Last month, hundreds of prisoners at Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan joined the ongoing, nationwide prison strike. In response, armed officers with the Michigan Department of Corrections were summoned to Kinross from across the state to storm the overcrowded housing units and detain nearly 250 inmates identified as ringleaders of the protest.
According to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee—an effort by Industrial Workers of the World, an international labor union, to help incarcerated workers organize—Kinross remained on lockdown for nearly two weeks, from September 10 to the morning of September 22. “About 150 prisoners accused of being instigators were transferred to other facilities, where an unknown number were charged with inciting a riot and punished with isolation,” IWOC said in a statement. “In violation of MDOC policy, guards destroyed the property of the accused prisoners and encouraged other prisoners to steal their personal food.”
The strike began on Friday, September 9, when workers from the kitchen, laundry, maintenance, and yard work units refused to report to their assignments. According to activists and one inmate’s family member, prison officials responded by ordering that inmates’ meals be restricted. “Usually they get hot food for each meal,” Evelyn Williams, a family member of a prisoner, told Jezebel. But on that Friday, inmates were given a single peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and a dry turkey sandwich for dinner. “The food service unit was instructed not to feed them, as punishment,” Williams said.
The next morning, between 400 and 500 inmates marched through the prison yard, issuing a list of demands and asking for a meeting with the warden. Duncan Tarr, a spokesman for Michigan Prison Abolition (a local activist group), provided Jezebel with a copy of those demands:
1. Change in visitation room procedure.
2. The phone rates are too high.
3. The food quality and quantity are both insufficient.
4. Living conditions are too cramped: The units were built to house 4 prisoners; they are currently housing 8.
5. There are no programs to help prisoners re-enter.
6. The way the yard is run.
7. Bleach for clothes is unavailable.
8. MP3 players available to prisoners are really low quality. They break very easily and cannot be fixed. This causes prisoners to lose forever the songs that they purchased.
9. There’s not enough room in the law library. The room fits only about 20 people. The prison population of Kinross is right around 1,400.
10. There’s not enough room in the visiting room: This means that sometimes visitors get turned away.
11. Inmates aren’t allowed to transfer out. To apply for a transfer you have to go two years without getting a ticket. Correctional Officers hand out false tickets to punish prisoners for bogus reasons.
12. The wages for prison work are too low. Laundry workers make $20 a month.
Two deputy wardens met with the demonstrators, agreeing to address their grievances or bring them to the legislature. The prisoners also asked that they not be subject to retaliation for their peaceful protest. “This was a ruse used by the prison authorities to dispel the protest,” Tarr wrote in an email. “The warden’s trick to disperse the protest made it easier for the inmates to be targeted.”
“These guys think everything is fine,” Williams told Jezebel, recounting what her family member on the inside told her. “But as soon as the warden closed the door, tactical officers burst in.” Shortly after the deputy wardens assured the striking prisoners that their demands were heard, about 100 officers in emergency response teams, armed with shotguns and pepper guns, tore through the facility, zip-tying inmates and throwing them out into the yard, where they were allegedly forced to lie, in the rain, for five to six hours.
As the assault began, other inmates, elsewhere in prison, attempted to barricade themselves in their units: several fires were set, IWOC said in its statement, and at least one window was broken. A number of sinks and surveillance cameras were also damaged. “It could have been settled,” one inmate told the Detroit Free Press last week. “When the officers came in, they caused chaos,” he continued. “It sparked the flame...[and] started the wildfire.”
A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, Chris Gautz, told Jezebel that 147 inmates identified as “instigators” were detained that night, as well as about 100 more over the next few days of the lockdown. Gautz disputed the idea that the introduction of armed officers had escalated tensions. “Even a peaceful protest can be dangerous,” he said. “They violated the rules—the prisoners knew that.” He added: “Things would not have been broken if they hadn’t broken them.” The so-called instigators are being transferred to higher-level security facilities.
The first demand on the Kinross demonstrators’ list pertained to visiting room procedure—specifically, the provision that allows inmates to touch their visitors:
Physical contact between prisoners and visitors is prohibited except for one kiss and one embrace between a prisoner and each of his/her visitors at the beginning and end of each visit and when a picture is being taken. Additionally, a prisoner and his/her visitor are permitted to have their arms around the shoulders of one another and may hold hands.
But visitors have not been allowed to sit next to inmates or put their arms around each other in a long time, Evelyn Williams said. “Visitors were caught smuggling contraband,” Gautz confirmed. “They are permitted [to hold hands], but it doesn’t say it’s guaranteed or that it’s a right.” He also confirmed that this was on the demonstrators’ list of demands.
“It’s like they’re doing everything they can to break down the family unit,” Williams said. “We’re supposed to be rehabilitating these people, but then they take away anything that makes them human.”