Informational Forum: Prisoner Solidarity

Informational Forum on Prisoner Solidarity

Hosted by Rust Magazine
Oct. 9, 2016

In recent months lengthy hunger strikes protesting solitary confinement, to nationwide worker strikes and solidarity actions, to disproportionate incarceration rates in Milwaukee have become an increasingly pressing topic that affects many in the city.

Dying to Live food refusal campaign – Waupun Correctional Institution: Drawing attention to the harmful affects of long-term solitary confinement, or administrative segregation, prisoners at Waupun Correctional Institution began a “food refusal campaign” in June. The campaign is still taking place, carrying on for more than 110 days.

On Spet. 9 Jordan Crosby wrote: “Today I write you to inform you that there are more inmates here at WCI joining the hunger strike. There are also more motives to why we are striking which are

1) Poor programming the is offered to us for rehabilitation inside the prison and outside for those who are being released.
2) Poor health and psychological services being house in restrictive housing.
3) Inadequate mental health treatment for inmates with a serious mental health illness.

“I have been on strike since 6-16-16 Thursday the day I got transferred to WCI for WRC.

I have not dranked or ate since. The reason I am striking is because I have a mental health illness and as a result of my illness I engage in self harm and suicide attempts.”

A press release from the non-profit organization Forum For Understanding Prisons states that “According to recent letters from prisoner contacts, employees of Waupun Correctional Institution are coordinating attacks including extortion and sexual assaults against targeted prisoners.”

“I been told by three different inmates the last couple of days that staves [staff] are recruiting inmates to give me a good beating before I leave Waupun; if so I will most likely die… since [my] heart is in real bad shape so I thought I had better tell you so if something dire happens to me” prisoner Jim T Smith wrote.

Nationwide strikes against prison slavery: On Sept. 9, thousands of prisoners from more than 24 states began a labor strike to draw attention to conditions in America’s correctional institutions. It took place on the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising and is being called the largest prison work strike ever to take place in the U.S.


For more information, check out
Why Prison Strikes Are Necessary:
An Ex-Prisoner’s Experience by Phillip A. Ruiz


“September 9th didn’t come out of nowhere, but it is simply the latest and largest step forward in a long struggle against prison slavery that has already included riots at Holman prison, work strikes in Alabama and Texas, hunger strikes in Wisconsin and Ohio, and much more,” according to It’s Going Down, a website that chronicles the events.

In Milwaukee there were no reported strikes, but solidarity actions kicked off Sept. 9 with a picnic and poetry reading ahead of a rally at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility the following day.

“We will protest the use of solitary confinement, protest prison slavery, and protest white supremacy in solidarity with both the Dying to Live hunger strikers, and prison rebels everywhere,” the event said.

These events all this come after an investigative report exposed contaminated drinking water at two Wisconsin prisons, and in the wake of the death of Terrill Thomas, a man with mental illness who died April 24 from dehydration in the Milwaukee County Jail after being charged in connection with a shooting at Potawatomi Casino days earlier. Reports state that Thomas’ water had been cut off by corrections officers for an extended period of time.

As these issues wage on, the questions to those removed from the confines of prison walls become, what conditions have lead these inmates to retaliate, what conditions and rights are prisoners in America entitled to, and what can be done?

Milwaukee-based print publication Rust Magazine looks to unpack these and other questions with an informational panel discussion comprised of people who were formerly incarcerated and have spent time in solitary confinement, family members who have experienced the prison system through a loved one, and organizers who are working to make a change.   img_2713

Meet the panelists:
Talib Akbar – Talib has spent several years in prison, with a number of them in solitary confinement. He’s a member of Ex Prisoners Organizing (EXPO), and is heavily involved in organizing against solitary confinement and advocating for the rights of prisoners. With the help of Edgewood College in Madison, he has created a replica of a solitary confinement cell that has toured across the country to show people what solitary can really be like.

Chance Zombor – Formerly incarcerated at Waupun Correctional Institution, where the Dying to Live hunger strike campaign against solitary confinement is taking place, Chance brings to the table first-hand experience of incarceration, and his tireless organizing against prison abuse during and after incarceration.

Ben Turk – Ben Turk is a radical theatre artist and ardent prison abolitionist. He has toured the country with Insurgent Theatre (insurgenttheatre.org) organized with the survivors of the Lucasville Uprising (LucasvilleAmnesty.org) and other prison rebels across the U.S. He is a member of the Milwaukee Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and on the National Steering Committee of IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).

Sister Linda Muhammad – Witnessing the affects of the prison system and solitary confinement through her son, who is at Waupun Correctional Institution, Sister Linda is a chair with Prison Action Milwaukee (PAM) and has worked to share her story with the community.

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Break the chain
By Andrea Tritschler
Oct. 9, 2016

We all make mistakes. We can find ourselves punished in our bedrooms, in detention, or sometimes in prison, depending on the severity of our mistakes. Prisons have been around since Babylon and ancient Greece, and sometimes were used for retribution, sometimes for reform. And while our current prison system has come a long way from the brutality of the middle ages, it remains controversial, surrounded by issues regarding prisoners’ rights, unpaid labor and access to clean water.

In June of 2016, prisoners at Waupan Correctional Institution began restricting water and food in protest of long-term solitary confinement and prisoner conditions. One of the inmates participating in the hunger strike had been in solitary confinement for 27 years, spending 23 days in a cell the size of a small closet.

During the months-long hunger strike, the Wisconsin government permitted prison guards to force feed prisoners who were refusing food and water. According to some inmates, the water at Waupun is unsafe to drink, containing high levels of lead.

Force feeding can be be rough on the body. Once the body has a limited intake of food and water, introducing food and water too quickly or giving someone too much, can have serious medical consequences on the organs. Additionally, putting in and taking out a feeding tube every few days is painful, and there were reports of broken noses and retaliatory behavior by facility staff, pushing prisoners beyond the brink of dehydration. Many advocates and residents have stood in support of the prisoners, who were being stripped of their right to free speech and protest, which isn’t  eliminated because someone is incarcerated.

While incarceration causes inmates to suspend some rights, even the most violent criminals are allowed basic rights as defined by the U.S. Constitution, including the right to be free from inhuman treatment or anything that could be considered cruel and unusual punishment. They also have the right to complain about prison conditions and access to the courts.

Based on data from 2015, Wisconsin state and local government spends about $1.5 billion dollars on corrections each year, 12 percent higher than the national average according to Wisconsin Public Radio. At the end of April 2015, the state had 22,156 inmates, and the cost of incarcerating all of those people comes out of taxpayers pockets. The government will spend 7 percent more on corrections in the 2015-17 state budget than it did in 2003-05, adjusting for inflation. By comparison, the state government is spending 14 percent less on K-12 public schools and 21 percent less on the University of Wisconsin system in 2015-2017 than it did in 2003-2005, the Wisconsin Budget Project states.

Taxpayers aren’t the only ones paying the price. Communities suffer too, especially communities of color. Research by the Prison Policy Initiative shows Wisconsin disproportionately incarcerates black people, which makes it more difficult for those individuals to get jobs once they are released, apply for housing, and support their families. For every 100,000 black individuals in Wisconsin, a little more than 4,000 are incarcerated each year, compared to 416 white individuals and 2,639 Native Americans.

And while our prison system is in desperate need of reform, especially with mass incarceration and solitary confinement, small steps have been made. A spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Tristan Cook, said in a Solitary Watch article that the amount of time an individual can spend in solitary confinement for a disciplinary infraction has been reduced from 360 days to 90 days. Although, according to the United Nations, keeping someone in solitary confinement after 15 days is considered torture.

“It’s definitely moving in the right direction. It’s just not there yet,” said a Milwaukee corrections officer, who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t think that segregation works, but for things a lot of people get temporary lockup for, there are people who generally need that separation that can’t function in a group of people, that need to be separated to keep them and other people safe. It kind of needs to be taken on a person-by-person basis.”

Other states have made more significant strides in prison reform. Colorado has one of the lowest rates of inmates in solitary confinement in the nation after the governor and DOC decided to focus on reform. Having worked for the Wisconsin DOC for years, Rick Raemisch was always an advocate for reform and is now the Executive Director of the Colorado DOC. 

His predecessor, Tom Clements, had begun making changes to Colorado’s policy on solitary confinement when he was assassinated by a former inmate who was held in solitary confinement for seven years before being released back into the community.

Before Clements and Raemisch, Colorado had about 1,500 people, or close to 7 percent of the state’s population in solitary, and when Raemisch arrived in 2013 that number was down to 800 people. Today Colorado has less than 1 percent of its population in solitary confinement and they haven’t released anyone from segregation directly into the community since 2014, according to Raemisch.

“We’re statutorily working with the governor and the legislature and the ACLU to get a statue passed that, except under some extreme limited circumstances, bans placing those with severe mental illness in segregation,” Raemisch said.

Raemisch believes that addressing mental illness in prisons is critical. In the past, corrections has put mentally ill inmates in solitary to diminish distractions or run more efficiently.

“At what time does it become OK to take someone who’s seriously mentally ill, place them in a 7-by-13 foot cell for 22 or more hours per day, sometimes for years, and let the demons chase them around in the cells?” he said.

Currently, Colorado has two facilities that are dedicated to those with mental health issues and both of those facilities have banned the use of solitary. Studies have found that suicides among prisoners in solitary confinement account for about 50 percent of prison suicides, according to the New York Times. And Raemisch said after the ban, those numbers went down, the self harm numbers went down, the assaults on staff went down, the forced cell entries went down, the use off immobilization went down, and the inmate on staff assaults overall are the lowest since 2006.

“I believe long-term isolation either manufactures or multiplies mental illness. I don’t believe it solves any problems …” Raemisch said.

Colorado’s 10 and 10 program is a national model for mental health/residential treatment programs in prisons. The program focuses on providing inmates with 10 hours where they are out for therapy per week and 10 additional hours out per week for other activities.

“The results were amazing,” Raemisch said.

And Colorado’s reform goes beyond mental health, as they work to reduce the total number of inmates in solitary confinement and build a better community for prisoners on the inside so the transition to community on the outside isn’t so jarring.

“We changed the culture of how we did business in less than a year and a half. People always talk about how it’s impossible to change a prison culture, and I’m saying that’s not true,” Raemisch said, adding that his next move is to address what he calls “architectural suffering.”

“You come over a hill and you see a cluster of our prisons, and they’re these big monster fortresses. If I was on a prison inmate bus and I came over the top of the hill and saw that, immediately I’d know that I had to be the biggest, baddest inmate or I wasn’t going to survive that fortress.”
-Rick Raemisch
Executive Director, Colorado Department of Corrections

“So our next thing is to start working on more of a ‘return to society atmosphere as a law abiding, good citizen’ than the stark reality of a stone fortress that reeks of misery,” he said.

More information about Raemisch’s efforts can be found in the white paper, Open the Door – Segregation Reforms in Colorado.

Alison Henderson contributed to this article.

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