Incarcerated abolitionist organizer Stephen Wilson began a hunger strike on April 7 to protest repression and retaliation he faced from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for speaking out about COVID-19 behind bars.
Wilson is imprisoned at SCI-Fayette, a prison located on a toxic waste dump south of Pittsburgh, where he has been a vocal critic of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ (PADOC) weak response to the outbreak of COVID-19. He has been working with outside supporters to raise money for incarcerated people across Pennsylvania to buy their own soap, cleaning supplies, and sealed foods to help slow the spread of the virus.
Wilson also worked to get the word out about the conditions faced by people inside, expressing unflinching solidarity with all incarcerated people during this crisis.
For these simple actions, which PADOC sees as dangerous threats to its legitimacy, he has been sent to solitary confinement for 30 days.
On April 1, PADOC issued Wilson a misconduct report citing a message he sent over GTL ConnectNetwork, a privately contracted prisoner email service used in Pennsylvania. The message matched word-for-word a page on Wilson’s blog, called Dreaming Freedom, Practicing Abolition.
The report stated that a “preponderance of evidence shows that Inmate Wilson used GTL message system to have a post posted encouraging inmates to hunger strike.”
The post in question declared his solidarity with people hunger striking at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex. That strike was organized to protest the lack of personal protective equipment, disconnected phones, and overcrowding—deadly conditions that are present even when a virus isn’t tearing through the city and its jails.
People incarcerated on Rikers Island made demands that were echoed in recommendations by the NYC Board of Corrections for moderate decarceration of the city’s jails: the immediate release of people over the age of 50, people jailed for parole violations, people especially vulnerable because of underlying health issues, and people serving sentences of less than one year.
Wilson wrote, “They should not have to go on hunger strike for these things to occur, but as usual, jail administrators refuse to prioritize prisoners’ health and well being. I fully support these prisoners and their demands.”
Preparing to defend himself from these charges at the hearing, Wilson looked to legal arguments for the protected status of hunger strikes as a form of symbolic free speech. He planned to point out the absurdity of the prison’s argument that sending a message to friends who post his words on a blog could ever “encourage” activity that was already underway on Rikers Island, and which people incarcerated there could not read, and could therefore not have an effect on security.
But when Wilson arrived at the hearing on the morning of April 7, the official overseeing the hearing had a very different set of accusations. According to Wilson, the official claimed he had somehow accessed the website and copied the message of solidarity into emails that he then circulated. The prison rejected the idea that Wilson had written those words as “impossible.”
Not only was there no evidence to substantiate this claim, but the timestamps show the GTL message from Wilson was sent before the blog post was published.
As punishment, Wilson was subjected to isolation for 30 days—a punishment harsh enough to elicit sympathy and surprise from nearby corrections officers.
Wilson appealed the misconduct report and is exploring legal options with outside supporters.
“They struck first, now it’s my turn,” he said on April 7, vowing to continue to hunger strike until he is released from the hole.
As of Monday April 13, Wilson had not eaten for a week, refusing 20 meals. He is committed to a response proportionate to the repression, which means a legal challenge that fully restores his right to free speech and, most importantly for him, keeps PADOC from doing this to repress and intimidate others.
Even under all this pressure, Wilson is in characteristically good spirits, angry but unfazed and ready to fight back against an arrogant ruling of a racist kangaroo court.
Wilson Targeted To Enforce Prison’s Silence During COVID-19
Wilson has been targeted before for daring to organize study groups and engage in political education behind the walls. But this new wave of repression was designed, his supporters argue, to block information flowing out of the state’s 27 prisons as DOC places incarcerated people at risk of death from COVID-19.
According to Pennsylvania prisoners, those risks include sloppy screening of COs, unsafe handling of food by staff without gloves or masks; limited and delayed access to cleaning and hygienic supplies; and a statewide lockdown that limits access to programs and services, and confines all prisoners to their cells for 23 hours and 15 minutes a day.
PADOC decided to make an example of Wilson by punishing him for his political work, formalizing the retaliation with vague, shifting, and contradictory accusations of misconduct. His supporters argue isolation serves their interest to keep him off the phones and out of contact with the outside.
As Wilson said in a last call before being sent to the hole, “Now I am truly a political prisoner.”
The fight for open channels of communication between imprisoned people and their families, friends, and supporters outside is always part of the struggle against prisons.
Right now, that fight is intensifying as prisons try to secure even greater control over information that could further erode their legitimacy by displaying publicly how their negligence, error, and malice aids the spread of the coronavirus.
In a statement released on April 8, Wilson said, “these walls are not here only to keep me in but to keep you out, and now you see what happens when someone speaks out about what’s happening behind these walls.”
Wilson’s position has been affirmed in part in the responses given to his outside supporters, who made phone calls in his defense. They were threatened with harassment complaints and told they would have their phone numbers blocked by the prison.
One person said they were assured by a corrections officer that Wilson would “die in the hole.” Meanwhile, Wilson was left with no blanket or fresh clothes, and no access to the shower for five days. Most of his property is still not accounted for.
Wilson’s case is important but the stakes are bigger than his individual safety. His supporters believe PADOC is engaged in an attempt to reinforce the silence necessary to maintain violent control inside and the appearance of legitimacy outside.
If prisoners like Wilson can’t publish, share information, and make general statements of solidarity, loved ones and supporters outside have no way of knowing what’s going on inside. Speech is one of the few rights that imprisoned people can still claim, and even this varies widely between states and facilities. Where it exists, it has to be fiercely defended whenever it is attacked. This is critical to organizing and the survival of incarcerated people.
Working with a small group of comrades inside and outside, Wilson is preparing to launch a journal in Spring 2020 called In The Belly. The journal will be primarily geared toward accessible abolitionist political education, written by and for incarcerated people, members of their communities, and their supporters. The project is small and volunteer-run, but it will be free for prisoners.
If you are able to offer legal support, please reach out to his support team at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you or anyone you know—particularly incarcerated people and their families, friends and comrades—are interested, you can follow @BellyZine on Twitter and reach out via email at email@example.com.