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Apr 23, 20

BreakOut: Dispatches on Resistance to the Pandemic Inside Prison Walls #2

It’s been nearly two weeks since we sat down to collect the stories of how COVID-19 has torn through the US prison system and how resistance has been raging on both the inside and the outside. In that time, several states have begun to talk about “reopening” their economies as they push the lie that the curve is about to flatten. Meanwhile, inside prisons, jails, and detention centers the infection rate has continued to double as the horrors of worsening conditions and lack of care continue to mount.

COVID As You Are

Across the federal prison population, we have seen a dramatic increase in cases throughout the more than 100 facilities. As of April 21st, there have been 540 federal prisoners and 323 staff who have tested positive for COVID-19. Officially, 23 people have died while being held in federal custody, however, that number is likely much higher as many people inside hide flu-like symptoms in order to avoid the draconian segregation techniques that the DOC is touting as care and testing inside facilitates at every level is so limited.

In FCI Butner, a federal facility in North Carolina, one man took his chances and escaped. With 18 months left on a 5 year sentence, Richard R. Cephas, told reporters from an undisclosed location, “I signed up for a jail sentence, not a death sentence.” Cephas fled the federal facility after 9 other people inside tested positive for COVID-19, putting him and others with compromised immune systems at great risk. Cephas’ fear mirrors what prison abolitionists and prisoners themselves have been articulating since this pandemic began: that it’s hopeless to socially distance inside prison and the conditions that people are routinely made to endure make staying healthy impossible.

Put the Pedal to the Metal

A conglomeration of community groups in Louisiana have filed a lawsuit to halt the transfers of COVID-19 positive prisoners to Camp J facility in the Angola prison complex. The notorious isolation unit referred to as “the dungeon” which was closed in 2018 due to failing infrastructure has now been reopened to house Louisiana prisoners with COVID-19 where they lack adequate medical care like ventilators or doctors and is 25 miles from the nearest hospital.

Calls for the release of prisoners at both the state and county level have been coming from North Carolina anarchists and abolitionists for weeks. Back on March 26th Durham held one of the first “car demos,” or slow moving car based noise demos. On April 10th, Raleigh followed suit. Now a standard tactic of the always resourceful anarchist and abolitionist milieus, they are popping up all over the country. Sadly, the first person to die from COVID-19 while incarcerated in North Carolina was on Tuesday April 21st and as prisoner releases continue at a trickle, this number will only grow.

Florida has seen an upsurge in activity outside the prison walls as long time organizers inside the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee or IWOC and Fight Toxic Prisons have held car demos and lock-downs to protest the state’s response to COVID-19 behind bars. Currently 123 people inside Fl facilities have tested positive, including 42 at the GEO group run Blackwater River Correctional Facility. At least 4 prisoners have died inside the facility which only just this past week caved to outside pressure and revealed it’s plan for dealing with the pandemic inside it’s facility.

Also in Florida, the Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises Inc. has had people inside their prisons switch from their normally near slave-wage level jobs to equally uncompensated mass production of protective masks. But, in a terrifying twist, prisoners themselves will not have access to these masks as they are only for correctional staff. Moreover, inside federal facilities across the country, manufacturing continues with the understanding that the conditions inside will only continue to exacerbate the spread of COVID-19.


Back in March, it was reported that all Arizona DOC off-site work crews would suspend operations, except for the 140 women living at Perryville prison who would now be housed at the Hickman’s Family Farms Egg Farm. The level to which the State will go to continue working prisoners for cents an hour is astounding. Eloy, Arizona has been the site of numerous demonstrations, as it is home to 4 detentions centers all run by CoreCivic. On April 10th over 150 cars participated in a noise demo at the facilities.

In the Pacific Northwest, a third hunger strike has been launched at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, as detainees continue their demand for humanitarian visas and an end to deportations. Noise demonstrations continue outside in support. Meanwhile, calls are growing from Haiti and elsewhere to end US deportations, as this practice is helping to spread the coronavirus.

Women inside the Otay Mesa detention facility in San Diego, California were attacked with pepper spray when they refused to sign waivers in exchange for CDC approved masks. Those being held in yet another CoreCivic facility refused to sign the paperwork that would relinquish the prison profiteer from responsibility for their health.

Back up in Washington state, following the sit-down demonstrations at the Monroe Correctional Complex, community groups, abolitionists and the families of those incarcerated staged a coordinated demonstration outside of WCCW, Monroe and at the Governor’s mansion in Olympia. Continued pressure on the Governor and members of the DOC in Washington have started the slow process of release – albeit the issue remains that the language coming from every DOC and Governors office is one of the “non-violent offender,” leaving the decision of whether people live or die up to the State, yet again.

Finally, NYC continues to be one of the deadliest places in relation to the coronavirus, and the city’s jails are no exception. Over 350 people have tested positive inside the notorious Rikers facility, while prisoners there have continued to demand and demonstrate for their freedom since the pandemic began. Many are afraid, not only for themselves, but for their friends inside and their families at home. On the 15th youth being held in a Brooklyn facility rioted against their jailers after being forcefully transferred in new COVID-19 policy shuffle.

Across NY state, Governor Cuomo continues to ignore the calls for release of those locked within the overcrowded state prison system. Sadly, due to this inaction, 6 people have now died inside NYS prisons and over 200 are currently know to be infected. Groups like Release Aging People in Prison have kept-up their campaigns to demand the immediate release of aging and vulnerable prisoners and anarchist organizations such as the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement (RAM) are also organizing various mutual aid projects, and demonstrations remain ongoing.

A Dire Situation

The situation across the US inside a variety of prisons, detention facilities, and jails is not going to get better any time soon. Immediate release and a safe place for everyone is the only acceptable answer in a pandemic. People on the outside practice social distancing and are listening to the medical advice of experts not only to spare themselves but their communities from this virus. People on the inside desperately want this chance as well, along with the ability to show support and solidarity for the people who they are housed with; who they have spent years building bonds of friendship and comradarie.

We see this in the collective push towards health and freedom, the production and distribution of masks and medical supplies, the coordinated and overlapping hunger strikes, the mass escapes, and the continued riots which echo our shared struggles.

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

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