On September 9, most prisoners at Michigan’s Kinross Correctional Facility took part in the national prison strike against slave labor and refused to report for work. The prison responded by withholding their hot meals and eventually launched an assault against the prisoners for their peaceful protest. Administrators later withheld medical care and a prisoner died.
“They fed them breakfast that morning,” the first day of the strike, Evelyn Williams told Shadowproof. Her fiancé, Anthony Williams, is incarcerated at Kinross. But after the strike, she said prisoners were only given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch with some cookies, and a turkey sandwich with a banana and some milk for dinner.
“That’s not right, they have a scheduled meal every day,” Evelyn said. “The warden told [prison staff] not to give them the rest of the meal. You got all these grown men that only got a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to eat.”
According to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), which has organized support on the outside for striking prisoners, between 400-500 prisoners engaged in a peaceful march in the prison yard the following day.
Prisoners spoke to deputy wardens and said they were upset about the low wages they receive for their labor. They complained of the commutation process and the lack of space in the visitation room, which leads to the turning away of visitors.
They discussed high phone rates, terrible food provided by the contractor Trinity Services Group, and crowded living conditions in which eight prisoners are forced to live in a room built for four. They spoke out against the lack of re-entry programs, the lack of bleach for their laundry, and MP3 players given to the prisoners that break easily and can neither be fixed nor replaced.
The prisoners said there was not enough room in the law library and complained that they were not allowed to transfer to other facilities. Just as their predecessors at Attica did 45 years earlier, the marching prisoners demanded “no retaliation for their peaceful protest.”
Evelyn said the warden promised he would take care of whatever he could, and if there was something he couldn’t take care of, he would take it to the legislature. “The guys, thinking everything was fine, begin to disperse, go back to their rooms, go back to their everyday routine.”
But Anthony told her that as soon as the warden returned to the control center and the doors were locked, emergency response teams entered the yards with guns, tear gas, and shields.
The assault led to chaos on the yard. Prisoners panicked as officers fired tear gas canisters directly at them while others barricaded themselves in their units. Fires were set, windows were broken, and other facility property was damaged after officers attacked the inmates.
Prisoners hands were zip-tied behind them. Others, believed to be instigators of the strike, were roused from their beds.
“They put them outside in the rain for hours, left them out there even some of them wanting to use the bathroom, they refused, so a couple had to use it on themselves,” Evelyn said. “Then they ended up shipping those guys out.”
Evelyn was getting ready to drive to Kinross that day to visit Anthony, but he called and told her not to come. The facility was being placed on lockdown. “I found out later there was a policy that more than three guys can’t walk at a time on the yard together,” she said, noting the spokesperson for MDOC said this was a peaceful march.
The facility stayed on lockdown for 12 days, as prisoners faced more brutal retaliation for their peaceful protest.
Around 150 prisoners were allegedly accused of being instigators of the action and were transferred. An unknown number were charged with inciting a riot and put in solitary confinement. Others, who said they had nothing to do with the protest, were punished as well.
“When guys are sick, they won’t do anything about it. When guys are passed out, the medical team won’t come,” Evelyn said when asked about conditions for prisoners living at Kinross.
On October 10, an inmate named Charles Lee Johnson died at the facility. He was the third inmate to die at a prison in the state within the last month.
“They called for help and the area where the nurses station is like a minute away from where the guy’s bunk was,” Evelyn said.
Prison staff allegedly gave Johnson some water and told him to lay down when he complained. He then started convulsing and became unresponsive. It took fifteen minutes for staff to get to him.
Beyond medical care, prisoners are treated poorly by prison staff. “They pick on them on purpose. They give them tickets on purpose. It’s like its set up for them to fail,” Evelyn explained.
Evelyn used to visit Anthony once a month. One 4th of July visit was especially great, she said. But Anthony called her a few hours later and told her he had received a disciplinary ticket.
Evelyn explains that before every visit, the visitors and prisoners get a pat-down. After the visit, prisoners are subject to strip search to look for contraband. This involves asking prisoners to lift their testicles and cough.
“So this one particular guard was like, open your bottom up and let me see inside your bottom. And he’s like man, you know, I’ve been in here twenty years, and I’ve never had to do that before. Get me a supervisor.”
Anthony thought he was being sexually harassed, but they ended up writing him a class 1 ticket, accusing him of refusing to be searched. He was placed on lockdown for fifteen days. He tried to challenge the ticket with a grievance but failed. “They always lose. You know, they never win a grievance,” Evelyn said.
Evelyn recalled another incident involving a young woman who was visiting someone at Kinross. “She just happened to kiss him an extra time. He got sixty days with no visits,” Evelyn said. “They do it on purpose it seems to try and take away any humanity they may have.”
She pointed to other restrictions that seem to violate the Michigan Department of Corrections’s own policies. “When you visit, you’re supposed to get one hug in, one hug out. But you’re supposed to be able to sit next to your visitor and they can put their arm around you,” Evelyn said.
Kinross has a Level 2 security classification, which is one of the lowest in the state. Yet, at Kinross, they are not permitted to do as the policy states. “This is one of the demands they had that they brought, you know, just follow policy. When I go visit, he has to sit across from me.”
“I think the hardest part for me is just seeing him because he just hates being up there,” Evelyn said. “He’s always frustrated with the way they’re treated, and there’s no resolution to any problems.”
Evelyn said after the strike and lockdown, the Detroit Free Press published an article about the action. She noticed a lot of people wrote “very evil comments.”
“‘Well they just need to be chained up by dogs. They need to be put in crates.’ You see all these evil comments and people don’t realize these are still people. They made a mistake, just like all of us make a mistake. Some of those people are in there for things they didn’t even do. That’s Anthony. We’re still fighting to get his case overturned for something that he didn’t even do,” Evelyn added.
For those who did make a mistake, “These are still somebody’s husbands, these are still somebody’s children, these are still most importantly individuals that god made and god still loves, and to treat them like they’re animals or less than human, to deprive them of basic human needs, that hurts for me. That’s the most hurtful thing for me—when people view them as just downright dirty animals.”
“Yeah, are there some people that deserve to be in there? Yeah, I’ll agree with that. But they still deserve the basic human needs, and that’s just what I want people to understand. Even one of the guards [told] Anthony, ‘Some of us are way worse than some of y’all. We just never get caught.'”