Incarcerated people face barriers after speaking with activists

Organizers say several incarcerated contacts are “going offline”

Hands grabbing steel green bars
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a public health crisis in jails and prisons. Photo by Getty Images.

In March, activists with the Forum For Understanding Prisons (FFUP) began communicating with 40-year-old Leon Elijah Prioleau, who is incarcerated in the Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI). Prioleau relayed his concerns about his own safety should COVID-19 begin to spread through the facility. He had offered the group insights into life on the inside before, and is a close friend of FFUP member Tai Renfrow. After Prioleau discussed his anxieties about the first COVID case confirmed at WCI, however, he became harder to contact.

“He was telling us this,” Renfrow told Wisconsin Examiner, “because he feared for his safety in terms of the ability of the institution to protect him, or for him to be able to protect himself, against potentially infected people who were carrying the virus.” Prioleau’s communications were carried out over the phone and via the email service provided and monitored by the Department of Corrections (DOC).

Shortly after the conversation about COVID-19, Renfrow explains, Prioleau was moved to a new cell. In this new area of the prison, Prioleau found himself with incarcerated men, including his new cellmate, who essentially operated as a gang. Whether he was able to get to a phone, and for how long, depended on the other men’s schedules. “It got to the point where Elijah was only able to use the phone when his cellmate was out of the room,” says Renfrow.

Leon Elijah Prioleau (Photo provided by Forum For Understanding Prisons)
Leon Elijah Prioleau (Photo provided by Forum For Understanding Prisons)

During one phone call, Renfrow recalls Prioleau hung up as his cellmate confronted and threatened him. She said hearing the exchange was “terrifying,” and that he hadn’t been able to call out since. After receiving an email from Prioleau, FFUP attempted to contact the WCI office for more answers. In this more threatening environment, FFUP members suggested Prioleau might even request segregation to protect himself from physical harm. That, although voluntary, would even further cut off his access to the outside.

“They continue to tell us that he’s safe and he’s there for security reasons,” said Renfrow. DOC spokespeople confirmed with Wisconsin Examiner that, “Mr. Prioleau made allegations against his cellmate and as a result was subsequently moved while these allegations are looked into.” FFUP reports that since his last email, he’s been moved to other parts of the facility.

Renfrow believes it’s possible that Prioleau — whom she considers a brother — may be choosing segregation because he feels threatened around others. Like many incarcerated people, Prioleau has a slew of chronic immune-compromising health conditions. Even in normal times, segregation could be a dangerous proposition for someone who needs regular access to medications or is prone to major health difficulties.

“Being put into segregation would even further put his health at risk,” said Renfrow. “Which is unfair for him to have to weigh those two options of his own health safety, over his physical safety.” Prioleau isn’t the only incarcerated person the group is in contact with who has been similarly cut off.

William Ledford and Damani Nantambu, both incarcerated in the Columbia Correctional Institution (CCI), have also been in regular contact with FFUP members. Ledford, in particular, has been very proactive in providing the group details about the conditions inside facilities as COVID-19 cases climb across the state.

To date, 34 incarcerated people and 23 staff, across at least 10 DOC institutions have tested positive for the virus. An additional eight DOC staff have tested positive in the Community Corrections Region 3 in Milwaukee, and Region 2 covering Kenosha, Racine and Walworth. Organizers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups fighting mass incarceration have expressed concerns about the low level of testing among incarcerated people in DOC care.

Both Ledford and Nantambu sent FFUP messages at the beginning of May, two days apart. “Just a heads up that I will be ‘off line’ for a few days,” read the first sentence in Ledford’s message. Ledford said that he had been the subject of a bad conduct report written by a guard after he became vocal about staff not wearing masks during a med pass. “They ‘offered’ a ‘plea bargain’ that if I pled guilty I would get seven days cell confinement with loss of electronics,” Ledford wrote. “But, they will find me ‘guilty’ no matter what and, at the least, give me the seven days cell confinement with loss of electronics.” DOC spokespeople confirmed with Wisconsin Examiner that Ledford recently received a conduct report which resulted in that very punishment.

Nantambu described the presence of an “outside company” with “deep cleaning equipment,” and a recent enforcement action involving several police officers in protective equipment. A day later, he wrote that the area he was in was thoroughly searched by staff, items were confiscated and numerous incarcerated men were sent to segregation. Nantambu wrote that the action “turned my world upside down,” and that “they threw all my socialist newspapers in the trash. When I objected, he threatened to bring me up on disruptive activities.” Natambu said, “I stepped back, I know the game he is playing.”

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DOC spokespeople confirmed that a search had recently occurred at Columbia. “It is common practice,” said DOC spokeswoman Anna Neal, “for institutions to conduct cell searches and remove contraband as part of our mission to keep our institutions safe and secure for staff and those in our care. If there is no reason to believe that an individual in our care is in possession of prohibited items/contraband, they are subsequently placed in Temporary Lock Up (TLU) pending a cell search and further investigation, and immediately released from TLU if those claims are unsubstantiated. This was the case in the search you are referencing at CCI.” Neal also states that “recent searches at CCI have not been related to COVID-19,” meaning the men were not necessarily detained for quarantine.

Ben Turk, an organizer with FFUP, notes that moving people around isn’t the only way communication with inside contacts can be disrupted. Email communication is largely mediated through CorrLinks which, like phone calls, is monitored and controlled. Getting on an incarcerated person’s contact list can take time, as each contact has to be approved. There can also be lags between when the message is sent out of the institution, and when it actually arrives in FFUP’s inbox.

Ben Turk, organizer with Forum For Understanding Prisons (FFUP) (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Ben Turk, organizer with Forum For Understanding Prisons (FFUP) (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

“We often get this kind of thing where emails are blocked,” Turk told Wisconsin Examiner. “Whenever there’s anything going on, people are telling stuff, they [the institution] will come up with reasons that the email’s not allowed to go through.”

Staff monitoring these communications can “outright deny and refuse to send an email based on their belief or feeling that the email is a threat to the security of the institution itself,” explains Renfrow. “The prisoner’s supposed to receive an email notifying them that their correspondence was denied, and we’re not seeing any of those kinds of denial emails going through. People will just tell us that they sent these emails, we’re not receiving them.” Renfrow has received emails with timestamps several days old from incarcerated people in the past. “So this email that I received today was the same email that Elijah had to copy and paste each and every day until it would come through.”

The Department of Corrections has policies and procedures in place to allow incarcerated people to report staff misconduct. However, activists have little confidence in these kinds of grievance proceedings. Turk feels that the internal process for handling the misconduct reports weighs heavily in the staff members’ favor. “There’s just all these different ways in which the immediate staff, including the person you’re complaining against, has the opportunity to intercept and interfere with those complaints,” says Turk. Even cases which make it to top-level prison officials may have limited chances of success.

It’s for these reasons that activists work to bring the voices of those incarcerated people outside of the walls confining them. FFUP has organized to push the state to issue clemency and compassionate releases for incarcerated people due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the beginning of the year, Wisconsin’s overall incarcerated population has gone down.

As of May 15, some 22,072 adults remained in custody, along with 110 minors in juvenile custody. The state recently released a report exploring options for early release during the pandemic, but noted clemency requests were unlikely. Renfrow and Turk fear that the more difficult it becomes to communicate with those on the inside, the murkier the view of how COVID-19 is affecting them will become for everyone on the outside.