Perilous Podcast 4: Hunger Strike at Guayama, Puerto Rico

Summary

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 spoke with Diego Alcala, a criminal defense and human rights attorney based in Puerto Rico about a hunger strike and work stoppage that occurred on March 20 at a prison in Guayama, Puerto Rico and we also read a letter from the hunger strikers that was recently translated to English by friends of Perilous Chronicle. The hunger strike at Guayama has not been covered by English language news, evidence of the lack of attention given on the mainland US to both the suffering and the brave resistance of those living in this US territory. 

For links to our article about the hunger strike at Guayama, the original Spanish-language article from Primera Hora and to see Diego’s report, which has been recently translated to English, please check out our show notes. 

Perilous Chronicle is run by a small group of dedicated volunteers and very little funding. If you value our work, please support us by visiting our website and donating via PayPal or Patreon. With your help, we can expand our efforts to track, document and archive the stories of prisoners and detainees who are standing up for themselves in the midst of overwhelming odds. Perilous relies on crowdsourced information for our grassroots tracking and archival efforts. If you have information or are in touch with a prisoner or detainee who has witnessed or been involved in a protest or other form of unrest, please get in touch with us at info@perilouschronicle.com

First some headlines.

Headlines

According to data compiled by the Marshall Project, as of May 14, at least 20,119 prisoners and detainees have tested positive for covid-19 amidst widespread lack of testing. At least 304 incarcerated people have died of the virus, in large part because they were forced to remain living in situations that did not allow them to protect themselves from the spread of the disease. 

Now here’s some events we have compiled:

April 9: Prisoners barricade their unit at Southern State Correctional in New Jersey

A s of early May New Jersey had the highest per capita Covid-19 death rates among prisoners of any state in the country, with 38 total Covid-19 deaths. 

As the death rate continued to climb, 63 prisoners at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont, New Jersey were transferred to a makeshift quarantine unit in a trailer-style building on the prison property. The prisoners had all come into contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19, but they were not tested for the virus. Quote “It was dirty, no cold water to drink or nothing,” one prisoner wrote to his family. 

On May 9, Some of the prisoners decided to barricade the door in what turned into a prolonged standoff. “A couple dudes decided that they were putting too many inmates in the little ass unit, so they put a table in front of the entrance door to our side” one prisoners wrote to a family member, according to New jersey.com

“Some prisoners were worried about getting sick from the prison staff. Others were frustrated by how many inmates they packed in the unit…” another prisoner wrote.

As a result, all 63 prisoners were transferred to the South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, New jersey and all have received disciplinary reports charging them with quote “encouraging others to incite a riot.”

April 20: Protest at Donnacona Maximum Security Institution in Quebec 

As we previously reported, prisoners at Donnacona staged a protest on April 20 that guards responded to with force. Prisoners have taken to blocking the one small window that looks into their cells, making it hard for guards to do their rounds. Some prisoners also used garbage cans to stop their cell doors from closing.  The John Howard Society’s podcast “Voices Inside and Out” spoke with prisoners at Donnacona to hear their side of the story. 

[Donnacona interview from Voices Inside and Out–11 minutes

For the full episode of Voices Inside an Out, check out our show notes. 

April 29: Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois

New documents filed in court as part of a class action lawsuit on behalf of detainees at Cook County jail have revealed information about an uprising that occurred at the jail on April 29. The event occurred when at least 13 prisoners housed in the medical isolation unit at Cook County Jail “made an uprising”, according to the report. Detainees stood on tables and chairs, damaged medical equipment and used them as weapons. The reports also indicate that detainees were fighting each other during the melee.

The motivations of the prisoners who participated in the uprising remains unclear at this time. According to the incident report, the disturbance began after detainees requested that the phones be turned on in their unit approximately 35 minutes ahead of schedule. It is unknown whether the Covid-19 outbreak in the jail was a contributing factor, nor whether detainees were protesting conditions in the medical isolation unit.

Food Strike at North Central Correctional Institute, Massachusetts: 

In early May, according to the Deeper Than Water Coalition, a group dedicated to exposing human rights abuses in prisons, prisoners at the North Central Correctional Institute in Gardner, Massachusetts engaged in a food strike.

According to the group “41 prisoners refused their food trays for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, sustaining themselves from food and water stocked up from the canteen.” The strikers released three demands 1) Free them all. 2) Until they are freed, provide healthier, more substantial, and more varied food options. 3) Until they are freed, allow those who are incarcerated time to go outside into the yard. 

The group also released an excerpt from a letter prisoner Jeremy Woodley, who is housed at NCCI Gardener, who was given a conduct report for allegedly throwing state meals out the window in support of the food strike. The striker wrote quote: “As of Monday May 4th the majority of men in my dorm have come together to support one another by feeding ourselves and not accepting less than adequate state meals. I received a disciplinary report for throwing state meals issued for my dorm out of a window.” end quote.

The prisoner shared his disciplinary report which read, in part: 

“On May 4, 2020, the NCCI IPS Unit did determine through video surveillance that inmate Woodley did steal the state issued meals for the inmate population assigned to the H-Building Housing unit during the lunch time feeding period due to the pandemic. The NCCI IPS Unit did determine that the stolen State issued meals were then thrown out of an H-Building Housing Unit window to the ground destroying the state meals. The NCCI IPS Unit conducted an interview with inmate Woodley regarding the incident to which inmate Woodley denied the allegation that inmate Woodley threw the State issued meals out. IPS Officer Hayden issued a disciplinary report to inmate Woodley for stealing state issued meals, destruction of state property and disrupting the orderly running of the institution and or the unit.”

For more information on the strike check out deeperthanwater.org or follow them on twitter @deeperthanwater or follow the link in our show notes.

May 5: Hunger Strike at Bordeaux Jail, Quebec

Hundreds of prisoners at the Bordeaux Jail, in Quebec, Canada organized a hunger strike that began May 5th in response to a COVID-19 outbreak. Prisoners struck against the unsanitary conditions of the prison and the lack of access to running water and masks to help slow the spread of the virus. So far, Bordeaux is the only prison in Quebec to have known cases of COVID-19. Approximately 49 prisoners have been infected, as well as 20 guards. Prisoners have been placed on a 23 hour lock down and all visitations have been suspended in response to the outbreak. 

On May 11, the prisoners released what they called a manifesto, listing 7 demands. The demands included the release of more prisoners, including the release of all prisoners with a year or less left on their sentences, distribution of personal protective equipment to prisoners, access to additional activities, the creation of a prisoners’ committee and greater transparency about how the prisoners’ fund is used. 

“We should not be playing with people’s lives” the strikers wrote, “Covid-19 is a fatal disease. We are not reassured by the measures taken to date”. 

As of May 12th, the hunger strike was still ongoing.

May 6: Food Strike at Marion Correctional Institution, Ohio

Prisoners at Marion Correctional declared a food strike, citing both the poor quality and lack of food that has been status quo since the start of the covid-19 pandemic. 

“We’re sick of two meals a day and bologna and salami sandwiches while we’re locked in with #covid19”

May 6: Grand Jury Indicts two Federal Prisoners 

On May 6th, two prisoners held at FCI Butner in North Carolina were charged with inciting a riot for actions they took on April 22. According to prosecutors, the two prisoners attempted to encourage other prisoners to quote “action” if housing assignments did not change. 

One of the prisoners allegedly pulled a fire extinguisher from the wall and sprayed staff with it in the midst of an argument about housing assignments. The same prisoner also allegedly barricaded the unit door with lockers ripped from the wall and slid against the door and also tied the door shut with a bed sheet. 

The motivation of the two prisoners is not yet known, but what is known is that the uprising occurred in the midst of a major Covid-19 outbreak at FCI Butner, one of the worst of any federal prison. In the midst of the pandemic, many protests and disturbances have taken place as a result of prisoners pushing for a change in housing assignments–generally a demand that they not be housed with visibly sick prisoners. 

If you have any additional information about the protests at FCI Butner, please reach out to us at info@perilouschronicle.com


May 8: Hunger Strike at North Lake Correctional Facility, Michigan

On May 8th, more than a hundred immigrant detainees recently transferred from California launched a hunger strike at North Lake Correctional in Michigan amidst rapidly rising rates of Covid-19 at the prison. 

The group No Detention Centers in Michigan says at least one unit at the prison, with 110 inmates, began refusing meals Friday, May 8. The private immigrant detention facility is operated by Geo-Group and houses immigrants convicted of federal crimes who are under the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. 

In April several prisoners were transferred to the facility from Taft Correctional Institution in Bakersfield, California after the latter facility closed. 

According to Interlochen Public Radio

No Detentions Center in Michigan says one inmate said he watched a man collapse, frothing at the mouth, before he was taken away. The same inmate told the group he was also experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms including red eyes, a mild fever and loss of smell. He was screened by a doctor who determined he did not have a fever, and he was not tested for COVID-19. 

No Detention Centers say inmates have observed deaths from what they believe is the coronavirus, but so far no COVID-19 deaths are listed on the BOP’s website.

Inmate Ricardo Limon has three years remaining on his 20-year sentence for conspiracy to commit drug trafficking. He says prisoners who complain of pain or sickness are given ibuprofen and do not get  a full exam.

According to Interlochen Public Radio, the hunger strike ended May 13. 

Also check out No Detention Centers Michigan’s recent interview on the podcast Worst Year Ever.

May 9: Work strike at North West Detention Center, in Tacoma Washington

On May 9th, immigrant detainees at the North West Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, announced a work stoppage this week after a detainee who tested positive for Covid-19 was returned to their housing unit without quarantine measures.

The immigrant advocacy group La Resistencia announced the strike in a press release. From the press release

Today, people detained at the now-infamous Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) have initiated a collective work stoppage to draw attention to their worsening plight during the Coronavirus pandemic. Their work stoppage begins a day after ICE informed federal Judges James Robart and Mary Alice Theiler that earlier this week four people who had previously resided at the NWDC were transferred back to the NWDC from a detention facility in Florence, Arizona. Among those who returned to the NWDC, one individual had already tested positive for COVID-19 when they first arrived at the Florence, AZ, detention center from the NWDC on April 2nd. Despite this positive test, ICE chose to return this individual to Washington State and to the NWDC, along with three others. Attempting to justify its actions, ICE claims that the individual who tested positive for COVID-19 is a “recovered positive.” ICE contends that the “detainee has recovered from COVID-19 and is no longer infectious but still has sufficient residual virus in some of his cells to render positive results.” People detained also report that at least three of the four people who traveled on planes and buses together were immediately placed in a residential pod alongside others.

Those taking part in today’s work stoppage know they risk further retaliation by engaging in a labor strike to demand their release.

May 10: Uprising at Covington County Jail

On May 19th at the Covington County Jail in Mississippi, according to Covington County Sheriff, a “riot” broke out in the D block of the jail . Prisoners at the jail believed someone had been brought into the jail with symptoms of Covid-19. 

Little is known at this time about the disturbance. If you have additional information about this event, please reach out to us at info@perilouschronicle.com or find us on Twitter

The disturbance at the jail occurred approximately 14 months after another disturbance at the facility that the Sheriff also referred to as a riot. The 2019 disturbance occurred just one day after 3 Covington County Jail staff members were fired after they were caught violating jail policy by tasking prisoners with passing out the mail.

For more information on this and over 450 other acts of prison unrest over the course of the last decade, check out the archives at perilouschronicle.com   

Hunger Strike at Maximum Security Correctional Institution Guayama 296 in Guayama, Puerto Rico

Next up, we have a statement from a group of prisoners incarcerated in Guayama, Puerto Rico who organized a hunger strike and work stoppage in their prison in response to the Covid 19 measures taken by the prison administration. We also spoke with Diego Alcala, a human rights and criminal defense attorney in Puerto Rico who gave us some background on the protest in Guayama, the response of The Department of Correction and Rehabilitation of Puerto Rico to the pandemic and his own efforts at grassroots data gathering and information crowdsourcing on prison conditions on the island. 

On April 28, The Los Angeles Times reported that “Latin American nations have together reported close to 1,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates and prison staff. The worst-hit has been Peru, with 613 cases and at least 13 deaths, though the extent of testing to determine the full scale of infections differs from country to country.” The Times also reported that the Puerto Rican Department of Corrections has also announced that it will test all of the nearly 9,000 prisoners currently being held on the island as well as 6,000 employees, including guards. 

On March 20, more than 200 prisoners at the Maximum Security Correctional Institution Guayama 296 in Guayama, Puerto Rico organized a hunger strike after officials at the prison confiscated all the prisoners hygiene and cleaning items, according to a letter from the strikers.

The letter, which was addressed to Eduardo Rivera Juanatey, Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in Puerto Rico, was an attempt to call attention to the action of officials at the prison.

First, we’ll hear a translation of a statement from the prisoners at Guayama that was released by the Spanish-language media outlet Primera Hora and has not yet appeared in the English-language news. Thanks to friends and supporters of Perilous who have stepped up to help with translation. If you’d like to help expand our capacity by offering translation services, please email us at info@perilouschronicle.com to get involved.

Letter from the Guayama Hunger Strikers:

March 19, 2020: to Eduardo Rivera Juanatey, Secretary of the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation

IMPORTANT NOTICE: FOLLOWING INSTRUCTIONS FROM THE SUPERINTENDENT AND THE WARDEN, OFFICIALS CONFISCATE PERSONAL HYGEINE PRODUCTS

Greetings, Mr. Rivera Juanatey,

This letter is directed to you, demanding that you take immediate action. In the Maximum-Security Correctional Facility of Guayama 296, prison officials confiscated toilet paper, bath soap, and laundry detergent, all of which was originally purchased in the commissary store, with money deposited by the prisoners’ families. Prison officials also confiscated liquid disinfectant and hand sanitizer brought by families in recent days. How is it possible that functionaries of the agency which you direct, continue this mistreatment and abuse of power? Are you ordering these actions? Do you agree that the Superintendent, Edward García, and the commander, Emma Rivera, continue abusing the imprisoned population of Guayama 296?

All of this is an act of retaliation. Yes, retaliation. All of this because prisoners did not agree to sending their uniforms and other belongings to be washed. All of the clothes of the imprisoned population are washed together. Furthermore, clothes from another institution, Maximum-Security Correctional Facility of Guayama 1000, are also washed here. For their tranquility, for what is happening with the coronavirus, they didn’t send their belongings. The superintendent wanted to force them to send their clothes and belongings, but they refused because they had their own powder laundry detergent to keep their things clean.

What has made them the most uncomfortable, the most unhappy, is that the superintendent commented the following: “Now come the consequences.” With this, he began a process where more than 40 officials without gloves or any type of protection, confiscated all of the prisoners’ detergent. Although the detergent was provided by the families, the prison officials didn’t offer any pay for the detergent. They also confiscated game consuls even though they are permitted by the DCR.

We demand your swift intervention. We are tired of the mistreatment, the cruel and unusual punishment on part of the functionaries of the Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. We demand that they return to the prisoners their stuff which was taken from them without reason. We cannot withstand any more abuse. As a result, starting March 20th, 2020, the population of the Maximum-Security Facility of Guayama 296, will stop carrying out all services until you meet with the members of the imprisoned population.

Kindly,

Mr. Colon

Spokesman of the Imprisoned Population

Interview with Diego Alcala:

We spoke with Diego Alcala, a human rights and criminal defense attorney based in Puerto Rico to give us some background on the strikes.