When I started trying to get back into the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, I hadn’t yet begun to think about the potential use of the closed prison — also known as the Western Penitentiary — to address one of the region’s biggest problems. I just wanted to see the place again and set the record straight.
“If read fairly, your Mission Statement requires your office to work with us on our request for entry into the former SCI Pittsburgh in the very near future.” — Excerpt from my April 27 email to state Sen. Wayne Fontana
“At this time, the facility is scheduled for demolition, and we are not granting any public access to the property.” — Excerpt from resulting response, from Tracy M. Surfield, acting director, Pennsylvania Department of General Services Bureau of Real Estate
I’d watched an Abandoned Central video showing a film crew’s tour of the prison, nicknamed The Wall, and they did a great job. But a few of the facts were off.
How would I know?
I did seven years there.
“I do not believe the demolition of that property is in the best interests of anyone. … Indeed, that property, at great expense to the taxpayers, has been extensively renovated just a couple decades back and could serve a great purpose, inexpensively and with a huge benefit, to the Commonwealth now.” – My follow-up to email exchange on April 27
You’re surprised that someone who spent seven years in a notorious prison would want to get back in.
Truthfully, I didn’t hate it there.
I went in there at age 20 and became a successful entrepreneur. I’d get paper from the library, draw up greeting cards and take them to the print shop. I’d give my connection there a few packs of cigarettes. He’d print off my cards, and I’d take them to the guys in the mental health unit. They loved to color, and they’d color them for me and I’d fold them up, throw glitter on them and send runners out to sell them in the prison yard. It was like a drug network, but I was selling greeting cards and I made thousands of dollars.
The flip side: I also tried heroin in there for my first time, with a homemade syringe that I made from a mechanical pencil.
Things got stricter after the 1997 escape. After those six guys tunneled out, they made some improvements to security. But I don’t have any complaints about the facility itself, especially the parts that were renovated in the 1980s and ’90s. Hearing that they planned to tear this place down really ticked me off because there’s nothing wrong with it.
“What is preventing the Department of General Services from issuing a waiver of liability for persons from the community wanting to enter the former SCI Pittsburgh to contemplate its viability for housing Pittsburgh’s homeless population?” — Excerpt from my request made under the Right-to-Know Law on May 1
“You are hereby notified that your request is being reviewed for the reasons listed below and this agency will require up to an additional 30 days, i.e., until June 7, 2023, in which to respond to your request.” — Response to request, from Department of General Services Right-To-Know Coordinator Cheryl Spackman, on May 4
I’ve been occasionally homeless, starting at age 18. At the time, I saw it as an adventure. I was still exploring the world and life, trying to figure things out. But after a year or two and one of many burglaries, I wound up in the state prison system, where I spent around 17 of the following 20 years.
I left SCI Graterford in 2015, liberating my pet frog in the process. I shared his reintroduction to the world outside via YouTube in an effort to spread the word on the plight of those serving life sentences in Pennsylvania.
“Unfortunately we’re not allowing any tours right now. That building is being tracked for eventual demolition and sale, so we cannot allow any people into that site right now.” — Voicemail I received from Andrew Lick, real estate coordinator, state Department of General Services, on April 14
I haven’t stayed completely out of trouble since leaving the prison system. But I’ve owned my house now since 2017, and I’m sober.
When I go Downtown, though, I can’t help but think that you can’t build up a city in which you’ve got to step over people.
You cannot literally step over human beings who haven’t been their best selves lately, while expecting prosperity for yourself. You cannot step over a person in need of hope, secure housing and food, who is perhaps struggling with substance abuse, on your way to your $100,000-a-year job and tell yourself, “It’s gonna be a good day.”
At least, I can’t step over people and have a good day.
So after banging my head against the wall trying to get access to the prison, calling and emailing state officials and hearing, “No, we’re going to tear it down,” it struck me: It could be used right now for a serious problem. They call homelessness a crisis. I call it the ho[p]elessness crisis.
“I would like the opportunity to peruse its viability for an ongoing homeless crisis that, it appears, will not be resolved anytime soon by any of the plethora of offices I’ve called, emailed, been to, chased down, etc. … Kindly give me the benefit of the doubt. Kindly gain me access to that potential resolution to a nationwide crisis.” — Excerpt from my May 3 email to Keith Wehner, executive director of Sen. Fontana’s office
“The Department of General Services is handling the property’s assessment, remediation and its potential future development. … The assessments and remediation process has already begun and is well on its way.” — Excerpt from Wehner’s response
You’re wondering whether people who are unhoused, some of whom have been incarcerated, would want to shelter in a prison. I think many would.
It’s air conditioned, it’s reasonably clean. There’s emergency call buttons in every cell. The electricity’s on — I can see the lights on through the windows. It could probably be up and running tomorrow, and if you asked the guy living under the bridge tonight, he might say, ‘Let me in,’ because that’s better than what he has right now.
Come on in. No ID required. First name, last initial. You’ve got to check your drugs at the door, just like they do at Second Avenue Commons. You could have your little cell and there’s water and there’s a toilet and your basic needs are met. But unlike prison, you could leave whenever you want and catch a bus on Beaver Avenue.
We could say, “This is your home. It’s not great, but you can stay here as long as you want until you’re ready.” And that might make them say, “I’m going to paint the place. I’m going to paint it now because this is my spot. I’m good.”
While they’re there, give them some options to work on problems like mental health or addiction. One of the reasons I’m in a better place is because people have exposed me to the variety of treatment options.
They could stay as long as they wanted, until they were ready and eventually they could take that step on their own. Now, granted, there’s probably some that won’t make it. But some will.
“If anyone from your office cares to further indulge into why I believe my idea to utilize the former SCI Pittsburgh as temporary/permanent housing for the hopeless … I would love to elaborate. I’ve weighed the pros vs. the cons and the pros far outweigh the cons.” — Excerpt from my email to staff of Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s office, of May 7
“We’ve contacted the state to see if we can direct you to the proper person or department at the PA Department of Corrections. As we shared, the City of Pittsburgh does not control such facilities.” — Excerpt from response, dated May 8, from Pamela Collier, special assistant, Office of the Mayor
I showed up at Pittsburgh Councilman Anthony Coghill’s May 9 public presentation of a council proposal for more transitional housing. I told him my idea, and he said nothing’s off the table, and that he would try to get us in and take a look around.
Needless to say, I haven’t gotten in.
I even talked with people at the state Department of Community and Economic Development. Wow, community and economic development! The way I see it, there can’t be true, lasting economic development if the economics come first and the community second. But if you take care of your community, the community will take care of you.
The people we’re stepping over Downtown are part of the community. Most of them just need a home base, a safe space, from which to start a journey to something better. And we have a big place with lots of beds, a short bus ride from Downtown.
As I circled SCI Pittsburgh on May 18, grounds crews mowed and blew the clippings around. A security guard patrolled. There was no movement inside, just a fluorescent glow.
The lights are on, but no one’s home.
Eric Miskovitch lives in East McKeesport. To send him a message, write to email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Sean Lord.
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However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
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