Inmates Air Gripes As Hunger Strike Ends

Posted: February 21, 1989

The two-day hunger strike at Holmesburg Prison, which for the most part ended yesterday, was prompted by alleged guard attacks on inmates, overcrowded conditions and a prison cook's attempt to serve Jello after a dead mouse had been removed from it, according to an inmate mediator and his lawyer.

Although the strike and kitchen work stoppage had been planned for almost two weeks to draw attention to those issues, the incident that finally triggered the action was the alleged attack on inmate Sam Riley on Wednesday, mediator Jesse Kithcart and attorney Paul Birden said last night.

Nearly all the inmates yesterday ended the hunger strike and work stoppage after a 45-minute meeting with Holmesburg Prison Warden Press Grooms.

"The institution is back to normal," Prisons Superintendent Edmund V. Lyons said yesterday at a press conference.

Grooms said he had agreed to investigate the two incidents of alleged abuse and what inmates claimed were unsanitary procedures used by a prison cook.

"Any allegation of abuse will be investigated vigorously," said Grooms.

"My faith is in (Warden Grooms)," said Kithcart, chief of the inmate housing block representatives, who plans to remain on hunger strike with eight inmates until Grooms responds.

Kithcart and elected inmate block representatives were called upon by Grooms to cool tensions in the jail. "There can't be a double standard if you want to keep a lid on this place," Kithcart said.

Lunch was served almost three hours late, at 3:45 p.m, after Holmesburg prisoners ended the hunger strike. Prison officials said about 65 percent of the 1,137 inmates in the 774-cell prison showed up for breakfast yesterday.

Meantime, Grooms said "tension was high" in one housing area, called A Block, and he ordered inmates confined to their cells - locked down - until this morning because of a fight among eight inmates Sunday night. The fight was unrelated to the hunger strike.

Grooms said he also was investigating another report that a fire was started in a cell on another block earlier yesterday. That incident was still under investigation last night.

Yesterday, Grooms met for about 45 minutes to resolve the strike with 10 block representatives and two representatives from the prison law clinic, which helps inmates research and file lawsuits.

Kithcart and Birden said in a telephone interview yesterday that Grooms was asked to investigate:

* The alleged Nov. 25 beating of inmate Theodore McFadden by Lt. Howard Biddle. McFadden, who filed a lawsuit in federal court against Biddle and the prison, allegedly suffered extensive head injuries and required hospitalization.

* The Feb. 15 beating of inmate Riley, who was allegedly assaulted by guard Joseph Boatright in "soup alley," where food service workers dish out meals

from steam carts.

The Riley incident was allegedly witnessed by several block representatives, who had complained before the incident of Boatright's aggressiveness on the block, Kithcart said. Inmate representatives felt Riley was unfairly sent to administrative segregation, known as the "hole," and they asked Grooms "to let him out," Kithcart said.

* Several instances of unsanitary procedures used by an unidentified prison employee known as "Charlie the cook," dating to 1986.

Kithcart said a dead mouse was discovered in Jello about three weeks ago and "Charlie the cook" ordered food workers to remove the mouse and serve the Jello. Inmate food workers refused, and the Jello was thrown out. In another instance, the cook allegedly attempted to prepare moldy pancake batter, Kithcart said.

Kithcart said the strike was intended to be a "non-disruptive, cell- confinement protest" as a way for inmates to express their anger and frustration about complaints they felt were not getting attention from prison authorities.

"The guys had started venting their anger on each other," he added.

Lyons confirmed the Riley and McFadden complaints were under investigation, but could not confirm details of the kitchen complaints.

Last week, some inmates, who were confined to their cells for almost four days after a fight over a TV program, threw flaming paper balls from their cells to get the attention of guards and to express their anger about the ''lockdown."

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