“This was about unity”: A Wave of Protest Spreads Through the Michigan Prison System

foodOver the last month, thousands of prisoners at three different prisons in Michigan have taken part in mass protests against the conditions of their confinement and as a demonstration of their collective strength. Prisoners at Kinross Correctional Facility began the wave of protests on March 20th and 21st with 1,000 of the prison’s 1,300 prisoners refusing meals. The strike then spread to Chippewa Correctional Facility, also in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on March 26th through 28th where at least 800 prisoners refused meals for the entire weekend. Then, on April 12th, prisoners at a third facility, the Cotton Correctional Facility, joined in with about 660 prisoners refusing meals. According to the media, the protests are sparked by problems with food quality, but according to the prisoner whose reportback is below, “this was about unity.”

According to the Detroit Free Press:

Both protests were characterized by extremely high participation rates among inmates, which disturbed Michigan Corrections Organization officials and also got the attention of the prisons’ administration, Gautz said. “It’s definitely something the facilities took seriously,” Gautz said. “It is unusual in a high school or a prison, because there are different groups or cliques that form, to have everybody on the same page. It takes some coordination.”

When the strike spread to a third facility, The Detroit Free press reported that the MDOC suspects that “the protest at Cotton may have been instigated by a prisoner who was transferred there for assaulting a prisoner who chose to go to the chow hall during an earlier food protest at Kinross Correctional Facility in the UP, Gautz said.” On March 20th, as at least 1,000 prisoners at Kinross were refusing meals, the MDOC had this to say:

These protests are happening simultaneously with work strikes in Texas prisons as well as ongoing resistance in Alabama prisons, which recently saw a series of riots at Holman Correctional and where prisoners are currently calling for a work stoppage on May 1st. All of this is happening in the lead up to a call by prisoners across the country for a national prison strike on September 9th, the anniversary of the Attica Rebellion.

As of yet, the protests in Michigan do not show any obvious signs of being connected to the other rebellions going on in prisons in other parts of the country. As people on the outside who want to see an end to prisons, it is our job to connect them. By creating as many points of contact as possible between prison rebels and rebels on the outside and by sharing news of their revolt, we create the possibility of helping to spread prisoners’ protests, riots and other forms of resistance. Also, by taking action in solidarity with prison rebels, we create multiple zones of conflict and prevent the prison walls from confining the prisoners’ resistance. We never know when our small acts of solidarity might echo back and add necessary energy to an ongoing rebellion.

Below are some reports from prisoners in Michigan, two of whom were involved in the protest at Kinross and give a striking report of prisoner unity, including details not found elsewhere. The other provides an analysis of the situation based on his experience in Michigan prisons.

From a prisoner at Kinross Correctional Facility, April 14, 2016:

In regard to the March 2016 events. The religious groups and street organizations got together in unity to stand together against the severe prison conditions. It was a two-day event. On Sunday, nearly the entire population (over 1200 persons) came out of the housing units and stood on the basketball court. No one was allowed to play ball. That first day was to show our unity. We looked like a solid wall made of bricks. I viewed it as a start of something greater to come.

The next day, no one went to the dining hall, unless persons had medical conditions. This was not a protest because we submitted no formal complaint. This was about unity. The first and most difficult step.

I really did not have great emotions over the first day, because I am looking toward the end result. Yet what spark me, and behoove me was the unity. It showed me the power in unity. An act I want to be involved in in the future. Because it showed me that unity, without a demand, can bring an oppressor to the table with the hope of compromising in the interest of self-preservation. The oppressor rather compromise than have disruptions.

The idea of not going to the dining hall came from Minister Louis Farrakhan’s reminder of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech. Dr. King stated, when a business does not treat you right, then the people must show unity and redistribute the pain, through economic withdrawal. We recognize that Trinity, the food service provider, is a business, and that each meal is a dollar in Trinity pocket. Thus, not eating for an entire day was a form of redistributing the pain. I got great pleasure of doing that. Because at least 1200 persons learn a lesson that could be shared with others anywhere in the world.

In the future, our movement must be beyond prison conditions. It must be based on repairing the capture and releasing reform men back into the community. This must be the next step.

It is my prayer that my experience will be helpful to others.

From a second prisoner at Kinross Correctional Facility, 14 April, 2016:

Without putting any names or pinpointing specifics we as a whole (General Population) were tired of the living conditions, the way officers treat us, and the food that Trinity was serving us. All our complaints and cries for relief fell upon deaf ears. First, a peaceful stand off would take place on the 20th of March 2016. All we were to do was to stand at attention for 35 minutes on the recreational commons area then disburse at the same time. In sequence. We were closing our yard 10 minutes early. There wasn’t a soul left on the yard. The officers were stunned. As the shit was changing 2:45pm until 3:20pm they were witnessing the biggest peaceful demonstration in years. Every organization, every gang, every white, black, and latino renegade participated.

On the 21st of March 2016 no one went to the chow hall. Everyone sat in and ate together. Whoever didn’t’ have they received from the fellow inmate. And this was coming from one of the supposedly violent prisons in Michigan. It lets you know that we are fed up. And we were willing to unite for one common good.

Every Wednesday we (Prisoner Block Representatives) meet with staff to discuss our issues that effect the general population. On this particular day, no staff member showed up so we adjourn the meeting and walked out. The officers came running after us to get us back to the meeting. The look of concern on their face was priceless. I think it was a tactic by staff to see where our minds were at but it backfired. That day Warden Duncan MacLaren, Deputy Warden Hardwood, and Deputy Daley thoroughly discussed the changes they were going to make immediately. Why did it take a demonstration to get them to do their job? Who isn’t paying attention to daily activities? How relax could these officers be that 1200 inmates could plan, design and carry it out right under their noses? Poor security. That is the reason why this place is so violent.

Several inmates were questioned about the demo and about drug activity in the prison. I was included. After a week went by and some changes were made they were investigating who was responsible for organization of the demo. Their answer to the problem was to retaliate against us by transferring key representatives t oother prisons in the state of Michigan. Even our Chairman. It was a tactic to intimidate us and make sure we don’t do it again. But it does not move our leadership. When one leaves another replaces him.

We had a new election and I was nominated the Chairman again. I don’t know where this journey will lead us but we will unite and rise again. They have struck down some of our brothers but we won’t abandon them. We may get weary but we will find rest for the journey. We will keep hope alive that someone out there will hear our cries of affliction. Some of us realize that we don’t deserve the life we live but it isn’t up to us…

Until then we are waiting to see if they are going to prove good on their word. If they don’t put some of the key issues in play by the time the heat hits this place is going to blow up in violence.

The thing about me is that I never took an oath to join a gang but I’ve been part of the Brown Movement all of my 30 years in. My life has been dedicated to serve my Latino people, but what happened here let me know I am now devoted to the whole population.

From a prisoner at Alger Correctional Facility, April 15, 2016:

The prisoners at old Hiawatha Temporary Facility, now the new Kinross Correctional Facility (KCF) took action against the terrible food the new private food service contractor, Trinity, is serving us.

On 20 and 21 March, Sunday and Monday, prisoners, about 1,000 (out of no more than 1,200) either refused to eat in the chow hall and/or all requested a sub (vegetarian) tray, which wreaked havoc on the system, either way. If they don’t go to chow and swipe their ID card, Trinity doesn’t get paid. If they all request subs, not only does Trinity have to come up 1,000 subs when normally they might have 50 prepared, they have to toss the 1,000 regular trays they’ve already prepared. This was a successful nonviolent action no matter which way it actually went down (the reports I’ve received, the press and oral, vary and our news channels, local, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and PBS were blocked on those days and the MDOC is trying to keep all newspapers with articles on this action out of these prisons). No prisoners were hurt and Trinity took it in the pocketbook. Compared to what recently went down at Holman in Alabama, this was a great success! Or the action in Tecumseh State Correctional in Nebraska, for that matter.