A “solitary is torture” demonstration was held Sunday outside the East Lansing home of Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) Director Heidi Washington amid police presence and curious neighbors. After tabling at the East Lansing Farmer’s Market to share flyers and educate the community about solitary confinement, a group of thirty demonstrators from around the state marched to Washington’s home in a comfortable cul-de-sac neighborhood in the university town of East Lansing.
Once there, family members and others spoke on the abuses of people in solitary confinement and broadcast recorded interviews with two prisoners, Jake Klemp and H.H. Gonzales, over a loudspeaker. Protesters demanded the immediate release of over 70 prisoners being held in solitary confinement, and spoke with neighbors. One banner read, “Heidi Washington, Stop Torturing Our Friends.” H.H. Gonzales related that when he was finally released from solitary, he was explicitly informed that it was due to all the people making calls in his support, following a phone zap reported on It’s Going Down.
The demonstration follows the suicide (still under investigation) of a young man on May 2nd at Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, where most of the 70 have been incarcerated for nine months. Supporters cited psychological abuse, racist harassment by guards, and withholding of physical and mental health care as among the deplorable conditions endangering the health and lives of the prisoners.
Ahjamu Baruti, one of a handful recently transferred out of Oaks after over eight months in isolation, described solitary as “the soul breaker,” noting that: “Long term solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment, due to the deprivation of basic human needs such as environmental stimulation and social interaction….The psychological effects of long term confinement on the human brain are phenomenal, because the human brain needs social contact like our lungs need air!Zoo animals are being honored with fulfillment of these needs. The cruelty of caging them for long periods of time alone or in tight spaces is acknowledged. Federal guidelines for laboratory animals require more space be provided for them, along with sensory stimulation and environmental enrichment, than what is afforded prisoners in solitary confinement.”
The group Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity (MAPS) has archived numerous accounts from people in solitary at Oaks describing denial of mental health treatment and medical care; stones in food and cold, inedible meals; tampering with legal mail; withholding of mail, grievance forms, and writing supplies; destruction of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of property, including legal papers necessary for appeals and irreplaceable photos; racial harassment; and being put in cells with blood-smeared walls.
Numerous people in solitary at Oaks complained that authorities have ignored or willfully neglected their pleas for medical attention. Freddy Hardrick wrote, “I had an allergic reaction, my throat had swollen up. I was having a hard time breathing. I pressed the emergency respond button repeatedly trying to get some help…I had fallen on the floor with no assistance or help.” Officers ignored his neighbors’ calls for help until Mr. Hardrick beat on the door.
Another young man, suffering hallucinations and suicidal ideation without his usual medications, was told by Oaks medical staff that since he hadn’t hurt himself he wouldn’t receive medications. He wrote, “So in so many words I have to hurt myself and cause trouble for the correctional officers for me to get proper treatment. That’s the point I want proper treatment before the worst happen.”
Everyone in solitary confinement reports losing weight rapidly due to insufficient portions and poor nutritional balance. 70-year-old Baba X-Guy rapidly lost 70 pounds (to 163 pounds), causing listlessness and coldness. He documented his requests for medical help, in case something happened to him “in this cesspool.” Medical staff delayed unnecessarily his request to pay for a high-protein diet.
Kevin Craig described, “When I first got here they put me in this cell which they had just gassed the person that was in here cause he was trying to kill himself. I get in the room and its blood everywhere like the guy either was slangin it or they came in here slangin him. I told them then asked for some cleaning supplys they tell me clean up on Saturday. I got here on a Thursday they made me stay in here somebody else blood all over the cell. Then the gas hit me the shit was everywhere I couldn’t breathe it was so strong. I asked for the sergeant, it took for him to come to the door and while he stood there hearing my complaint he started choking so he had me pulled out so they clean it but it took three days strait to clean.”
According to Micheal Witherspoon, “When we arrived at Oaks they had closed one of there level 4 units (3) so that they could house us there. We got there on Oct. 5, 2016. They spread us around in the segregation unit, they have three (3) unit for this. They put me in unit 5….The cell was a mess. The cell smelled like urine and feces, the toilet hadn’t been flushed in over two months the floor was sticky and unbearable. The toilet had been stained from all the waste in it….Over time I cleaned the place up, but the stain in the toilet bowl is there for life. After 70 days of people watching me use the toilet they finally moved me down the hall from where I was.”
The United Nations deems solitary confinement torture, especially for those with mental illness. In FY 2007-2008, the daily average number of people held in solitary in Michigan was 1,294. Michigan ranks last out of all 50 states for rates of Black men held in solitary versus general population.
The prisoners came from Kinross Correctional Facility where 250 people were targeted for retaliation after a strike and protest last September and at least 200 placed in solitary. More than 600 prisoners who had been denied hot meals for several days raised grievances disputing low wages, overcrowding, poor food, and unfair restrictions on visitors. Hours after the protest was over, prison officials called in riot squads to violently attack prisoners. Once the dust settled, MDOC had spent over $740,000 on the unnecessary and violent raid.
Months ago, the prisoners were approved by MDOC to be moved to general population because they are not considered a security threat. MDOC claims the reason for the continuation of solitary confinement is a shortage of bed space in general population. Last October, Oaks had converted a unit to solitary in order to house the Kinross group, but has not converted it back to general population. Housing people in solitary costs at least twice as much as in general population. Some prisoners in the group transferred from Kinross also remain in solitary at the Alger and St. Louis facilities, while about 80 people at the Baraga facility are being kept in maximum security despite being designated at lower security levels.
Leon Echols Bey wrote in early May:
“Oaks Correctional Facility don’t really have the bed space in GP for us all because they turned a GP unit into segregation, so this facility have more seg. units than GP and there are other inmates on their so-called waiting list about 80 inmates on stand by waiting on bedspace, instead of riding these guys out to another prison. Guys been waiting to go to GP for 2 to 4 months, when their segregation status is over with, on more than one occasion an inmate had rode in from another facility on GP status, but because of lack of bedspace, they all came right to segregation until a bed became available. Which is straight wrong!….So all this early release for good behavior is all a farce at this facility at least….The warden here likes running segregation units. People (inmates) had been killing themselves or attempting to kill themselves at an alarming rate at this facility also. That’s how bad this place is. This facility is elevating tickets just to put someone in the hole to release someone on the waiting list. This facility is getting away with some major violations and Lansing knows about this place…”
Kevin Craig wrote:
“[The warden] and the rest of the administration here are so racist they want to keep us in the hole so bad he made a proposal to Lansing and they denied it telling him open these units back up to General Population. Instead he went to Indiana to visit their prison to get some more ideas how he wanna run this one so he supposedly appealing their decision….”
Warden Thomas Mackie of Oaks and Director Washington were the target of a phone campaign two weeks ago. If you are moved by the testimonies above, feel free to call again to demand the Kinross group be moved to general population now! Call any day the week of June 12th.
“Hi. I’m calling about all of the prisoners that were transferred from Kinross after their non-violent demonstration on September 10th. I demand that all of them be moved from segregation to general population, that they be returned to their previous security levels, and that there be no further retaliation against them of any kind.”
MDOC Director Heidi Washington: 517-241-7238 (if there’s no answer, leave a message on her assistant’s phone, Sandra Simon)
Warden Thomas Mackie, Oaks Correctional Facility: (231) 723-8272
Warden Catherine Bauman, Alger Correctional Facility: (906) 387-5000
Warden Mark McCullick, St. Louis Correctional Facility: (989) 681-6444
Please send letters of support to these and other prisoners facing retaliation.