime.

“I’m a state inmate,” Woods said. “I’m not even supposed to be here.”

While Pennsylvania’s state prisons house only people who have been convicted of crimes, county jails like Lancaster County Prison are mostly for holding people who are awaiting trial for serious crimes. If criminal defendants cannot pay for bail or aren’t offered it, they must remain in jail while their case goes through the court system.

To Woods, the air conditioning, better food, and activities to stay busy during the day at SCI Dallas represents a respite from staying in Lancaster County Prison.

He is one of eight men currently held in Lancaster County Prison who contacted LNP | LancasterOnline in the last week to describe the conditions there.

All the men have criminal convictions in their past. They range from aggravated assault and burglary, to DUI and intent to sell or manufacture drugs. All but one man has pending court cases on new charges with a similar range. One is accused of attempted homicide.

Many of their complaints revolved around the heat inside their cells.

Thermometers inside their housing units have been registering temperatures upward of 85 degrees, and the high humidity is causing condensation on the walls, they said.

“It’s bad, the walls sweat,” said Francisco Cartagena, who has been in Lancaster County Prison since January 2022, waiting for his case to run through the court system, according to county records. He is accused of conducting a string of home burglaries.

County officials are currently in the midst of planning a new jail to be built in Lancaster Township. They hope to complete the new facility by the end of 2026.

Complaints about the lack of air conditioning in Lancaster County Prison are not new, but the men who contacted LNP | LancasterOnline said their mounting frustration led them to go public with their complaints.

Some of them also said they worry speaking up could lead to retribution from corrections officers or judges, but wanted their names published anyway.

Lancaster County Warden Cheryl Steberger acknowledged the conditions caused by the lack of air conditioning in the summer. She said the facility’s staff provide shorts for inmates to wear, run fans in housing units and provide ice and ice water at meals.

The heat inside during the summer “has been the case since it was originally built in the 1850s and is still the case today,” Steberger said in an email. “That is one of many issues with the physical plant that we hope to address with the new facility.”

“Every single county has issues to some extent with the conditions in its jails, and it’s terrible and horrendous and nobody should be put through those conditions,” said Veronica Miller, senior policy counsel for criminal legal reform at the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union.

The civil rights organization has sued Lancaster County over its bail system, arguing that judges are imposing unconstitutionally large bail amounts that most arrestees cannot afford. Miller said the bail system is keeping more people locked up than necessary.

“If we can get more people out of these abysmal conditions held on bail, that will drastically reduce the number of people needlessly suffering,” Miller said.

Corrections officers

The incarcerated men also complained about the work of corrections officers, allegations that Steberger said were untrue.

“Some of the (corrections officers) treat us like animals,” said Sammy Reeves, a 31-year-old man charged with attempted homicide and burglary. Reeves has been in Lancaster County Prison since May 2022, according to county records. “They tell us that’s how the supervisors want them to treat us, but if they don’t have it in them to treat us that way, they get reprimanded.”

“They have them thinking this is San Quentin or something,” Reeves said, referring to the historic and infamous California prison that houses the state’s only death row.

Steberger said Reeves’ characterization was not true: “We take our duty to be professional seriously, and discipline (or) remove those staff who do not live up to our high standards.”

Lockdowns, which restrict people to their cells, are lasting days at a time, according to Cartagena. Most housing units have about 100 beds and hold two people per cell.

“We avoid lockdowns during the summer months as much as possible. Lights are turned off at regular times,” Steberger said.

Trying to beat the heat is mostly futile, the men said. When corrections officers allow them, the inmates strip down to their underwear. The men said they also try sleeping on the floor or filling a small bin with water and sitting in it.

Corrections officers sometimes provide ice, they said, which seems to have salt in it, Cartagena said. Steberger said that wasn’t true, but occasionally the machines “cannot keep up with the demand.”

Sabron Blackman, 35, said he has been waiting three weeks to get medical attention for what he worries could be an ear infection. The pain “is driving me crazy,” Blackman said.

“I don’t want to act up because I don’t want to go to the Hole. It’s going to make things worse,” Blackman said.

The Hole is a nickname for the facility’s “restrictive housing unit,” Steberger said. “Recreation and shower are offered one time a day. Advocating and/or reporting medical issues would never lead to retaliation/punishment.”

Colin King, 25, has been in and out of the criminal justice system, previously serving time in Pennsylvania state prisons, the Luzerne County jail and Harris County Jail in Houston.

Lancaster County Prison is operating under the worst conditions out of all of them, he said. In Luzerne County, he said, inmates were allowed several hours to spend time in the housing unit’s common room, often called a “day room” in the corrections industry.

Inmates there had time to exercise daily, like play basketball or lift weights, activities not available in Lancaster County Prison, King said.

The jail staff runs a rotating schedule that inmates get time out of their cells, Steberger said. “An inmate can receive a minimum of two and a half hours (and) up to six hours out of their cell.”

Lancaster County Prison’s corrections officers are more hostile to the inmates in their care than anywhere else he’s been, King said.

At the Luzerne County jail, King said, most officers treat inmates with respect. “They understand that this is where we live right now and they go home at night, so they treat you like that,” he said.

“In here, there are (corrections officers) that look for trouble,” King said of Lancaster County Prison.

Cartagena said there is mold on the building’s showers. The staff, he said, paints over the mold to hide the issue.

“This is not true,” Steberger said in an email. “All shower unit floors were recently painted and they were cleaned prior to this being done.”

Cartagena also alleged that the water in the showers is freezing cold in the winter and scalding hot in the summer. “You could cook a chicken” with the hot water, he said.

Steberger denied that the showers run dangerously hot water. “It is true that the boilers sometimes struggle to heat water for the entire building,” Steberger said. “They are set to one temperature.”

Statewide

John Hargreaves, volunteer director at the Pennsylvania Prison Society, said many county jails in the commonwealth don’t have air conditioning. The hot weather this summer has made conditions even worse than normal, he said.

Earlier this week, PennLive reported similarly hot conditions inside Dauphin County Jail.

The pandemic and relatively low pay for corrections officers has made it very difficult for jails and prisons in Pennsylvania to maintain programming and activities for those incarcerated, Hargreaves said.

“But I will say, Lancaster County has done a great job to attract more workers, and consequently got more workers than a lot of other county prisons,” Hargreaves said.

New labor agreements with AFSCME Local 1738, the union that represents Lancaster County Prison corrections officers in the last two years, have bumped starting pay from $18.50 an hour in 2021 to $25.50 an hour this year.

It’s also generally true that Pennsylvania’s state prisons are more pleasant places to serve time than county facilities, Hargreaves said, because inmates are typically serving multi-year sentences, while jails are meant as a temporary station in the justice system.

The eight men who spoke to LNP | LancasterOnline have been living, on average, in Lancaster County Prison for more than a year.

Cartagena has been in the facility for 18 months, according to county records, the longest length of stay among the group. Woods, who has been in Lancaster County Prison for about three months, has been there for the shortest amount of time.

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