2017 Has Already Seen Several Prison Rebellions
Although the nationwide prison strike has fallen from headlines in recent months, incarcerated individuals continue to resist abuse and mistreatment while supporters on the outside rally to their defense.
Prisoners in Delaware made international headlines when they took hostages and held Building C at the Vaughn Correctional Center for nearly 24 hours. They demanded access to rehabilitation and education services, and spoke out against “improper sentencing orders, status sheets being wrong, [and] oppression towards the inmates.”
They also said their protest was against President Donald Trump, “everything that he did” and “all the things that he’s doing now.”
“We know that the institution is going to change for the worse,” a spokesperson for the prisoners told a journalist.
The uprising ended when police used a back hoe to break through a barricade made of footlockers and entered the building. Some outlets reported the prisoners were armed with “sharp objects.”
One corrections officer, who was taken hostage, was found unresponsive and later declared dead. Officials say the officer was forced into a closet and killed. A second hostage, a female prison counselor, was rescued shortly after officers retook the unit. Some reports indicated officers found prisoners protecting her when they entered the building.
Information on prison rebellions is tightly controlled by the state. Aside from prisoners’ brief and hurried phone calls to family members, and in some cases, journalists, the narrative we have is largely provided by prison and law enforcement officials. History teaches us to approach these narratives with skepticism for their tendency to distort facts to disfavor prisoners and the message they are trying to get out.
Because prison rebellions rarely get coverage of the scale of the Vaughn Rebellion, the public’s unfamiliarity with uprisings may give the impression that they are infrequent. But in reality, prisoners, their families, and their support networks take action against abusive conditions, mistreatment, and a lack of access to programs and services all over the country, on a regular basis.
Several prison uprisings have occurred in the first weeks of 2017.
A riot took place at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Massachusetts a few days after the new year. Prison officials said it began with a fist fight and lasted three hours, resulting in damage to prison property. A state spokesperson told reporters prisoners “were getting ready for war.”
Officers in riot gear “injected pepper spray into the housing unit” and brought the uprising to an end. According to officials, no one was hurt.
When asked for a motivation behind the uprising, a corrections department spokesperson said they could not get any answers because they put the prison on lockdown and lawyers could not enter the facility.
However, a former inmate going by “Anthony” told CBS News the riot broke out because after the fist fight on the yard, officers locked all the inmates in and refused to let them take 15 minute showers. Anthony said they were not ‘ready for war’ or fighting each other, but instead engaging in civil disobedience. He said people were “reacting out of passion.”
Additionally, the facility has faced lawsuits [PDF] and criticism for its decision to double-bunk prisoners in cells since 2009, which preceded a spike in violence at the facility. It remains a notoriously violent prison.
A few weeks later, prisoners rose up at the Kinney County Detention Center in Texas. About 65 prisoners took control of a section of the prison for over three hours. It’s unclear how the rebellion was ended, and no injuries were reported.
Kinney County is a private federal prison, under contract with Community Education Centers—a lesser-known private prison company that has, like most of its competitors, a reputation for abuse and misconduct. While it is unclear what led to the riot, audits [PDF] and lawsuits against prison administrators suggest there are issues with inmate safety and access to medical care.
In early February, prisoners in New Hampshire took action at two separate facilities. At the Berlin Correctional Facility, they initiated a two-day food boycott (in which they refused meals but sustained themselves on snacks). Small fires were also set at Concord Correctional Facility. Both actions were to protest a new visitation rule the administration says is meant to curb the introduction of drugs into the facility.
Under the new policy, the incarcerated will not be permitted to kiss their visitors, including their children. Hugs are limited to three seconds or less at the beginning and end of a visit. Hand holding will only be allowed on top of the table, and prisoners have to maintain a visible physical separation from their visitors while sitting at the table. Additionally, all board games and vending machines will be removed from the visitation room.
As one local advocate, Chris Dornin of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, put it, “The new (visitation) policy is disastrous. Not letting children hug their dads or wives kiss them undermines the strongest force to help a prisoner do better — the love of his family.”
On February 7, 100 prisoners participated in a riot at the Kern Valley State Prison in California, which is notorious for its violence and deaths.
A 2012 medical inspection [PDF] found deficiencies in chronic and healthcare, clinical services, access to health care information, and more. Lawsuits were filed by a number of inmates, who contracted Valley Fever at the facility. Officials say this year’s riot started as a fight between prisoners
Outside support networks are busy taking action as well. The Free Alabama Movement (FAM), which advocates for human rights in Alabama’s prison system and was one of the primary groups behind last year’s nationwide prison strike, called for a protest outside Limestone Correctional Center on February 18. They demand prison officials release two of their incarcerated members, Robert Earl Council (aka Kinetik Justice) and James Pleasant (aka Dhati Khalid), from solitary confinement.
Over the past few years, Kinetik and Dhati were transferred between prisons, beaten, and placed in solitary confinement in retaliation for their activism.
Kinetik Justice spent over two years in solitary confinement at Holman Correctional Facility for planning a strike in 2014. Despite his isolation, he and other members of the Free Alabama Movement gained national attention on the subject of prison labor and human rights by using contraband cell phones to post videos and articles documenting life in the Alabama prison system.
He told supporters in December that he feared for his life after he was assaulted by corrections officers while handcuffed. He was brought to Limestone, where FAM said Kinetik and other strike leaders are held in a building known as the “Dog Pound.
In the “Dog Pound,” HIV-positive inmates were segregated in abysmal conditions until the American Civil Liberties Union forced the Alabama Department of Corrections to desegregate the unit in 2013. The ACLU has described the “Dog Pound” as a “sheet-metal warehouse with little protection from the elements,” where prisoners, “were dying from starvation.”
Dhati Khalid faced retaliation for organizing a 10-day labor prisoner labor strike in May 2016 that included prisoners from four Alabama prisons. Prison officials transferred him to Donaldson Correctional Facility, where FAM said “he was sprayed with chemicals and left naked in a “hot bay” for 36 hours.” Two months later, he was sent to the Dog Pound.
An anonymous Alabama prisoner said incarcerated organizers are commonly “disappeared” by prison officials seeking to silence them. “They’re going to be snatched away in the dead of night and secreted away somewhere, and you won’t see them for years,” the prisoner said.
“We need people to know what is going on with these individuals, to ask why are these people being held arbitrarily like this? Because at the end of the day, you hold somebody in segregation for years because they spoke out about prison slavery?”
Harold Gonzales, who was at Michigan’s Kinross prison during the strikes, described how officers assaulted his unit while inmates lay in their beds in a letter published by San Francsico Bay View. Gonzales and others were transferred and segregated multiple times after the uprising, and his security classification increased so that he was placed in “administrative segregation.”
“We need help, I’m shouting out from this 8-by-10 cell, help us! Don’t let them quiet our voice; be an amplifier for us. Don’t let what they are doing to us and throughout the MDOC fade into oblivion,” Gonzales wrote. “We were not angels, but we don’t deserve this!”