By Ray Noll and Elizabeth Topp
As cases of COVID-19 continue to surge inside Michigan prisons, those confined inside the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center (RGC) in Jackson County are fighting back and taking collective action against deplorable conditions. While these conditions existed far before the COVID-19 pandemic, they are becoming much more fatal and urgent.
According to the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) spokesperson Chris Gautz, on November 10th, 2020, about 40 prisoners at RGC refused to return to their units after dinner at about 5:30pm EST. Gautz then claims that one prisoner approached a group of other prisoners, several guards intervened and were allegedly attacked by that prisoner. The prisoners were then forced back to their units but continued to chant in protest for “quite a while.” Gautz said that he did not know why the prisoners were chanting.
But H.H. Gonzales, a prisoner confined at RGC, suggests that this was a “peaceful protest” aimed “to call some attention” to the conditions inside the facility. That evening, according to Gonzales, the “units tried to sync, because they are let out separately, to have maximum people out of their cells, and were just going to peacefully…not return to their cells. But the C/Os [Correctional Officers]…got verbally aggressive and [one] basically got his nose broke…A big fight broke out between C/Os and prisoners. The police fired live round warning shots and everything.” Gonzales claims that an Emergency Response Team (ERT) arrived at RGC and deployed tasers and tear gas.
In an interview on November 30, 2020 with Perilous Chronicle, Gonzales further explained two underlying issues occurring at RGC that prompted the “peaceful protest” on November 10th that turned into a “full out brawl between inmates and the police.” First, Gonzales says that MDOC is “grossly negligent at this facility with this COVID pandemic and not following any of the safety measures, not even any of the universal procedures.” He explained the absence of social distancing and access to hand washing on his unit within RGC, and how this has led prisoners to say that it refers to “Receiving and Giving COVID.” He claims that prisoners are currently double bunked on the unit, which requires two people to live in a single cell, just a few feet apart from each other within the five floors of tiers. Gonzales said that they are “…stacked on top of each other, literally like a slave ship with this rampant pandemic, [with] this highly contagious disease floating around.”
The second issue at stake in the protest, according to Gonzales, concerned the unsanitary conditions of the food. “There’s rats in the chow hall. Literally their rats run around the chow hall. The food had roaches in it…people are finding bugs in their food.” He suggests that these conditions, including abusive treatment by staff, were the preludes to the protest on November 10th.
Spokesperson Chris Gautz said that after the protest, things returned to normal at RCG. But Gonzales says otherwise, as the facility has remained on lockdown. While the lockdown started roughly three months prior due to COVID-19, Gonzales suggests, by correspondence and in the interview, that the conditions and retaliation have worsened since the protest. For instance, he said that the facility “decided to freeze us out..they opened the windows and turned on all the fans and they are still on this morning, in some blocks they are on hunger strikes.” On this unit, Gonzales estimates that about 100 out of the 240 people on the unit tested positive for COVID-19. He said they are “locked in the unit, in a closed end unit where they closed the windows…left us, the people who tested negative in the same unit, breathing the same air with the hundred people who tested positive.” He states that “All you hear is people coughing, coughing, coughing, asking for help,” and that these “deplorable living conditions” are the “perfect recipe for a riot.”
Gonzales also discussed his frustrations with being confined at RGC during the pandemic due to a parole violation. He suspects that the parole violation that landed him in the facility is due to retaliation for his involvement in “protesting in the world” outside for affordable housing. He says that it’s like being given “…a death sentence for something I didn’t even do because a parole officer had the discretion, had the power to arbitrarily do it without any kind of just case.” As he stated in correspondence released by Black Ink, “I don’t believe even the most stalwart pro-prison advocate intended for parole violators to be given a possible, and, the way the MDOC is failing, probable, death sentence.”
During the first wave of COVID-19 cases in the United States, Perilous Chronicle documented at least 106 acts of prisoner resistance. After over seven months of the COVID-19 pandemic, infections are still running rampant inside jails, prisons, and detention centers and prisoners are still fighting back. The MDOC has allowed the proliferation and devastation of the virus inside prisons throughout the pandemic. In mid-June, Michigan led the nation in COVID-19 prisoner deaths overall and was second only to New Jersey in deaths per capita.
A second wave of cases throughout the U.S. parallels the rise in the number of cases inside prisons. According to The Marshall Project, “New infections the week of Nov. 17 reached their highest level since the start of the pandemic after rising sharply the week before. The new surges far outpaced the previous peak in early August. Michigan, Wisconsin and the federal prison system each saw more than 1,000 prisoners test positive [for the week of Nov. 17].”
As of November 20th, Detroit Free Press reported that infection rates within MDOC facilities are at an all-time high, currently standing at 4,690 infections. Every one of the 29 facilities within the MDOC system has active cases. Gautz, confirmed that there were 220 active cases at RGC as of Nov. 23, 2020. Since Perilous spoke with Gautz, the number rose to 613 active cases as of December 3, 2020. There have been 6 deaths due to COVID-19 at RGC.
Photo by Daniel Mears, The Detroit News