Hunger strikes and other tactics emerge from Wisconsin prisons

Incarcerated people in Wisconsin are “still fighting everyday”

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

If you’re in prison, it’s not just the likelihood of being exposed to COVID-19 that weighs on you. While you wait to see whether you’ll develop symptoms, there isn’t much else to do. As part of the Department of Corrections (DOC) strategy to limit the virus’ spread among incarcerated people, many things which may have once made prison at least bearable have been restricted. Recreation, in-person family visits and programming have ceased, leaving Wisconsin’s incarcerated with little else other than time and the virus.

As the months go by, people incarcerated within these facilities have increasingly spoken out about poor conditions. Writing letters and holding DOC-monitored phone calls with press are not their only strategies. Hunger strikes, for example, have long been a tool of prisoner resistance movements. It’s a recurring tactic Wisconsin’s DOC has a specific policy for, and which some prisoners have begun to utilize. José Gonzalez, a man currently incarcerated in the Columbia Correctional Institution (CCI), is among them.

A DOC spokesperson told Wisconsin Examiner that Gonzalez was transferred to CCI from the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (WSPF), a maximum security facility, on Nov. 3. The day before, he’d sent out a Corrlinks message to advocates who run the Twitter handle Wisconsin Prison Voices. A project of the Milwaukee Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), the page disseminates updates on prison life, often directly from people locked within the system. “I’m still on my hunger and fluid strike,” Gonzalez messaged on Nov. 2, “I am also on another strike that is more life threatening, but I will get to all of that.”

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The DOC’s hunger strike policy notes that, “when a staff member becomes aware of or suspects an inmate of displaying a pattern of not eating and/or drinking, they shall have a discussion with the inmate regarding the extent of the inmate’s stated fast. Staff shall report this to [Human Services Unit] and a security supervisor.” From there, staff from HSU and the Psychological Services Unit (PSU) collaborate on assessing the incarcerated person’s condition, as well as whether a change in housing would be needed. According to the policy, hunger strikes are broken into three classifications.

Emergent: Refusal of fluids for 24 hours and/or food for 72 hours or actively being forced treatments through a court order.

Non-urgent: Intermittent refusal of food or fluids that leads to some degree of weight loss or dehydration. In addition, an ACP has determined that multi-disciplinary monitoring is required.

Resolved: An [Advanced Care Provider] has determined there is sufficient caloric and fluid intake to maintain weight and hydration over a medically acceptable time frame.

Although Gonzalez’s messages mention another incarcerated man who was hunger striking alongside him, the DOC told Wisconsin Examiner that Gonzalez acted alone. “Mr. Gonzalez is eating again following a meeting with the manager of the Health Services Unit at Columbia Correctional Institution,” the spokesperson said on Dec. 2. Gonzalez had several demands which he hoped the hunger strike would accomplish.

“As of right now I am back in my cell as is Evans,” he messaged to advocates on Nov. 2, referencing the other prisoner who he said was striking with him. “We are doing good, even though Evans has started to eat again and is having stomach issues due to trying to eat and drink too much too fast. But other than that, he is fine so that’s good. All in all, we are just asking for what all people in our situation should have, and changes and conversions that need to be done.” The demands, some of which pertained to issues related to his time at WSPF, were as follows:

• The return of property and electronics taken from incarcerated people

• Shelves big enough to hold all these items

• 5 showers a week

• The return of hobby supplies

• No limits on how many phone calls incarcerated people are allowed per month

•  No restrictions on canteen, particularly in regard to food and hygiene

• The ability to order care packages

•  To talk with the head doctor involved in medical services for the facility

• To be referred to as “people” or “humans” vs. anything else

• To be fed adequate amounts of food beyond a 2,500 calorie diet

• The removal and replacement of a particular unit manager at a facility

• To have certain titles renamed, “as words do have power and some cause power trips,” Gonzalez noted in his Nov. 2 message.

“It is sad that they will refuse some of these requests,” he continued. “I am not sure what help you can offer me or how you can aid me, but you have my permission to give people my information.” Two days after Gonzalez was to be transferred from WSPF, the facility experienced a modified lockdown due to increased numbers of staff testing positive for COVID-19. Now, some 33 staff members have tested positive for the virus, as well as two people incarcerated there.

People incarcerated in other facilities have shared their  concerns with Wisconsin Examiner over the past several months. They include Damani Nantambu, who’s also incarcerated at CCI and is himself no stranger to hunger striking. Two others, Bradley Sewell and Fountane Baker, who lived through the COVID surge at Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI), also described the bleakness, infrequent access to showers, and lack of activities and opportunity.

“None of us are sentenced to death,” said Baker. “You got a lot of people who are sentenced to life with parole and all this type of stuff, so you feel optimistic. Even if it seems far fetched or far off, you feel optimistic. I still got a little ways to go, but I’m still fighting everyday.”

The DOC confirmed that the demands of Gonzalez’s hunger strike were not met following his return to eating and drinking. Nevertheless John Beard, a spokesperson, assured that, “Columbia leadership will look into the merits of his complaints.”