The following report back discusses demonstrations that occurred on May 19th, the birthday of Malcolm X, which brought attention to horrific conditions in prisons across the US.
On May 19th, 2018, people from over a dozen organizations converged on the grounds of MCI-Norfolk in the pouring rain, where Malcolm X was incarcerated between 1946-1952. This day would have been Malcolm X’s 93rd birthday and saw multiple protests at prisons across the country to honor his legacy, including a protest at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina.
The MCI-Norfolk rally was organized in response to new visitation restriction policies, new tariffs on families sending money to loved ones and the ongoing water crisis in the Massachusetts prisons. This confluence of oppressive new policies, as well as deliberate indifference to the suffering of prisoners inside has brought together multiple generations of activists in a renewed focus on prisoner rights.
It is worth noting that in advance of the rally, hours after the event page was posted to social media, several prisoners within the MA DOC were called into security offices and grilled for information about the rally, as a massive phone zap campaign began for prisoners being held in solitary or not receiving adequate medical care and information on the #DeeperThanWater campaign. While many were concerned about the ramifications, just as many were determined that despite state intimidation, the prison system must not be able to dictate the terms of dissent.
New policies and fees
In late March, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (MA DOC) implemented a new policy that limited prisoners using a pre-approved list of only 8 people that they would be able to see for the subsequent six months. At maximum security prisons the number is as low as 5. Under this new policy, large families who brought members from out of state will be turned away as will families bringing new members. This will also limit the ability of outreach and re-entry groups outside of the purview of the DOC to provide support to prisoners inside.
In response to these changes, Black and Pink National Director, Dominique Morgan, said “What the system doesn’t say explicitly (which it should) is that the way to survive it – in its current state, is to remove your need for connection and relationship to others. Being alone gets easier when you’ve chosen to accept you are alone whether that’s true or not. That being said, what I’ve learned in a decade of reintegration to the community is that the practice of humanity – of being in relationship to others is how I’ve been able to successfully become my best self. Visitation is the representation of Love, connection and your existence which others validate by coming to see you. How do we nurture humanity in incarcerated people and reduce or eliminate their connection to the ones who love and value them the most?”
While the new law is ostensibly aimed at curbing the dissemination of drugs through prisons, this farcical cover flies in the face of how contraband networks tend to work. Last week, a guard from MCI-Norfolk was indicted of being the source of opioids to prisoners inside. As all prisoners will tell you, guards vastly outweigh all other possible sources of contraband inside, and an attempt to pin this blame on families is more likely a cover for the advancement of the state’s deliberate attempts to cut prisoners off from their support networks.
“Building multi-billion dollar companies off of the backs of the poor and marginalized is shameful. Usually the families of incarcerated people bear this burden. The State is complicit in these monopolistic money-making schemes.” said Michael Cox, Black and Pink Boston member, “Anyone who has been to jail knows that most of the contraband comes from corrupt guards”
Spent the day of #MalcolmX93 in front of MCI-Norfolk, where Malcolm was incarcerated in the late 1940s, demanding clean water, unrestricted visitation for families, and an end to the exploitative charges to money sent to prisoners. #DeeperThanWater pic.twitter.com/650F4hBfMB
— Christine (@tuttoilcuore) May 20, 2018
Additionally, as reported by Beryl Lipton at MuckRock and VICE, this new policy comes as jails in the state have begun to experiment with completely doing away with in-person visits altogether, in favor of vastly increased pay-per-minute phone systems and new, highly expensive videoconferencing systems through third-party companies. It is not difficult to track the correlation between the exploding prison telecommunications industry and new policies that funnel money directly to them on the backs of working families. These practices have also led to lawsuits, also reported by Lipton.
“Families and friends are already paying the price for their loved ones incarceration and the MA DOC is making it even more difficult for prisoners to connect with their community, support network and those who care about them,” said Ayana Aubourg, organizer with Young Abolitionists, “The increased charges on money sent to people in prison exploits families and in particular women. We know that women with incarcerated loved ones carry the burden of institutional fees and other financial penalties. Both regulations are a direct attack on our communities contrary to popular belief within the MA DOC.”
This Spring, the MA DOC moved away from its previous system of money orders and changed the way that families send funds to prisoners inside. The new system, which reroutes all funds through Access Corrections, extracts an enormous percentage fee, mirroring those in states like Texas and Kansas. The new system penalizes smaller deposits; a five dollar deposit would incur a 59% fee of $2.95 if done through the website. Families without access to the internet are further penalized for doing transfers over the phone, the same five-dollar deposit would incur a $3.95 processing fee if done over the phone. As prisons tend to do, the fees become more affordable as higher dollar amounts are deposited, although the percentage extracted from families never drops below around 6-percent. A family that can afford to send $100 would have to pay an additional $8, as would any dollar amount before $200. This system vastly penalizes poor and working class families for the act of being poor, and further drives the need inside for contraband.
MCI-Norfolk is the largest prison in Massachusetts. Originally designed to house only 600, MCI-Norfolk now holds over 1,500 human beings against their will. Since 1990, the water has run from beige to black and has been the subject of lawsuits and national media attention, including an expose in the Boston Globe in June 2017. During this time, prisoners have engaged with outside organizers to provide clean drinking water via underground channels at great cost to themselves.
#DeeperThanWater's @MuckRock project shows that the problem with water goes beyond MCI-Norfolk. This grievance was filed by a prisoner at MCI-Walpole to Dept. of Public Health, released under #FOIA. H. Pylori cases have also been reported on the rise. #May19 #AbolitionNow pic.twitter.com/A8J7322M8p
— dissident poetry. (@raiseablackflag) May 18, 2018
In typical fashion, inside organizers were subsequently thrown in solitary confinement and threatened with out of state transfers for participation. Privileges were also stripped, including access to a phone or in-person visitation. A guard recently threw one organizer into a chokehold, cutting off his air while he was shackled and thrown to the ground for helping a fellow prisoner carry a case of water to his cell. Organizers have filed a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act demanding access to training manuals that permit this particular type of force. Unsurprisingly, the DOC has refused to acknowledge receipt of this request and is currently outside of compliance with the statute’s 10-day response time as required by law. A more complete history of the water can be found on the #DeeperThanWater Coalition’s website (#DeeperThanWater is a coalition of local groups that has formed to take on the issue of water and health justice in the MA DOC).
The rally, co-sponsored by Jericho Boston, Young Abolitionists, Sisters Unchained, Stuck on Replay and Black & Pink was also joined by approximately a dozen other organizations, both local and national. The demands of the rally were to revoke the onerous new visitation restrictions across the state, repeal the fees, and immediately provide free, clean, safe, and sufficient water to all prisoners in Massachusetts.
The protest coincides with weeks of worsening water conditions inside MCI Norfolk. Prisoners report that the water has been running black and brown since May 3. Prison administrators have provided less than 4 bottles of water per prisoner each day, while dogs are given up to 6 bottles per day.
Protesters, many of whom arrived on a yellow school bus rented for the occasion, joined at Norfolk’s visitor parking lot at 2:30pm, greeted by a contingent of guards, both regular and from the DOC’s IPS division, responsible for internal security investigations. Also present were half a dozen squad cars and police vehicles from the Norfolk Police Department and one officer from the Massachusetts State Police. Ambiguously marked detectives were seen on the sides of the lot in plain clothes with shields around their necks.
Two officers, one with a handheld video camera and one of whom was in battle fatigues and a bulletproof vest (with his hand on his weapon the whole time) watched from the bushes behind the lot. As per usual, protesters were filmed and vehicle plates were taken. Legal observers and attorneys were on hand from the National Lawyers Guild. Previous demonstrations outside of MCI-Norfolk this past year, while substantially smaller, had been met with tactical units videotaping from multiple angles. Reporters that have tried to cover the ongoing human rights crisis have been silenced and smeared.
The rally occurred across from the administrative building where prospective visitors are required to wait to see their loved ones. In recent months, scores of family members have been turned back at this gate after long drives to deposit money or see their loved ones arbitrarily and without notice.
Auberg (quoted above) opened the rally with an overview of the problems to date, as well as the demands from the organizers. She concludes: “..When a black man is at risk of losing his one shot of not being on life without parole anymore because his lawyer misses the deadline. Or when a grandmother is turned away from visiting her loved one at Shirley because she is unaware the the Massachusetts Department of Correction implemented a new regulation. Or when prisoners are thrown into solitary for simply trying to survive. These are all real stories untold, but they are the reason we organize spread love and fight to be free.”
As Auberg emceed the event, a variety of speakers from around the state spoke to the injustices faced by those inside and the families of those that love them. Included among them were speakers from Black Lives Matter Boston and Andrea C. James of Families for Justice as Healing spoke about the impact that these onerous new policies have on the communities most heavily impacted by the ravages of mass incarceration. Statements were shared from members inside by organizers with whom they had worked over the previous year. One speaker from Black & Pink talked about the ways in which the lockdowns initiated in response to prisoner organizing, such as that which led to the original article in the Boston Globe, were used as ground cover for the sexual assault of transgender and gender non-conforming prisoners through the use of prolonged, invasive cavity searches.
Among the speakers for the day were several former prisoners who had been held by the MA DOC and the BOP over many years. Douglas Rogers of Black & Pink shouted to the guards assembled across the street: “I was held in solitary confinement for three years. I know what it is to not have clean drinking water. I know what it is to ask the guards for a pencil so you can write to your family. We demand that you change the policies that are inside those walls. They are human beings, not animals. Let us speak to you guards that are are mistreating the less fortunate behind these walls. I hope and it’s my prayer that you guys inside let you know that we’re here, and we’re not going nowhere. We don’t fear, we’re here and we demand that you give us justice!” See Rogers’ speech here.
Douglas Rogers of @BLACKandPINKorg, @BlackAndPinkBos calling out the state's targeting of queer people of color and an end to solitary confinement at today's rally. #FightToxicPrisons #environmentalracism #EndSolitary #EndPrisonSlavery #AbolitionNow #DeeperThanWater pic.twitter.com/hj8COLx2EU
— dissident poetry. (@raiseablackflag) May 20, 2018
Nino Brown of Jericho Boston and the Party for Socialism and Liberation recounted how, as a public school teacher, the issue of water justice and cominated water given to communities of color doesn’t spare children, either. “As a Boston Public School teacher, my school is only a hop skip and a jump from the water in here.”
During the apex of the rally, one prisoner who has been long targeted by the DOC for his outspokenness about the conditions inside called into the rally. Participants led a chant of Assata Shakur’s most famous quote, in his honor.
One former prisoner, whose case helped overturn the ability of courts to sentence juveniles to life without parole spoke powerfully to his family inside: “I grew up inside with you. You are my family and I will not forget you,” Greg bellowed into the microphone towards the building that houses the disciplinary segregation units. Diatchenko spent 29 years at MCI-Norfolk, during which time he acted as the head plumber.
Prior to an open-mic speakout that closed out the rally, long-time activist with the Jericho Movement and former political prisoner Kazi Toure spoke to the crowd: “This system feeds on the poor. Poor people and black and brown people. If there was people from Wellesley and Newton inside of there, they would have clean water. We know that these institutions are just here to keep poor people locked up.” Turning to police gathered across the street, Kazi continued “But you know, they don’t got to worry about that. Because we’re growing. We’re going to get bigger. We’re going to reunite all these groups, and the families. And we’re coming for you.”