By MG Belka
The Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) does not publicly release the names of people who died from complications caused by COVID-19 while inside one of their prisons. They say this is because of the desire for transparency while respecting the privacy of the deceased. They reiterate this policy every time another prisoner dies.
According to ODOC’S official COVID-19 tracker, 26 of the thousands of people that have been infected while incarcerated in an Oregon prison have died of complications from the virus. Their spreadsheet does not say when or in which facility people have died. Those facts have to be found through newspaper reports, press releases, and social media. Most of their names are unknown. But not all of them.
On Nov. 1, a daily newspaper in Ontario, OR, obtained the names of nine people who had died with the virus while incarcerated at Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI) in Malheur County. SRCI is the largest prison in the state and the site of the state’s worst outbreak.
To date, they are the only publicly named victims of the COVID-19 pandemic inside Oregon’s prison system.
One of the names published by the Argus Observer was Brian C. McCarvill, who died on Sept. 27, 2020–his 68th birthday. A single line notice of his death–a name, a date, and the word “pending”–does not give justice to McCarvill’s history of resistance from inside the system.
Brian McCarvill, a longtime anarchist and jailhouse lawyer, was the ninth person to die of COVID-19 in the Oregon prison system. He contracted the virus while incarcerated in SRCI, the fourth different prison to house him over a 38 year sentence that began in 1995 at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
His death ends over two decades of personal struggle against ODOC and their treatment of him and other prisoners.
An internet search for his name doesn’t turn up much–a couple of letter-writing campaigns in solidarity with his struggle, a couple of dispatches written on the inside, and some updates on his legal challenges. There’s a critique of an Engels essay and some mentions in scanned PDFs of old zines, but not much else.
Though his name is not terribly well-known outside of Pacific Northwest anarchist circles, he managed to leave an indelible mark in the fight for prison abolition and the treatment of anarchists within the carceral system.
That belies the fact that Brian McCarvill took on the Oregon Department of Corrections in an anti-censorship case that he researched and litigated on his own while in solitary confinement.
And he won.
Around the end of 1990s, ODOC began viewing anarchists as a “Security Threat Group”–the designation given to gangs inside and outside of carceral facilities. As a result, the world-famous circle A, the anarchist black cross, and even an image of a black flag were considered gang symbols, which prevented anything bearing these symbols from being brought into a prison facility.
This meant no zines, no newsletters, no pamphlets–nothing that explicitly espoused anarchist ideologies. And anarchists do not take kindly to having their access to zines and newsletters cut off.
“My interactions with outside anarchists essentially ceased to exist,” McCarvill wrote in a dispatch published in the eco-anarchist newspaper Green Anarchist #70.
“I was pissed.”
So McCarvill–along with Rob “Los Ricos” Thaxton, another anarchist prisoner–challenged the censorship by taking ODOC to court.
Between August 2002 and May 2003, McCarvill litigated his own federal lawsuit against the State’s prison system.
He did much of the legal work while kept in so-called “special housing,” commonly known as solitary confinement. After outside supporters flooded the Oregon State Penitentiary mailroom with postcards marked with the anarchist Circle A, McCarvill was convicted of “unauthorised organizing” and spent 120 days in solitary confinement.
“The hole time turned out to be a blessing in disguise as far as litigating the lawsuit was concerned,” McCarvill wrote in his dispatch. “Approximately 90% of the written discovery efforts were conducted by me from the hole. Yes, I had to hand print it all on unlined paper with a miniature pen the size of a run-of-the-mill birthday cake candle, but I had plenty of time to accomplish it all.”
In his writings, McCarvill viewed his case as just one battle in a revolutionary war. He viewed himself as a “volunteer” in “combat” with the State. Each action from both inside and outside was another front.
And when McCarvill won his case against ODOC, he attributed this multi-front strategy as a key element in his victory.
“It turns out that, had I approached the litigation on my own, the cause would have failed,” McCarvill wrote. “Had ODOC been approached without the litigation, the cause would have failed. Because we approached the battle multilaterally, with full force and conviction, we won.”
Technically, he didn’t win the case–ODOC settled the case with something called a “contractual compromise.” But a “legal” win didn’t matter, because McCarvill got what he and his fellow anarchists wanted. ODOC agreed to stop censoring anarchist publications.
It was the second lawsuit filed against ODOC that year and followed a few months after the department paid Prison Legal News over $55,000 for censoring their newsletters and bulk mail to inmates in the state.
Considering the circumstances, it was quite the victory. The early 2000s were hardly a friendly time to be an anarchist, much less an incarcerated one willing to take on the prison system in open legal battle.
But it was just the first battle in their long war, and ODOC quickly made sure that he remembered where he was.
Not long after McCarvill had “won” his landmark case and was freed from solitary ODOC transferred him to Twin Rivers Correctional Institute outside Umatilla. McCarvill and his outside supporters widely considered this a retaliatory move.
Following his victory, McCarvill continued to work as a prison lawyer and legal assistant on behalf of himself and his fellow inmates, despite multiple transfers that exacerbated his serious physical ailments. In 2010, he again sued ODOC for allegedly violating his right to due process right–this time facing an accusation of extortion stemming from an argument that occurred in the OSP legal library–but had his case dismissed due to a lack of compelling evidence.
This would be the last major legal case that McCarvill pursued against the ODOC, though it is unclear how many cases he litigated on behalf of his fellow inmates at the various institutions in which he was housed.
But even as his legal career slowed, he continued to correspond with the outside world through his letters.
“Brian was a good guy,” said Jon P., who exchanged letters with McCarvill from New Zealand. “So I appreciated that Brian was this normal guy. For all the other things he did and the way that the anarchist milieu painted him, he was human, flawed, he got angry, sad, hurt, excited, all those emotions we all get. It’s nice to know that at the ground level, we’re all humans with similar struggles.”
McCarvill exchanged dozens of letters with Jon P. over their seven year correspondence. The final one was postmarked Aug. 27, 2020–exactly one month before his death.
“We have been locked down now for a couple of months, maybe longer,” McCarvill wrote. “It’s not complete, where it serves to make life more difficult for staff. It is overlooked, yet all programs by [and] for prisoners are shut down. Currently, this prison has 240+ COVID-sick inmates and 94 staff. COVID can only get in through staff who refuse to wear masks on a regular basis. I’ve not got it yet but I assume that I will before it is over.”
Though Brian McCarvill’s name is not the first one that comes to mind when one thinks of anarchist prisoners in the United States legal system, his story is one of resistance against the carceral system by any means necessary. His is a battle–combat, as he would’ve put it–against overwhelming odds that somehow ended up in his favor. Without his efforts, it’d likely be far more difficult for anarchist and abolitionist groups to continue to maintain contact and solidarity with people trapped inside ODOC’s labyrinthian bureaucracy.
Brian McCarvill spent much of his life struggling against the ODOC and their repression of political prisoners within the State of Oregon. And though the ODOC’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately killed him, McCarvill still managed to have his final word, 17 years in advance.
“Regardless, I’m a casualty of war, of combat, a willing casualty. We must not be daunted by authority, by capital, or by combat,” McCarvill wrote in his 2003 dispatch.
“It has been said that history is written by the winner. My friends, we should have and maintain every intent to write that history.”