by Ryan Fazio, Ray Noll, and Jarrod Shanahan
Around 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 13, a guard at Chippewa Correctional Facility (URF) used a taser on a prisoner–according to Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) spokesperson Chris Gautz, to break up a fight. Detroit Free Press reported that the tased prisoner was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. In response, roughly 40 prisoners took control of a housing unit for about five hours, as guards abandoned the unit.
According to Byron Osborn, a union representative of Michigan Corrections Organization (MCO), prisoners approached the guard station “making threats, saying it was ‘payback time,’” and then “completely destroyed” the unit. This included the destruction of windows, several sinks, and all surveillance cameras.
According to a prisoner at URF who requested that his name be withheld out of fear of retaliation, officers shot the prisoner, a Black man, in the face with the Taser and left him unconscious. According to his account, prisoners were shouting “Black Lives Matter!” during the subsequent takeover of the unit.
MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz confirmed that one of the probes from the Taser did in fact “inadvertently” strike the prisoner in the face, but was unable to confirm the chant of “Black Lives Matter!”
An emergency response team was deployed shortly before 4 a.m. on Monday, September 14th, including the Michigan State Police and the U.S. Border Patrol. MDOC has released no details on what “non-lethal” measures were used to regain control of the unit. Prisoners who were allegedly involved in the uprising were relocated to the facility’s gym, and later that evening, MDOC “temporarily relocated” 236 prisoners to other facilities. The prisoner who requested his name be withheld reported that on September 14, the facility was on lockdown, and there was no access to local news channels, phones, JPay, or showers.
The uprising at URF follows widespread critiques of MDOC’s handling of the pandemic over the past few months, including the prison guard union calling for the removal of Heidi Washington, the director of MDOC, over issues such as staffing shortages. In mid-June, Michigan led the nation in COVID-19 deaths overall and was second only to New Jersey in deaths per capita. As of September 23, 2020, The Marshall Project reports that the Michigan prison system has 5,526 cases amongst prisoners (which is 1111% higher than the general Michigan population), making it the 7th in the U.S. for the amount of COVID-19 cases inside.
While those confined at URF currently have no cases of COVID-19, at least one staff member has tested positive. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the prison guard union has complained that MDOC does not allow them to take paid leave for quarantine periods following exposure to COVID-19, a factor that could contribute to the spread of the virus. Further, it seems likely that the frequency of transfers between prisons which have high COVID-19 cases, including new prisoners arriving at URF after the relocation of prisoners at URF after the recent uprising, could impact the number of cases.
Chippewa Correctional Center (URF) has also been affected by the broader restructuring and prison closures throughout Michigan since the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis in the U.S. In August of 2009, Straits Correctional Facility was consolidated with URF. Just a few years later in 2015, Kinross Correctional Facility was closed and moved to the former Hiawatha facility that is within the same region as URF. Some have argued that such consolidations and closures have contributed to the increasingly dire and unlivable conditions of prisons throughout this region. These conditions have been cited within the demands of organized struggles in recent prison uprisings and disturbances in Michigan, such as the 2016 uprising in Kinross Correctional Facility that challenged the privatization of food services, overpopulation, and poor ventilation systems, which in turn stem from the state’s budget crisis.
Abdus-Salaam Muhammad, who spent 28 years in the Michigan prison system, including a recent stint at Chippewa before his release in early March of this year, spoke with Perilous about the context in which the uprising occurred. When COVID-19 first appeared, Muhammad recalls, the violence and racism that define daily life in the Michigan prison system determined the institution’s response. Guards enforced PPE protocol with the threat of solitary confinement and otherwise escalated an already-tense situation by expressing fear through hostility. Following his release, Muhammad spoke regularly with a friend who had contracted COVID-19 at Ryan Correctional Facility, and was summarily placed in lockdown to fight the virus with little support. He was left there for two months, even after he had recovered.
On the morning of September 17, Muhammad helped organize a “noise demonstration” at URF after the rebellion, in hopes of showing people on the inside that they were not forgotten. While prisoners were in the recreation yard, a car pulled up along the fence and played a pre-recorded solidarity statement from a portable loudspeaker, broadcasting the following message:
Speaker 1: To the prisoners at URF and across the state of Michigan, we proclaim our solidarity with your struggle against abuse, against racism, and against the nepotistic good old boys club called “prison.” You are not alone. This is truly a time of crisis and the cracks in the wall are growing. Prisoner lives matter.
Speaker 2: Around the state we see your struggle and we see your courage. Others are struggling with you. They try to censor and isolate our hunger for freedom, but they cannot hold us off forever. Abolish prisons, down with oppression, inmate lives matter.
Muhammad: Know that while y’all asleep, or while you’re on lockdown, or while you’re in your cell on segregation, there’s a bunch of us fighting out here for your liberation and your freedom. And we’re gonna continue to fight and protest. We stand with URF, we stand with Muskegon Correctional Facility, we stand with Macomb, we stand with Lakeland. We stand with all the facilities in which prisoners are suffering and dying from the Coronavirus; prisoners that are dying long-term sentences; that were incarcerated as juveniles; for those that have been falsely accused. We are protesting against mandatory minimums. And we stand with y’all, in one voice.
The statement played on repeat while prison staff tried to block the speaker, participants told Perilous. The staff eventually left to call the local sheriff, but the statement had already been heard. Prisoners walking the yard stopped to listen and others seemed to take notice as well.
“Something that penitentiary taught me when I was in there for 28 years,” Muhammad told us: “you either all the way in the fight, or you all the way out. Ain’t no half-assing.”