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Apr 10, 20

BreakOut: Dispatches on Resistance to the Pandemic Inside Prison Walls #1

According to some scientists and statisticians, we are entering into what will be a peak week for infections and deaths across the United States – yet even these numbers do not take into consideration the growing spread of coronavirus inside prisons, jails and detention centers across the country. While some states are starting to declare that they are moving towards the downward curve of the infection graph, inside prisons, the infection rate is growing. This burgeoning crisis within a crisis has largely been ignored by the corporate press, however publications such as Perilous have been chronicling prisoner revolts which have broken out in response to the spread of the pandemic and journalists like COVIDBehindBars have been tracking the COVID-19 outbreak across various facilities.

With far higher infection rates than some whole countries and with “social distancing” being a nearly impossible task for inmates; mutual aid groups, prison abolitionist organizations, and the friends and family of the incarcerated are demanding their release. While these numbers will become dated as quickly as we report them, but as of 04/09/2020: 283 federal prisoners have tested positive for COVID19, 125 BOP staff have tested positive, 8 federal prisoners have died,  and 37 facilities and 8 halfway houses have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19.

The Pandemic Spreads

Louisiana prisons, along with the state itself, have been some of the hardest hit. Oakdale I, a low security prison with nearly 1,000 people housed within it, has the highest mortality rate of any federal facility, with 5 people already dead, 16 more in the ICU, and 6 on ventilators. The situation has gone from bad to worse.

It was also just confirmed that a person has tested positive in Oakdale II, another facility on the compound with nearly the same population numbers as Oakdale I. Earlier this week, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of prisoners in Oakdale to push for a speedy release. On Wednesday night staff were confronted by people inside as they attempted to bring people out of quarantine and into general population. The “non-compliance to staff instructions” were met with paintballs and tear gas by CO’s. According to prisoners in Oakdale, the facility has begun to release people, albeit incredibly slowly.

I want it more for the older guys, the guys who are really sick,” Fields said. “There are some really good guys in here that I feel like don’t need to be here in the first place.

In Ohio, there are currently about 2,500 people housed in FCI Elkton – but as of April 2nd the BOP has decided to only supply the facility with 5 testing kits, leaving literally thousands of people without recourse if they show symptoms. A video taken from within Elkton of a man pleading for his life showed up on YouTube on the 5th. At that point, 3 people had died inside the facility. In response, the governor stated he was going to deploy the Ohio National Guard to “assist” in the situation. This clear military response to a growing wave of both infection and resistance will continue in coming days.

Prison abolitionists, legal aid groups, and community organizations have been sounding the alarm about the conditions inside New York prisons and jails since before the situation reached a pandemic level. On April 9,th the NYC Board of Corrections declared that more than 2,500 people incarcerated by the City of NY have been exposed to COVID-19; about 60% of the city’s jail population. The first person to die on Rikers Island, a literal prison island in the East River, was named Michael Tyson and he was being held awaiting a hearing on a parole violation. April 9th marked the second death inside Rikers, with the numbers rising to 288 COVID-19 positive detainees and 488 positive staff.

While New York City has become an epicenter of the virus, “a March 25th, legal aid analysis found that the infection rate inside the city’s jails was more than seven times higher” that of the outside. As of April 8th, at least 287 people in New York City jails and 441 Department of Corrections staff members have tested positive for the virus.”

Another county jail deeply hit by the spread of the disease and gross negligence on the part of prison officials is Cook County Jail in Chicago. As of the 9th, there were 276 officially infected people inside with at least 21 of those being treated for severe symptoms in area hospitals. According to a study done by the New York Times, Cook County Jail is the “nation’s largest-known source of corona virus infection.”

On Thursday, a federal judge denied a bid to immediately release or transfer prisoners out of Cook County and instead ordered the much hated Sheriff Tom Dart to institute new satiety measures. People on the outside and those inside know this will only lead to more deaths. National Nurses United will also be holding a vigil today outside of the facility.

Meanwhile in Washington state, which saw the first ever COVID-19 case in the country and the first deaths, King County was first considered the epicenter of the epidemic nationally until places like NYC and Louisiana surpassed it, in a March 23rd update from Amber Kim, a prisoner in the WA system she said “Essentially, everything is slowed down and it is debatable how effective these counter measures will be.” This was just the beginning.

An Outbreak of Resistance

On Wednesday night the 8th, tensions inside the Monroe Correctional Complex boiled over into outrage as CO’s attempted to bring people from quarantine cells back into general population. People on the inside had been lied to, and information regarding how many people had been infected, guard and prisoner alike, had been kept from them. They refused the orders of the correctional staff and were met with a riot response team. 18 people were moved into segregation following the protest, the assumption is that these people will be singled and out and charged for their participation.

In response, Covid-19 Mutual Aid in the so-called Seattle area has been organizing phone-zaps in an attempt to stop the wildly irresponsible actions of Governor Jay Inslee following the uprising at Monroe and to demand better conditions for prisoners across the state.

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@jayinslee @govinslee family members speak out about the conditions their family members are experiencing in DOC!!! #freethemall #abolitionistpublichealth

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Families of those locked up in Monroe have also been holding vigils and noise demonstrations outside the facility to both show support and solidarity to their imprisoned family members and continue to put pressure on the WADOC to #FreeThemALL. In Seattle itself, Puget Sound Prisoner Support has been holding an on-going phone zap to demand the release of all detainees in the King County Jail, the Regional County Jail, and the Youth Detention Center.

Also in Washington, resistance to the Northwest Detention Center has continued from both inside and out. A massive hunger strike have been called inside the NWDC as people demand humanitarian visas, an end to deportations and immediate release of all vulnerable people. The hunger strike has been a long standing tactic of those left with little other recourse inside a system designed to both break them and their supporters down. Across the country since early March, hunger strikes have swept through ICE detention facilities as fear around COVID-19 increased.

Hunger strikes and work stoppages have been reported in Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility, Rhode Island; Otay Mesa ICE Facility, San Diego; Farmville Detention Center VA; York County Prison, Pennsylvania; Stewart Detention Center, Georgia; Richwood Correctional Center, Louisiana; Laval Immigration Holding Centre, Quebec; Etowah County Detention Center, Alabama; Glades County Detention Center, Florida: Elizabeth Detention Center, NJ; Hudson County Corrections, NJ; and Essex County County Correctional Facility, New Jersey. Check out this roundup on It’s Going Down for more context and a blow by blow of prisoner actions.

As we move into mid-April, things only seem to be heating up. Over the last week, at a North Portland, Oregon correctional facility we saw people inside standing up for their rights to access sanitation supplies, and a lawsuit demanding the release of vulnerable populations. In CRCI, prisoners were fed up with being lied to about the spread of the disease, and the lack of sanitation supplies and basic necessities such as hand soap launched an uprising.

According to the Portland Mercury:

After two days without soap, inmates at Columbia River Correctional Facility (CRCI) watching COVID-19 spread across Oregon’s prison system couldn’t keep quiet.

“It blew up here last night,” said Steven Stroud, an inmate at CRCI, a minimum security prison located in North Portland. In a phone call with the Mercury, Stroud said that two of the facility’s 80-person units clashed with correctional officers yesterday evening, forcing officers to retreat into locked offices.

“People are tired of having inadequate cleaning supplies, of not being given masks, of being afraid to report feeling sick [sick people are reportedly being quarantined in solitary confinement cells], of not having enough soap,” said Stroud. “It was a powder keg.”

In Kansas, the Lansing Correction Facility is a state run operation in the middle of the prison-town of Leavenworth. Along with Lansing, the town has USP Leavenworth, the US Army Disciplinary Barracks and the Midwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility in Fort Leavenworth. Early on the morning of April 10th, prisoners in the Lansing facility began what DOC officials have deemed a riot. While the media continues to report that no one knows why prisoners inside began to destroy their surroundings and chase guards out of the unit, we also know that Lansing alone has 12 cases of COVID19 inside. The ACLU of Kansas just yesterday filed a petition to secure the release of vulnerable people inside the KSDOC. Check out the video below, and its clear what kicked off the uprising.

The depth of inhumanity and systematic lack of adequate care inside prisons, jails, and ICE detention centers across the country is both shocking and the logical outcome of the neo-colonial carceral State. Despite this brutality which threatens the lives of millions of incarcerated people, prisoners across the country and standing up and fighting back. Community groups have been working hand in hand with legal aid organizations to apply pressure from multiple angles. As we have seen over the past month, demands to release vulnerable populations are growing, culminating in a growing push to #FreeThemAll!

Below are some ongoing phone zaps and pressure campaigns aimed at bringing our friends, comrades and family home. For tips on how to organize a good phone-zap campaign, go here.

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An ongoing column chronicling prisoner resistance to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

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