Welcome back to the Perilous Podcast, a news and oral history project featuring original interviews with prisoners and detainees who have participated in or witnessed protests, uprisings and other forms of unrest behind bars. We also gather analysis and insight from researchers and advocates in an effort to build a better understanding of systems of incarceration and collective action and strategy.
This week, we have a very special interview with Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, historian at the University of Michigan, and the Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy and Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City.
Perilous Researchers Ryan Fatica and Duncan Tarr spoke with Dr. Thompson about the wave of unrest sweeping the country in jails, prisons and detention centers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In late April, Dr. Thompson made this prescient statement in an interview with Jacobin: “I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but these are unstable times. You cannot shut down the US economy for this long, with income inequality at the highest rate it has been since the Gilded Age, without expecting some social unrest. I don’t doubt that people will protest, and they will have every right to do so. But I worry about the repression.” Just one month later, multiple American cities were on fire as people reacted to the murder of George Floyd and the systematic racism and out of control police violence it represented.
The interview was recorded days before the murder of George Floyd so Dr. Thompson, a scholar of popular uprisings, does not reflect directly upon the movement that has since emerged and which is currently reshaping the world, but much of our conversation about the wave of prison rebellion that immediately preceded the George Floyd Uprisings is applicable to our current task of analyzing our present moment.[Dr. Thompson pull quote]
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Next up we have some headlines of prison protests since our last episode.
According to the immigrant advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants,on May 5th, a person detained at the Imperial Regional Detention Center in Calexico, CA, reported he was placed in solitary confinement for a month after sending a letter to California Governor, Gavin Newsom and engaging in a hunger strike in protest of the dangerous conditions there. This information was gathered by Freedom for Immigrants’ National Detention Hotline regarding medical neglect in ICE detention. Since the launch of their hotline in mid-April, they have received over 3,000 calls from detainees reporting on conditions. The group has an interactive map on their site which is populated with data from the calls and they have published three reports so far, detailing the information they have gathered. For links to the Freedom for Immigrants tracking project, check out our show notes.
Three prisoners escaped from the Ouachita Parish work-release program on May 6. The prisoners walked off their prison work release jobs and were seen in a trailer park a few miles away driving an SUV. They made haste in the SUV when the police came, leading them on a high speed chase. At one point, the SUV stopped and let two people out, who subsequently ran and disappeared into the nearby woods. The SUV continued until it crashed and two people ran into the nearby woods. Eventually, the prisoners were apprehended.
It is unknown at this time whether the motivation of the escapees was connected to the Covid-19 pandemic.
On May 8, at Folkston ICE detention center in Georgia, detainees organized a hunger strike to pressure guards into stricter safety measures, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Independent reporter Jack Herrara quoted detainee Jose Miranda-Gonzalez in his article on the hunger strikes that was posted on Medium. Miranda-Gonzalez stated, “We are hunger striking for cleaning supplies, for the guards to wear masks and gloves, and so we can have soap to wash our hands.”
And from another detainee: “About 30 to 40 people from my block, including me, attempted to engage in a hunger strike to protest our continued detention during the COVID-19 pandemic,” After guards threatened to cut off the men’s legal access for striking, the Sri Lankan man decided not to participate to avoid jeopardizing a scheduled legal visit. Still, others participated. It is not clear to what extent ICE has retaliated against the participants.
On April 8 the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia seeking the immediate release of people with preexisting health conditions.
At Dillwyn Correctional Center in Virginia, where over 200 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded, prisoners engaged in a protest against the lack of precautions the prison has taken to stop the spread of the virus, according to testimonies from prisoners’ families published by Virginia Public Radio. They allege there is a lack of sanitizer, tissues, temperature checks and a lack of space to properly social distance. They also say that the wings where the prison is segregating those who are infected are overcrowded.
The immediate impetus for the protest came when a guard refused to wear a mask. Prisoners in one part of the prison barricaded doors. COs threatened to tear gas, but after some time, the warden came and promised to not bring any more new prisoners to the COVID-19 wing. Meanwhile, in another wing, prisoners started a hunger strike. In response to the hunger strike, prison officials transferred approximately 7 prisoners to Sussex State Prison, which is a prison for those with higher level violent offenses.
The information about the protest was shared with the public through a Facebook page for families with someone locked up at Dillwyn set up by Debra Turner.
On May 12, a unit at Redgranite Correctional refused to comply with staff directives after the prison was placed on “modified movement” status, a form of lockdown. The modified status was instituted after a guard tested positive for Covid-19.
An emergency response unit was called in to quell the unrest.
Perilous Chronicle received a message from someone incarcerated at Redgranite Correctional Institution (RGCI). The prisoner asked that we not reveal his name out of fear of retaliation:
So they finally got us. A few people tested positive for covid-19 and they placed us on a complete lockdown. (No phones, no day rooms, no recreation, nothing!) Everyone is acting a damn fool right now. Nobody is locking in, officers don’t know what to do because nobody is listening to them, and they’re threatening a revolt. Dudes are on the phone, no one is going to work, sergeants are losing control. I’ve never seen anything as uncontrolled as this! It can only get more volatile as the minutes tick by.
According to Makda Fessahaye, an administrator with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, the protest was quelled without use of force after staff explained to prisoners their sanitation protocols. “After institution leadership responded to the unit,” Fessahaye explained “engaged with the individuals and provided additional information regarding the measures taken to ensure their health (for example, disinfecting phones, kiosks and tables between use), the individuals began to comply and returned to their rooms.”
According to officials of Butts County, what they called a “riot” broke at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, which “drew a large response from local public safety units around 2:30 AM.” The event was reported via the Butts County Twitter page on May 14 at 4:00 am. We have not yet found any additional information about this event and to our knowledge, the story has not yet been told from the perspective of the prisoners. If you have more information about this event, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over 136 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Shelby County Justice Center in Tennessee. On May 19, approximately 51 prisoners who have been quarantined for the last two weeks were pepper sprayed by guards after engaging in a sit down protest.
The Daily Memphian talked to several prisoners and family members about the protest. Erick Faulkner, 44, said he and about 54 other detainees staged a “peaceful” sit-in to protest the end of their quarantine without first being tested to make sure they are free of the virus.
“All we are looking for is to be re-tested before we are re-classified and rehoused,” he said, noting he feels “a moral obligation” not to pass the virus to anyone else.
According to the immigrant support group Puente Arizona, a group of 14 detainees at the Florence Correctional Center in Arizona organized a hunger strike in protest of their conditions of confinement. The group released a recording from a phone conversation they had with one of the hunger strikers, describing the conditions that motivated their decision to protest.
June 4-9, 2020: Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center, Bakersfield, Calif.
On June 4, approximately 70 people detained at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing center organized a hunger strike to express solidarity with the protests in response to the murder of George Floyd.
According to Jack Herrera, an independent journalist who covered the story for PRISM, on June 4, Asif Qazi, a detainee at Mesa Verde, handed a guard a strip of paper on which he had written the following statement:
“We, the detained people of dormitories A, B, and C at Mesa Verde ICE Detention Facility, are protesting and on hunger strike in solidarity with the detained people at Otay Mesa Detention Center. We begin our protest in memory of our comrades George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant, and Tony McDade. Almost all of us have also suffered through our country’s corrupt and racist criminal justice system before being pushed into the hands of ICE.”
Qazi went on to explain: “We support their cause for protesting against a corrupt justice system and corrupt law officials. We’re trying to intertwine our causes in one general fight for justice, and we believe ICE falls in the category of corrupt justice officials.”
The detainees later released a video statement, further expressing their solidarity with the uprising against the murder of George Floyd and linking their efforts to the one in streets.
Interview with Dr. Heather Ann Thompson:
Articles By Dr. Heather Ann Thompson:
- “The policy mistakes from the 1990s that have made covid-19 worse,” Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, The Washington Post, May 4, 2020.
- “Prisons Are Microcosms of the Broader Society”, Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, Jacobin, April 2020.
- “The Origins of the Attica Uprising“, An Interview with Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, Rustbelt Abolition Radio, April 4, 2017.
Books By Dr. Heather Ann Thompson: