Timeline of IWOC campaign against Columbia Correctional Institution

Update: 5/2/19

This is the timeline so far of Milwaukee Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee’s (IWOC) campaign to fight against abusive conditions at Columbia Correctional. If you want to get involved with this effort or have any questions, contact us at iwoc.milwaukee@gmail.com or fill out volunteer form here: goo.gl/pxF3UF

1/20/18. Members of Milwaukee IWOC had a strategy retreat. We considered 17 possible campaigns we could take on, based on complaints of conditions we’ve heard from inside members across the Wisconsin prison system. After discussion, we decided to focus on efforts to overturn recent toxic regulations at Columbia Correctional Institution (CCI), since we have more contacts in Columbia than any other prison, and it appears people on the inside have recently done the most in resistance.

1/25/18. We sent surveys to all contacts we have inside CCI, asking for more detail on conditions inside, and what it would take to make change. People responded over the next several months, talking particularly about problems with solitary confinement, medication and mental health concerns. You can read all recent communication we’ve gotten from prisoners at this facility here: goo.gl/QNtEvi

3/1/18. There was a meeting of the Committee on Inmate/Youth Deaths in Madison. This is a Department of Corrections committee that has public meetings and closed sessions on prisoner deaths. Members of Milwaukee IWOC, EXPO, Madison GDC and allied groups attended to confront them about abusive conditions at MSDF, Columbia and across the Wisconsin prison systems. They were surprised to see members of the public present, and did not recognize the names on signs we held that showed prisoners that had died in recent years. They moved into closed session.

You can see the video of our presence at the meeting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVCYlQYbQxg

February through May 2018 we issued other open records requests on Columbia’s policies, and analyzed the results. In retrospect this period had a couple of mistakes and made a slowdown of momentum, focusing on detail of policies more than was needed, not approaching open record requests as systematically as we could have, and having research bee too scattered.  

6/10/18 At a meeting, Milwaukee IWOC voted to begin visible public pressure against Columbia, to do one act every few weeks to put continual and escalating pressure against abuses in this prison.

6/25/18 We did an email zap against Kalen Rush, the deputy warden of Columbia Correctional Institution, people sending emails on the same day to express concern about destructive regulations at CCI. 58 people confirmed participation in this action.

7/1/18. We sent a mass mailing to Columbia documenting recent tactics we’d done and asking for feedback on continuing outside pressure.

7/10/18. Everyone who participated in the email zap against Ruck got a response from her. This response was partial and inadequate, and we drafted a response, you can read this here: goo.gl/b1E9Pp

Subsequent open records requests of Ruck’s emails shows that she did not write the response, it was drafted by DOC Communications Director Tristan Cook.

7/11/18. We organized a phone zap on against Deputy Warden Kalen Ruck, 33 people confirmed participation. In the first wave of phone calls in the morning, several reached Kalen Ruck, and the caller spoke with her directly. After that, they all went to voicemail. One participant mid day, when the most amount of people were calling, reported that the phone line was briefly disrupted and she was unable to get through till later. It seems that the day-long calls may have had some effect in disrupting the normal business of Rucky’s office at least for that day.

8/2/18. We did an email zap against the Wisconsin Correctional Association (WCA). Through open records requests we’d seen Ruck’s recent emails that she was the treasurer of WCA, and was planning to run for president elect of this group. We decided to target WCA for secondary pressure, in a way that might create embarrassment or inconvenience for her aspirations, and build pressure to change these regulations. We used similar methods to the previous email and phone zaps. 33 people participated in the email zap. When Thelon from the WCA responded to people we gathered his responses, and drafted sample script for reply, which some of the volunteers did.

8/10/18. We began continual small phone zaps against Kalen Ruck, for several weeks ensuring she received at least three phone calls a day for several people. Many of these reached Ruck, who repeatedly hung up on people who voice concern over the arbitrary changes that make it easier for prisoners to be sent to solitary confinement. At one call, Ruck said “I’m not going to debate how I run this prison.”

8/14/18. An email sent by CCI Warden Scott Eckstein to Douglas Percy stated :”As you know we are currently experiencing a significant shortage of nurses which is creating issues with institution
operations pill line etc…” [email record obtained by IWOC open records requested, 10/1/18]

8/16/18. From Columbia’s Daily Report:

“9:45. RSH2. Jovan Mull #609199 damaged the B-upper shower door by breaking the lower hinge, kicked the door and stopped RSH2 operations. Cell extraction team eventually took Jovan, strip searched him, stunned him with taser when he tried to resist strip search, and put him in cell 17 control status with no property.”

“18:55. Clyde McKinley #338260 placed into TLU for refusal to release from RSH2 after accepting major disposition. Clyde was escorted to RSH1.”

See the source on these incidents and more security details here.

8/23/18. We did a phone zap against three different members of the Columbia Community Relations Board, a committee that liaises between CCI and the wider prison. Rather than one person recruiting volunteers, we developed a phone tree model with our spreadsheet of volunteers, with 5 people mobilizing a different set of volunteers. There was some concern over shifting targets of phone zaps too much, that we were making followup on pressure and volunteer mobilization harder.

9/1/18. A prisoner at CCI committed suicide, after the prison ignored his signs of self-harm and put him in solitary confinement.

9/6/18. We showed up for another meeting of the DOC Committee on Inmate/Youth Deaths. We challenged them on the same issues as last time, and the recent death at CCI. They went into closed session.

9/10/18 An IWW members incarcerated at Columbia sent agenda items, asking the Columbia Campaign to include pressure on the security director and to address issues of solitary & mental health. We voted unanimously to adopt these proposals, and refocus our campaign along these lines.

9/11/18 and 9/18/18.  Members of Milwaukee IWOC met with the parents of the person inside Columbia who committed suicide, and talked about conditions at Columbia and next steps. Together we drafted the script for phone zap against the CCI security director.

9/24/18. Phone zap against Lucas Weber, security director at CCI. Our sample script said: “I am calling out of concern with abuses at Columbia Correctional Institution. I am horrified by the conditions that recently lead a prisoner at Columbia to commit suicide. Cries for help are being ignored. When you see an inmate with open wounds from cutting themselves, you need to give them mental health resources rather than putting them in solitary confinement. When will you make a change in prison policy?”

10/17/18. Email zap against Lucas Weber, and other DOC officials, 36 people sent messages concerning problems with solitary confinement and inadequate mental health resources at Columbia Correctional. Weber and most of the people contacted ignored this message. DOC Communications Director Tristan Cook made a brief and vague response a week later.

10/26/18.  Three guards at Columbia (Goldsmith, Thompson and Woodruff) attacked a prisoner, Kuan Barnette, saying “we’re here to kill you”, beat him, slammed him into a metal bed frame, choked him, dragged him from the cell and violently shook him. Kuan had been in clinical observation, and weighed 145 pounds. After the attack his head was disfigured, his finger was broken, he couldn’t stand, and both eyes were swollen shut, he was given emergency transfer to another prison.

11/3/18. A Milwaukee lawfirm began working with the family of the person inside Columbia who committed suicide on 9/1/18. The attorneys will work pro bono to build a class action against the prison. At the family’s request, Milwaukee IWOC shared open records information we’ve obtained to aid this case.

11/14/18. A correctional officer Russell G. Goldsmith was arrested on suspicion of felony abuse of a resident of a penal facility and felony misconduct of public office. The DOC requested on October 30 that Columbia County Sheriff’s Office investigate a use-of-force complaint at the prison.

12/5/18. IWOC phone and email zap against Columbia Correctional’s security director, continuing pressure against abusive solitary confinement and lack of mental health resources in the prison.

12/11/18. IWOC received reports  that some of the incarcerated people at Columbia Correctional Institution have been without heat for over 5 days. They have not been told anything about when heat will be fixed or what is going on. We organized a phone, email and open records zap on the issue, involving at least 17 people. Subsequently DOC Communications Director Tristan Cook responded, saying there were no heating issues, but we continued to get report of freezing conditions at the prison. On 12/17/18 IWOC got an update from the person that we heard initially of the lack of heat at Columbia. She said: “I spoke with the person inside, he said the heat was back on Friday. Thank you for all of your help. The men truly appreciate it!”

1/14/19. Columbia Correctional Institution begins a lockdown, starting very abruptly with no announced reason. People from inside report that the lockdown restricted visits, lead to people not getting full meals, and lead to not getting showers.

1/17/19. Milwaukee IWOC organized a phone zap, email zap and open records zap against the lockdown, with an estimated 24 people participating. They also put out a press release on the issue. While media didn’t use the press release, there was subsequently some news coverage of the sudden lockdown. After a period of scrutiny from IWOC call-in and media, showers did resume, although hardships with the lockdown continued.

Contact from people inside Columbia fleshes out the nature of this lockdown

Received 1/18/19:

“Effective 1-14-19 the gulag CCI was placed on a FULL LOCK DOWN status. All prisoners are confined to our cages 24/7 and all out of cell activities and movement have been suspended indefinitely. And the commissary that prisoners have already purchased weeks in advance is now being withheld by CCI overseers ( Note: the commissary is vital because it helps to supplement an inadequate and to some an inedible gulag diet of mostly soy based proteins and starch. And for prisoners like me who really NEVER eat state “food”due to personal concerns and subsist mostly on commissary, this will become a health issue soon) Also, all showers, phone calls to family and friends, and visits of all forms are now being arbitrarily denied to us indefinitely. We have not been allowed to shower since prior to the lock down and a lot of prisoners are existing two men to a cage and so not being able to properly maintain our hygiene is a potential source of conflict between some “cage mates “, especially coupled with the added frustration of being denied communication with family, via visits and phones. Also, it should be noted that ,to my knowledge, there were NO actions that would warrant a reactionary full lock down and the arbitrary denial of showers and communication with family by phones and visits. Nothing happened. And CCI for some reason has had more lock downs and “modified movements” than any other Max- gulag that I’ve had both the misfortune and displeasure of being warehoused in. It seems like every few months the “Overseers”find one pretext after another to justify weeks of draconian rule over the prisoners.(Note: last lock down/ modified movement was in October and I believe there were at least two more prior to that one). Therefore, whenever most convenient, I need for IWOC to contact DOC in Mad. and express some of our concerns, frustration, and dismay at being denied visits, phones, showers and all other arbitrary acts carried out under the guise and cloak of lock down and pretext of “security”. Because I know from experience that these things at CCI have a way of dragging on for weeks sometime. So the sooner the public can demand some answers from  DOC-HQ the sooner our families/tax payers can demand some accountability from CCI.”

Received 1/23/19:

“I’ve been reading your newsletters for years and what’s currently going down at Columbia Correctional Institution is something I haven’t seen in over 14 years in prison in over 7 different institutions.  If you can provide any assistance or convey the email address of anyone that could assist us we’d all appreciate the help here at CCI. Monday January 14 at 7:40 AM the institution was placed on a lockdown for a complete institution search now a specific event didn’t occur on the morning of the 14th it was just the date that our new warden Sue Novak decided she wanted to start the lockdown as less than 20 minutes after the lockdown was announced a memo appeared on the institution channel and anyone that knows CCI’s standard operating speed it takes them days or weeks for memos or notices to be posted or updated not minutes which tells that this was planned for a memo to be typed and posted in minutes after the announcement was made.  The memorandum that was posted was as follows:

January 14th, 2019

From: Warden Sue Novak

To: All Staff and Offenders

Regarding CCI Lockdown

    The overriding mission at Columbia Correctional Institution is to ensure the safety of the public, our staff, and the offenders by operating a safe and secure facility.

Effective January 14th, Columbia Correctional Institution will be operating in a lockdown mode for security purposes.  The suspension and modification of institution operations is authorized in accordance with DOC 306.15 and 306.23.

Visits canceled until further notice.


** Now in my time here at CCI this isn’t my first lockdown or institution search though this new warden Sue Novak decided to not allow a unit or any inmate to SHOWER until their unit is searched now CCI has 10 units and on Monday they started their searching in unit 10 working to 1 searching only 1 unit per day and only on weekdays and with Monday being MLK will further delay the search but for us inmates on unit 2 with the current search rate our last opportunity to shower was on January 13th AM, and with the expected search not being til January 23rd or 24 this warden is telling hundreds of inmates that she is permitted to deny showers for 10 to 11 days straight and this is supposedly in her authority to do so.  This is a new one because it was my belief and that of many other inmates that showers must be provide at minimum once every 3 days as that’s even the minimum in segregation so how is it they are telling us we can’t shower for 10 to 11 days or more depending on search time frames. Is this true or is this a violation of our rights? On top of being denied showers its the denial of phone calls with many people not being able to contact their loved ones to alert them of this random lockdown so they don’t drive some 2 hours for most inmates families here only to be turned around as only few inmates have purchased tablets and are able to send emails to alert their family and since our contact is limited to only our approved contacts list a friend can’t send a email to alert another member unless its done 3rd party.  Since this new warden started she’s used a supposed shortage of staff as a reason for keeping units on so called Fog Alert (which is us locked in our cells with limited movement while denying access to dayroom) this has been occurring at approximately 38% of the past four months not including their new policy since the summer to lockdown all movement 2nd shift of Saturdays and Sundays while only allowing a tier tender out to pass a phone between cells. Its become an issue that they claim that their isn’t enough staff yet they have multiple CO’s sitting in the control bubbles and officers gathering at the dayroom desk yet they choose to run fog alert when a normal unit is run with 1 Sargent and 1 CO but yet we get placed on fog alert and then multiple officers gather and shoot the shit instead of running the unit under normal operating procedures.  These issues didn’t just start with this lockdown as were used to being locked in our cells but being denied showers for possibly a week plus is outrageous and I believe against our rights as inmates. Its already been 3 days ending today January 16 and our 4th day January 17 when you should receive this email if its not blocked when reviewed. I ask that you provide any information to help us out or shed any light on this situation were in currently in. If you can provide information or the contact email of someone that might be able to assist us in our trouble here at CCI as it only seems to be getting worse not better. Can they deny a population of this size showers for multiple days to weeks plus? Can you provide assistance in this matter as its causing lots of tension we’ve already had one guy self harm taking a hand full of pills and another refusing to place his arms back in his door trap causing a cell removal and that’s only on my unit on my tier its unknown what’s occurring elsewhere as we’ve got no communication.  The staff continue to state they can’t tell us anything as to why we can’t shower just that they were told we can’t allow you to shower until your unit is searched. With our institution filled to over capacity and most cells doubled hygiene is important and being denied a basis hygienic practice must be against the rules as even segregation gets showers every 3 days.”

March 2019.

Three people incarcerated at Columbia join 6 people in Racine in a 10 day hunger strike to expose problems with longterm solitary confinement, seeking to push Governor Evers to make immediate changes in solitary confinement.

April 2019.

IWOC received word that some of the conditions associated with restriction on the lockdown have eased, although problems continue.

Review of acronyms used in this document:

CCI: Columbia Correctional Institution, maximum security prison in Portage County, Wisconsin.

DOC: Department of Corrections, the state-wide prison system.

IWOC: Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. Active committee of the Industrial Workers of the World,(IWW) labor union that fights exploitation, and includes prisoners. IWOC is the network of prisoners who have joined the IWW, and IWW members on the outside who meet regularly to support prisoners’ organizing. Find more information on Wisconsin IWOC work here: http://wisconsinprisonvoices.org and national-level IWOC work here: https://incarceratedworkers.org

IWW: Industrial Workers of the World, see definition for IWOC. Find more information on the IWW in Wisconsin here: http://talkin.mkegmb.org/about

WCA: Wisconsin Correctional Association, network of wardens and deputy wardens to co-ordinate resources. Kalen Ruck, Deputy Warden of CCI, is heavily involved with them.