Muncy, Pa. -- “Shavonne had a great sense of humor. She really liked her friends. What you see is what you got with her. She was a straight shooter. She was well liked at Muncy,” said Ellen Melchiondo, a volunteer from the Pennsylvania Prison Society. She recently spoke about Shavonne Robbins, one of the many inmates she became acquainted with at the women’s State Correctional Institute – Muncy.
Robbins is one of the recent cancer deaths among women who served time at Muncy. She died on December 15, 2019 at the age of 43 after battling several years with a rare abdominal mucous cancer. Robbins, who was serving a life sentence, was at Muncy for 25 years before being released in 2017.
At the age of 16, she got “caught up with the wrong crowd,” according to her cousin, Sissy Robbins. She was involved in a robbery in Philadelphia in which a man tragically lost his life. Robbins was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Though Robbins knew she would probably never leave the prison as a free woman, she worked hard to earn her GED and became a mentor and tutor to other women incarcerated at SCI-Muncy. Known as one of Pennsylvania’s “juvenile lifers,” her circumstances changed after the Supreme Court banned automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles and ordered states to apply this ruling retroactively.
Unfortunately, Robbins was diagnosed with cancer prior to being released from prison.
“None of us realized she was so sick. She didn’t tell anyone how sick she was,” Melchiondo said. She died of a blood clot while she was in the hospital preparing for surgery in her hometown of Philadelphia.
“Muncy does have a higher rate of cancer, pulmonary issues, seizures, and psychotropic medications than any other prisons in Pennsylvania,” Melchiondo said. Early screenings for health issues often are not conducted, according to Melchiondo. “Some prefer not to get a diagnosis and never go to medical.”
Shortly before her death, Robbins wrote on her Facebook page that she wished she had asked for help when she needed it, but didn’t. "She didn’t want to be a burden when released. I think her death is directly connected with her prison experience,” Melchiondo said.
Robbins was laid to rest in Philadelphia on December 24, 2019.
“When someone like Shavonne Robbins dies, and she’s been there 25 years and was well liked, the prison allows the women to conduct a special Sunday service or memorial,” Melchiondo said. Shavonne’s service in December was filmed with the idea that it would be shown in the prison.
Sick calls not always taken seriously
Melchiondo said many women have told her that they feel their complaints to the health care workers in the prison are not taken seriously. There are often delays in care. “There really is negligence of care for all women,” said Naomi Blount, who served 37 years at Muncy before being released in October 2019. Blount is now a commutations specialist at the office of Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman.
When a woman at Muncy has any health issue and needs medication or medical attention, she is required to put in what the prison system calls a “sick call.” A sick call can be used for minor ailments such as headaches to more serious issues such pain or high fevers.
However, Blount, now 69 years of age, feels that many of these sick calls are not taken seriously by prison staff.
“I think we kind of messed it up a bit as well,” Blount said. “When someone didn’t want to go to school or work, they’d put in a sick call. They were skeptical about giving treatment because they thought we were all liars.”
Each sick call has a co-pay of $5. Medications also have a $5 copay. Blount said years ago, the prison didn’t charge for sick calls but that changed. “You can literally come from sick call having a bill of $40 to $45.”
Most women working in the prison only make $.19 per hour. Many have trouble paying for sick calls and medications.
Several women at Muncy wrote to NorthcentralPa.com detailing concerns about their health needs not being addressed when they put in a sick call. Sick calls must be put in by 8 a.m. and the soonest a woman will be seen is the next day. However, several women said they usually wait at least two days to be seen and sometimes longer.
“I just had foot surgery, after a five-year battle with the revolving door of medical directors," wrote Terri Harper, 51, who has been serving a life sentence since January 1993.
"I fell through cracks that exist because of CCS's inability to embrace ‘continuity’ with the care they barely give. It truly comes as a money thing. Because we get charged $5,$5,$5, get the same ineffective pills for everything, the same ineffective eyedrops no matter how many times you tell the practitioner that your eyes are still stuck together and itchy every morning, over any reasonable period of time, and constantly get reminded that ‘it's the same way in the real world,’ Harper wrote.
Officials at SCI-Muncy said sick calls are prioritized in order of medical importance. If a woman puts a sick call in for a medication refill that is due within seven days, she may not be seen right away.
“Sick calls are triaged in order of medical importance and seen next day,” officials said in a written request for answers. Officials said if a woman needs a medication refill within seven days, she may not be seen the next day. “SCI-Muncy does has medical coverage seven days per week and after normal business hours. A nurse is available 24/7 if an emergency arises,” officials said.
Jessie Alexander, 67, has chronic pulmonary obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and recently left SCI-Muncy on compassionate release. She said it often took at least two days for medical staff to see her after she put in a sick call for her COPD issues.
There were often delays in her receiving breathing treatments. Alexander was diagnosed with COPD in 2012, and she estimates she went to the hospital emergency department at least 40 times since then.
“I was in ICU at least five or six times,” Alexander said. “The last time, I was on a ventilator. One time I was considered DOA (dead on arrival).”
When Alexander returned from the hospital, she would stay a few days in the hospital infirmary where they kept up her breathing treatments. “But when I was back in general population, I was on my own again. Many times, I needed oxygen while in prison, but I stopped asking because I knew I wouldn’t get it. It very was scary because there were many times I thought I was going to die,” Alexander said.
Alexander, who served 35 years at SCI-Muncy, is now living in a hospice facility in her hometown of Philadelphia. Her family applied for compassionate release earlier this year.
“It means that with my diagnosis, I am within six months of dying,” Alexander said.
Alexander, who wears oxygen all the time, is receiving regular breathing treatments and round-the-clock care at the facility. “I’m doing better. I get my breathing treatments on time, I’m getting rest and I’m getting better. I still have my bad days and good days, but my good days are better.”
Continuity of care
Continuity of care is an issue, Melchiondo said. There is often turnover of staff at the prison’s infirmary. Women are sometimes referred out to Geisinger or UPMC Susquehanna for further care, but communication between the prison medical staff and outside medical is not always there, she said.
The officials at SCI-Muncy said the turnover in the medical department is “similar to what is occurring in the community. Lycoming County and the surrounding counties include several hospitals as well as many additional venues for medical professionals to work where tuition reimbursement and sign-on bonuses are offered. A correctional setting is often seen as a negative environment in which it is difficult to recruit medical professionals.”
Blount feels obtaining adequate healthcare is especially tough for those serving life sentences. “I believe that when they know that we are serving life sentences, we are overlooked.”
Nicole Newell, another woman serving a life sentence, said she is hesitant to seek care. “I just learned that if I have cancer I won't be told until Stage IV due to me being a lifer. I've been here at Muncy since 1997. I came to Muncy at the age of 20. I got lock (sic) up at the age of 18. I'm now 43 and scared. I've witness (sic) some lifers go through so much pain due to the lack of medical care, later dying from cancer,” Newell wrote. She recently started a grievance process regarding what she believes was a misdiagnosis of lupus.
Filing a grievance
The grievance process involves three levels to file, according to Su Ming Yeh, Interim Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.
The woman must first file a grievance to a grievance coordinator, then appeal to the superintendent and the third level goes to a central office in Mechanicsburg.
If all three levels are denied, then an agency such as Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project may take on the case for a lawsuit in federal court, according to Yeh. She said they receive a large number of requests to take on cases, but due to limited staff cannot take them all.
“Even if we can’t take a case on in court, we try to provide legal help,” Yeh said.
Cancer rates are high
“It’s not a coincidence that women at Muncy get cancer,” Blount said. She worked a maintenance job when she was at Muncy and said she knows the older buildings, some which have been there since the 1920s, have asbestos and lead paint. “Of course, they’re just infested with lead in the pipes and asbestos.”
Blount said one time she was doing maintenance in the chapel and was told by a staff member that the old tiles needed to be lifted out but could not be removed due to the asbestos. Blount claims she and other workers in the prison were often not provided the correct protective gear when they were working with hazardous materials.
She also recounted a time in the 1990s that the water was so bad that inmates were given bottled water. “The blonde women’s hair would turn green in the shower,” Blount said. “So, who’s to say how long we were drinking that water that was bad.”’
Several inmates who wrote to NorthcentralPa.com mentioned there are still concerns about the water today.
“Many of my sisters at Muncy have been diagnosed with cancer,” Blount said. She named some of the women who died from cancer over the years – Joanne Butler, who got compassionate leave and died a short time later. There also was Theresa Battles, who was home for two months before succumbing to her cancer.
The high rates of cancer at Muncy has made Blount less inclined to visit a doctor. “Even today, I don’t want to go to the doctor because I don’t want them to tell me I have cancer,” Blount said.
Inmates have wondered if the higher rates of cancer are due to the buildings being old. Or maybe it’s in the water or the pipes. Some of these women have served more than 40 years there, Blount said.
Officials at SCI-Muncy have said that the buildings are tested frequently. In the case that a material containing asbestos needs removed, the prison has asbestos abatement teams come in.
Some of the buildings at Muncy have been there since the complex first opened in 1913 as the Industrial Home for Women. The complex, situated in a rural area 18 miles east of Williamsport, Pa., became part of the Bureau of Corrections as the State Institute in 1953.
At one time, the 793-acre complex in Lycoming County was a fully functional farm. The grounds of SCI-Muncy currently houses 76 buildings. As of late February, there were close to 1,400 inmates at Muncy, according SCI-Muncy officials. 143 were serving life sentences.
“SCI-Muncy inmates have experienced several types of cancer including metastatic squamous cell carcinoma, hepatocellular carcinoma, malignant breast cancer, and lung cancer. All cases are closely monitored by medical staff at the prison and cancer treatment specialists. A team of medical staff, including physicians, establish an individual cancer treatment plan,” prison officials said.
Death records for the years 2010 to 2019 obtained through the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Law Project show a total of 17 cancer deaths at SCI-Muncy.
Types of cancer listed in the records range from lung, colon, kidney, endometrial, and anal. There are no statistics available for women who were formerly incarcerated at SCI-Muncy and died of cancer later. Officials at SCI-Muncy said from January 2018 to March 2020, there were 12 inmate cancer-related deaths at the prison.
Officials at SCI-Muncy noted the prison is the diagnostic and classification center for female inmates in Pennsylvania. At the time of admission, women are provided a physical examination. Housing also is provided for sentenced county inmates approved for state housing, when there are significant medical needs that cannot be met at the county level.
“At times, the cancer or other life-threatening diagnosis are determined as part of the initial medical clearance process or during subsequent annual examinations/presenting symptomology," officials said.
“Unfortunately, female offenders entering the state correctional system have not often had regular medical care while in the community, and the Department of Corrections (DOC) ensures that upon admission a full workup is completed to determine current medical needs and development of a medical treatment plan. When reviewing the DOC percentages of cancer diagnosis with that of the general community, there is no substantial percentage difference noted,” officials said.
High rate of hysterectomies
Many women mentioned a high rate of hysterectomies at SCI-Muncy.
“I never knew so many women in one place would need a hysterectomy or partial hysterectomy,” Blount said. “It was like a common cold around there.”
Danielle Morales, whose mother is serving a 12 ½ to 25-year sentence, said her mother told her that there has been a number of women there who have had hysterectomies. “One woman in her unit had a hysterectomy and was diabetic. She ended up with an abscess and it burst while she was on the unit,” Morales said.
“Generally, it sounds like they don’t look at them as humans,” Morales said.
Blount is skeptical of the need for some of the treatment given at Muncy. She recalled a number of women with large breasts were taken for biopsies. Blount said there once was a doctor at Muncy who told her not to come to the infirmary unless she was really sick because “they treat you like guinea pigs.”
Robbins also had a hysterectomy while at Muncy, according to Melchiondo. Doctors originally thought she had uterine issues, even though it turned out later to be cancer.
Officials at SCI-Muncy said 11 women in 2019 had hysterectomies. “Women are treated by a board-certified OB-GYN in consultation with outside physicians/specialists.”
There were other stories from Muncy. Blount recalled a 26-year-old inmate who weighed more than 200 pounds. She began to lose weight quickly and started telling people she was sick. She went to the infirmary numerous times, but she kept getting sent back since they believed she was “pretending to be sick,” Blount said.
The woman’s roommate noted she was thirsty all the time. One day when the woman was feeling particularly awful, her roommate told her to lie on the floor in hopes that the staff would see she direly needed medical attention.
The woman laid on the floor and was taken to the infirmary a short time later where it was determined she needed to go to Geisinger Medical Center in Danville. Her blood sugar was high and she was diagnosed with diabetes. But it was too late. The woman died in the hospital, Blount said.
Rose Dinkins, age 72, has been at Muncy for 50 years. According to an email Dinkins sent to NorthcentralPa.com, she was put in quarantine in February along with her cellmate who was sick with the flu.
Dinkins did not contract the flu, but she was stuck in a room with a cellmate who was coughing, vomiting, and crying from a splitting headache. “Last night, her fever broke, her bed was soaked, no clean linen was issue, she was forced to lay back on the same ones,” Dinkins wrote. “She was never given any flu medication, only Tylenol when the nurse brought it, there was a day she got nothing at all.”
Mental health treatment
SCI-Muncy also reports a high rate of women being treated for mental health issues. It is estimated between 70 and 80 percent of the women there have received some sort of mental health treatment.
When a woman first arrives at Muncy, she goes through a classification process. At this time, a member of the psychology staff conducts a clinical interview. The woman is screened and then is then assigned a mental health roster based on her current need, officials said.
Women who are assigned to general population are assigned a psychological services specialist (PSS) who meets with them to create individualized recovery plans. The PSS meets with the woman regularly to identify treatment goals. Sometimes the PSS refers the woman to psychological treatment groups, which can include subjects ranging from adjusting to prison to substance abuse treatment.
If a woman needs a higher level of care than can be provided in general population, there are several specialized units at SCI-Muncy which provide more structured psychological programming, officials said. One example is the Residential Treatment Unit which houses inmates with a serious mental illness, many who also have lower intellectual functioning.
“It is recognized that these inmates require more support and prompting to be successful in programming, and as such, there are incentives offered to these individuals when they are able to remain compliant with medications, maintain proper personal hygiene, follow the rules of the unit, and maintain a relatively clean cell.”
Those with more serious mental illness who have chronic disciplinary issues also have a special unit. “These individuals are offered structured psychological and psychiatric programming within a phase level system wherein they can eventually graduate to a less restrictive environment when their security needs permit,” officials said.
SCI-Muncy “takes a holistic approach to mental health,” officials said. There are 30 group sessions offered at Muncy per day. The House of Hope program is one that was developed for women who have experienced domestic violence. Muncy also has developed gender specific programming to address issues. The prison partnered with Marilyn Van Dieten, who has been a registered clinical psychologist for more than 30 years, to develop the programs.
About 80 percent of Muncy’s population are mothers. “Parenting is an important concern of the ladies when they get here," officials said. Staff discusses the issues with the women when they arrive at Muncy and make sure that the children are being cared for. “If we can ease those concerns, we are better equipped to help.”
One area SCI-Muncy is focusing on is the link between physical and mental health. Women experience cardiovascular issues more often than men, which is most likely due to stress. “Women take care of everyone else before themselves,” officials said. “When women get here, we try to get them to focus on taking care of themselves.”
Harper acknowledged that SCI-Muncy has different units to address various mental health and trauma issues. “They run groups and have incentives and things like that. I think some of them are on the right track, while others are so heavily medicated that they seem off-planet, and that often leads to them being ostracized (sic) and/or made fun of.”
Blount is skeptical of the treatment of women with mental health issues. She recalled one time when a woman lit herself on fire. “She literally greased her body up and set herself on fire. I will never forget that incident,” Blount said.
Prison changes people, according to Blount. When you’re on the inside, you may find yourself doing things differently than you did when you were on the outside.
“A lot of times when people are good people in a bad situation, you end up doing things you wouldn’t do. For example, stealing food from prison or alcohol pads,” Blount said. Many women don’t have the money for medicines and supplies. “It’s not about rehabilitation or bettering your life,” Blount said.
The women at SCI-Muncy mostly look out for each other. Shavonne referred to her fellow women there as “family,” according to her cousin, Sissy.
When she was released in 2017, she did not forget about the women left behind. “When she got home, she would talk about we got to help the others,” Sissy said. “Shavonne was the kind of person if you didn’t have shoes, she’d give you hers.”
Sissy and Shavonne grew up in the same neighborhood and are one year apart. “I think of Shavonne as more of my sister than a cousin.
“She was a wonderful person. Coming home, she still remained the same person. Humble. Family-oriented.”
The Robbins family made the three-hour trip from Philadelphia to Muncy several times a month to see Shavonne during her prison term. “Just seeing her behind those walls was hard. I never looked back when we’d leave,” Sissy said.
One time about six months before Shavonne was released, Sissy and her family came to a family day event at SCI-Muncy. Sissy noticed another woman there who had just had surgery and was in a lot of pain the entire time. She could not stop focusing on this woman.
“It seemed like no one helped her there. The other women took care of each other,” Sissy said. Sissy prayed that Shavonne, who was already sick with cancer, would not pass away in the prison.
Sissy has often wondered if Shavonne’s extended time at SCI-Muncy was a factor in her cancer diagnosis. She had heard stories from other women there about lack of health care or food. She also heard stories about aging buildings and issues with the water.
“Was it something in the buildings? I don’t know,” Sissy said.
“I know it’s a prison and they are there for their wrongs that they did, but they’re still human beings,” Sissy said.