Seated around a large conference table on a Wednesday night inside Garfield's Thomas Merton Center, a half-dozen members of Human Rights Coalition -- FedUp! sift through dozens of handwritten letters. All were mailed from behind the walls of state prisons, and few contain happy tidings.
Among the volunteers gathered on Sept. 1, in fact, is Shirley Marshall, whose grandson, Hayden, has been writing from solitary confinement inside State Correctional Institute Huntingdon. "Has he been writing here again?" she asks.
Bret Grote, FedUp!'s lead organizer, tells Marshall that a letter from Hayden arrived a week ago.
"There's been no new acts of brutality," Grote says. "Just the daily grind of life in 'The Hole,' which isn't good. But it could be worse."
FedUp! may not be a household name in Pittsburgh, but inside prisons across Pennsylvania, its reputation is growing cell by cell. The all-volunteer advocacy group is trying to document human-rights abuses within state correctional institutions, as well as to overturn wrongful convictions.
In doing that work, the organization relies heavily on accounts made by the prisoners themselves -- which is where the letters come in.
FedUp! has earned praise from prisoners and their relatives, even as prison officials and more established human-rights groups caution that prisoners, and their loved ones on the outside, can't necessarily be trusted.
"This is creating a paper trail," says Grote of the letters, "and exposing the systemic corruption that infests the whole [prison] system."
Founded in 2005, FedUp! may be the state Department of Corrections' most vocal critic. The organization argues that systematic abuse plagues the state's prison system. And Grote's volunteers are collecting prisoner horror stories in an effort to prove it.
Every Wednesday night, they gather at the Merton Center to respond to letters the group receives from inmates across the state. "We receive letters constantly," says Grote, estimating that the organization receives an average of more than 100 letters a month. "Our name has spread throughout the prisons."
Most of the letters paint a grim picture of prison life -- one that prisoners say is dominated by physical and mental abuse, racism and inadequate medical care. Inmates also routinely send FedUp! copies of official grievances they've filed with prison officials. The majority of complaints, according to Grote, concern treatment in solitary confinement, known as "The Hole," where inmates are confined to small cells for 23 to 24 hours a day.
One June 27 letter, for example, complains of four prisoners being "cell-extracted in the worst & inhumane way." The letter contends that guards took one inmate, "ripped his clothes off, kicked, stomped, punched him butt-ass naked while he was hog-tied & treated like an animal."
"The majority of [the letters] are about abuse," says Amanda Johnson, who has been volunteering at FedUp! for more than a year. Johnson, 25, writes regularly to roughly 20 prisoners located at SCI Huntingdon, in central Pennsylvania.
The contents of each letter are logged "to monitor patterns of abuse," says Grote, a first-year law student at the University of Pittsburgh.
Last year, FedUp! focused on allegations of abuse at SCI Dallas, in northeastern Pennsylvania, culminating with a 93-page report published this past April. Compiled over 10 months, the report was based on thousands of pages of documents, including letters, institutional records and interviews with inmates and their family members. Titled "Institutionalized Cruelty: Torture at SCI Dallas and in Prisons Throughout Pennsylvania," it alleged numerous human-rights violations at the prison. Among them: "[f]requent usage of racist slurs ... and physical abuse by guards" and "[f]ailure to provide adequate ... physical or mental health care."
That report was highlighted in a recent Philadelphia City Paper cover story regarding an inmate's suicide in SCI Dallas last summer. The story, written by occasional Pittsburgh City Paper contributor Matt Stroud, concerned the suicide of convicted murderer Matthew Bullock. Bullock's family is suing the state Department of Corrections, alleging that corrections officers actually encouraged Bullock to kill himself.
"The degree to which they're allowed to perpetrate [crimes] against a Matthew Bullock is the degree to which they're able to do it to anybody in their custody," says Grote.
Willie Harvin, whose fiancé is in SCI Dallas after being found guilty of three murders, praises FedUp!'s work on behalf of a largely forgotten population.
"It's really wonderful," she says, noting that she's currently seeking the group's help to prove her fiancé's innocence. "It builds strength when you find agencies that believe you."
"Right on to FedUp!" adds state Rep. Ronald Waters (D-Philadelphia). "You have to have people fighting for human rights."
On Aug. 2, Waters convened a House Judiciary Committee public hearing to discuss solitary confinement. The gathering included testimony by DOC officials, former prisoners and FedUp!
Waters says DOC officials stayed for the entire hearing ... until FedUp!'s Grote was called to speak. Then the DOC got up and left the proceeding.
"They're obviously ruffling some feathers," says Waters, a vocal critic of solitary confinement in state prisons. "[DOC officials] didn't want to hear what FedUp! was going to say."
Indeed, Grote acknowledges that FedUp!'s investigations often fall on deaf ears.
"We've sent countless inquiries on various matters, and rarely is a response given," says Grote, adding that about a half-dozen criminal complaints filed by FedUp! have been rejected. "And when it is, it's perfunctory: 'We got your complaint and we assure you that we'd never abuse anybody.'"
"We have spoken with [FedUp!] on numerous occasions, answering them in full on their concerns," counters Susan Bensinger, the DOC's deputy press secretary, in an e-mail to City Paper. The DOC investigates every claim of abuse, she continues: "The administration does not tolerate abuse and takes all concerns ... seriously.
"[FedUp!] is relying on inmate correspondence," Bensinger's e-mail cautions. "[T]his information may or may not be credible."
Indeed, when it comes to documenting abuse in prisons, it can hard to tell fact from fiction.
"It's easy to hear from inmates and feel sympathetic, and take their story and run with it," says William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a social-justice organization that has been advocating for prisoners since 1787. "But it's very difficult to pin something down, to corroborate something that may have gone on in the middle of the night, hundreds of miles away."
DiMascio, whose organization relies on roughly 450 volunteers to investigate claims of abuse, says it is "absolutely not" true that the DOC is systematically abusing its prisoners. Abuse certainly occurs, he says, but not because it's being ordered by DOC brass.
"The powers that be do at least take it seriously," says DiMascio. "They don't want to be seen as running a dirty prison."
After receiving word of abuse, DiMascio says, PPS volunteers usually meet with a variety of inmates, some of whom they've grown to trust over the years, to determine whether the allegations can be verified. If PPS finds the claims to be legitimate, the organization then confronts prison officials.
DiMascio says that human-rights groups must be careful to take prisoners' letters with a few grains of salt. Similarly, he cautions, activists should be wary of claims made by inmates' relatives: "Family members have a built-in bias," he says.
FedUp! volunteers, however, attach far more significance to such sources. In fact, the group published an August follow-up to its April report. Titled "Resistance and Retaliation: Continued Repression at SCI Dallas," the report complains of acts of retaliation against prisoners who cooperated on the previous report.
To those who might question FedUp!'s reliance on complaints of abuse alleged by, say, convicted murderers, Grote says his group has "our own ways of assessing credibility." For instance, he says, FedUp! considers complaints backed by witness accounts more reliable. The group also gives credence to allegations supplemented by internal complaints, as well as lawsuits.
"If there are multiple witnesses, if there is a paper trail," says Grote, "that has stronger credibility."
Generally speaking, however, "The whole premise that prisoners are somehow social rejects whose word cannot be trusted is inherently flawed," he continues. "Many of them might not be in prison for lying, perjury, crimes of deception."
"If I receive a report of abuse, it might contain six other affidavits from six other people," adds Johnson, the FedUp! volunteer. "All these people are writing to tell the same thing. So it's hard for me not to believe them.
"It's a systemic problem," she continues. "That's what we're trying to document."