Freedom’s Cause #30 – December 13, 2020

CORONAVIRUS UPDATES

As of Friday, December 11, the count of active positive cases among incarcerated persons stands at 1,039 (down slightly from 1,909 three weeks ago). 2,192 persons are in quarantine (down from 4,615), and 1,310 are in isolation (down from 1,868). The number of reported deaths has risen to 19. Active positive cases are reported in Chippewa Valley (44), CCI (2), Copper Lake (5), DCI (20), Drug Abuse CC (4), FLCI (383), GBCI (4), JCI (142), John C Burke (22), KMCI (1), Marshall E Sherrer (2), MSDF (24), NLCI (3), Oakhill (17), OSCI (45), PDCI (16), RCI (105), RYOCF (12), Redgranite (2), Robert E Ellsworth (14), SCI (2), Taycheedah (168), WSPF (2). Among staff members, there are 173 active cases (down from 336). The total number of staff cases has risen from 1,641 to 2,031. (Source: DOC official site)

DEATH TOLL RISES

(December 10) The Wisconsin Department of Corrections reported three more COVID-19-related inmate deaths Wednesday as the coronavirus continues to infect state, county and federal inmates in Wisconsin. A total of 19 inmates have now died from COVID-19 in the Wisconsin prison system, according to DOC’s data dashboard. Across DOC’s more than 36 adult facilities and three juvenile facilities, there were 9,470 total cases and 1,155 active cases Wednesday. No deaths have occurred so far in a COVID-19 outbreak at a federal prison in central Wisconsin, which has nearly 150 active cases. Oxford Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security facility in Adams County, had 146 infections among inmates Wednesday, up 46 cases from the previous day, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. (Source: Wisconsin State Journal)

DIRECT ACTIONS

(December 9) Since October 19, Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) and WISDOM have held a daily vigil outside the Governor’s mansion. With no response from the Evers administration, EXPO resorted to civil disobedience, blocking the driveway to the Governor’s mansion on November 24. Almost a week later, a group of prison abolition activists left 11 body bags in the secretary’s driveway to, in the words of the group, “make him deal physically, with the deaths he’s causing.” The direct action was filmed by the group and can be seen on YouTube. (Source: Prison Dispatch: LaCrosse Independent)

(December 11) As the months go by, people incarcerated within (Wisconsin’s) facilities have increasingly spoken out about poor conditions. Writing letters and holding DOC-monitored phone calls with press are not their only strategies. Hunger strikes, for example, have long been a tool of prisoner resistance movements. It’s a recurring tactic Wisconsin’s DOC has a specific policy for, and which some prisoners have begun to utilize. José Gonzalez, a man currently incarcerated in the Columbia Correctional Institution (CCI), is among them. A DOC spokesperson told Wisconsin Examiner that Gonzalez was transferred to CCI from the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (WSPF), a maximum security facility, on Nov. 3. The day before, he’d sent out a Corrlinks message to advocates who run the Twitter handle Wisconsin Prison Voices, a project of Milwaukee IWOC. “I’m still on my hunger and fluid strike,” Gonzalez messaged on Nov. 2, “I am also on another strike that is more life threatening, but I will get to all of that.” Although Gonzalez’s messages mention another incarcerated man who was hunger striking alongside him, the DOC told Wisconsin Examiner that Gonzalez acted alone. “Mr. Gonzalez is eating again following a meeting with the manager of the Health Services Unit at Columbia Correctional Institution,” the spokesperson said on Dec. 2. 

Gonzalez had several demands which he hoped the hunger strike would accomplish. The demands, some of which pertained to issues related to his time at WSPF, included the following: the return of property and electronics taken from incarcerated people; 5 showers a week; no limits on how many phone calls incarcerated people are allowed per month; no restrictions on canteen, particularly in regard to food and hygiene; the ability to order care packages; to talk with the head doctor involved in medical services for the facility; to be fed adequate amounts of food beyond a 2,500 calorie diet; and to have certain titles renamed, “as words do have power and some cause power trips,” Gonzalez noted in his Nov. 2 message. (Source: Wisconsin Examiner)

IWOC VICTORY

IWOC recently received a message from an incarcerated person at KMCI who had an open wound with severe pain following a botched dental extraction. He wrote,”I showed the security staff, but they laughed like it was funny and said, ‘That’s a big hole in your mouth.’”  IWOC members made a three-way call to the prison, asking for comment before going to the media with this story. The new warden, John Knoble, promptly returned the call and promised to arrange a dental appointment and to investigate the behavior of the COs. The person in question wrote, ‘Thanks…. All I can do is thank God and sing praise to you all for being helpers of inmates, who are people too… Not until someone like you all go to bat, to right a wrong, do we see a change.” 

NO PLAN

(December 9) In a media briefing on December 1, Gov. Evers finally broke his silence on the pandemic in the state’s prisons. While he voiced his support for long-term prison reform, he made no allusions to compassionate release. “At the end of the day, we could release half of the prisoners, but if we still have community spread, it would still be getting into the prisons.” From the perspective of many prisoners, the DOC has appeared to have no real plan – beyond the most basic precautionary tactics – to deal with a surge of infections. “I don’t think that the people that drew this plan up even thought about this at all,” a prisoner at Prairie du Chien told the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC Milwaukee). “You know why[,] because they don’t listen to their workers on the front line or the inmates.” As this statement implies, prisoners are not the only ones within the prison system that are critical of the DOC’s handling of the pandemic. As a guard at Racine told reporters, “It’s a complete mishmash of unorganized chaos.” (Source: Prison Dispatch: LaCross Independent)

On December 8, Governor Evers hosted a listening session on criminal justice reform. A spokesman for Milwaukee IWOC spoke up about restricted zoom visits and DOC’s circular mechanism of internal investigation. She shared the remark of one of our inside contacts: “It’s like the fox guarding the hen house.” 

MIRACULOUS FOOD

A contact at OSCI compared a recent menu and a four-week cycle from February/March. Here are the highlights: 4oz sloppy joe: 168 calories in March, 230 in October (+62).  Chicken patty: 210 in March,  270 in October (+60). 1oz mozzarella: 5 in March,102 in October (+67). He adds, “I have no clue how cheese gained so many calories…did it eat too much mozz growing up? absorb extra milk curds? Pure mystery.”

PLAINTIFFS NEEDED

From a formerly incarcerated person in IWOC: ‘DOC charges an annual $100 fee for persons on the registry even while the person is in prison. I’ve spoken with an attorney about this and he supports my filing suit against this practice. He’s requested two candidates besides myself: a female who is or was incarcerated and charged the annual fee, and a person serving a life sentence who has a sexual-related conviction. He and I will proceed with the lawsuit once these potential plaintiffs are located. The idea is that the registry is intended to protect the public, but the public is not at meaningful risk from people in prison. Therefore, people in prison should not be subjected to the annual registration fee.’ If you can suggest persons to act as additional plaintiffs, please respond with the subject line, “Registry.”

FROM THE PRESS

(December 4) The state of Wisconsin has agreed to pay a prison inmate $105,000 to settle his federal civil rights lawsuit over a beating that led to the convictions of two guards. Kuan Barnett, 20, is serving a seven-year sentence for armed robbery. In 2018, he was assigned to the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage. On Oct. 25 that year he was beaten in retaliation for spitting water on two guards, one earlier in the day and one the day before. “This was an especially vicious and premeditated assault,” said his attorney, Ben Elson of People’s Law Office. “We commend the Attorney General for recognizing it as such by fairly compensating Mr. Barnett for his injuries.” Elson said the settlement “provides some measure of justice and sends a message that brutality by prison guards will not be tolerated.”  (Source: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)(November 30) In a report for The Progressive, Arvind Dilawar interviewed activists who have been pressing Governor Tony Evers to release more prisoners. Ron Schroeder, an organizer with IWOC Milwaukee, argued that such an approach would not only free the most vulnerable incarcerated folks from the risks of COVID-19, but if done at scale, it could reduce overcrowding and actually allow for social distancing. He acknowledged that releases would have to win the support of both Evers and DOC secretary Kevin Carr, who seems content with the failing strategy of providing inmates with personal protective equipment and sanitary supplies. “Secretary Carr states his department provides PPE and cleaning supplies to persons in their care,” Schroeder says. “However, there’s one thing the DOC is incapable of doing: providing social distancing. That’s the very nature of prison environments today due to overcrowding.” (Source: The Progressive)