Thursday, September 19, 2019

Open Letter to the 2019 Joint Committee on Finance

After giving comments at the public hearing of the Joint Committee on Finance in Oak Creek on Wednesday April 10, FFUP submitted this more detailed statement in writing.

We sent copies to Tony Evers' office, to top DOC officials, to all the politicians on the correctional and public safety committees. We republish it here as an open letter in hopes that people beyond those committees join us in our concern about the human rights crisis occurring in Wisconsin prisons.

Please share this letter
, and contact Governor Evers to express disappointment in his proposed budget and to demand that he veto and remove prison expansion funds from any budget that he passes.

Governor Tony Evers
@GovEvers on Twitter

Governor Tony Evers
115 East, State Capitol
Madison WI 53702

Warning, this statement includes discussion of suicide, self-harm and inhumane prison conditions.

Dear Joint Finance Committee members,

My name is Ben Turk, I’m a volunteer with Forum for Understanding Prisons (FFUP). I want to submit this written testimony to expand on my comments given at the budget hearing in Oak Creek this morning.
In June of 2016, 30 people held at Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI) declared a hunger strike. Experienced organizers with WISDOM and FFUP were hesitant to encourage them, but the strikers were very committed, and some of us newer to organizing in Wisconsin felt ready to support.
We held rallies in Milwaukee and Madison, marching on the Department of Corrections (DOC) central office repeatedly. After 10 days, the DOC got approval to force-feed people, a risky procedure and form of torture no longer practiced even in Guantanamo Bay. Joseph Beahm, a notoriously sadistic guard, was allowed to assist with the force-feedings, which sometimes broke or or bloodied people’s noses. He also tried to undermine the safety of the procedure. When staff insert feeding tubes down a person’s nose, drinking water from a straw will protect against the tube going into their lungs or tearing their esophagus, potentially fatal injuries. Beahm sometimes withdrew this water at the crucial moment of insertion. This video shows one such instance at timestamp 5:05. Notice the glitch in the video before Cesar’s reaction, evidence that someone doctored before release to court, concealing Beahm’s move.

We continued solidarity protests, including an action where more than fifty people, including family members, formerly incarcerated people and faith leaders marched around WCI. Waupun locals, likely employees at one of the three prisons located there or their relatives, followed us in their cars, then got out and heckled from the curbside. This was the only protest I've been in where I believed the (uninvited) police escort was actually deterring opponents from attacking us. For the safety of the children, elderly folks, and formerly incarcerated people in our demonstration, we cut the action short.
The force-feeding whittled hunger strike participation down significantly, but a few held out, lasting hundreds of days. This was beyond what any of us could adequately support. It wasn't until after we backed off that the DOC, likely not wanting us to declare victory, started negotiating concessions with the few remaining hunger strikers. LaRon McKinley, who served over 25 years in administrative control in Wisconsin prisons, was transferred to Colorado where officials released him to general population after less than six months without incident. Cesar DeLeon went to Racine where he remained in segregation. On March 26, 2019 he and another group of prisoners went back on hunger strike. We haven’t yet received any update from the prisoners or the DOC on the state of that protest.

While the hunger strike was going on, letters from prisons across the state flooded in, more people declaring that they too were on hunger strike. We were already beyond capacity and unable to do anything to help. We also started hearing really horrific stories about retaliation in segregation and observation units.
Guards began harassing and encouraging people to self harm. At multiple facilities, guards gave people on suicide watch blades, plastic bags, pills, or bedsheets to make into nooses. This practice appears to have continued. Last fall, correctional officers (COs) at Columbia Correctional Institution gave Kuan Barnett a sheet and came back that night, threatening to kill him. Officer Goldsmith and others beat him badly, then according to both prisoner witnesses and other staff, Goldsmith tied the sheet into a noose and claimed the beating was necessary to prevent Kuan hanging himself. Jovan Williams is currently suing Green Bay Correctional Institution for giving him a plastic bag and encouraging him to kill himself while he was on suicide watch. He says that staff at Waupun, where he is now held, have illegally intercepted and interfered with his legal work on that case.
We can’t know, but it seems the investigation into Goldsmith’s beating of Kuan Barnett didn’t start until after FFUP contacted the DOC and filed a public records request. How many similar incidents did we miss? Why is our all-volunteer organization with no funding doing this oversight work for the DOC? There are many other stories we've raised the alarm about: guards encouraging prisoners to kill themselves, mocking them, saying “Black guys who self harm aren’t serious; they’re just acting out” or asking people "Where's the blood?" and “Why haven’t you done it yet?”
I can’t help but feel that this is retaliation for the prisoner protests and our solidarity actions. According to records released to FFUP, suicides in the DOC multiplied by six times over in 2016, from 2 to 12 deaths. In 2017, there were 6 suicides, which is still higher than any other year in the previous decade. Other deaths also increased in 2016, possibly concealing suicides by mis-classifying them or at least showing increased neglect and disregard. All the data from 2018 was redacted from our request without any explanation, but letters from inside alerted us to more suicides that year than previously.
These suicides were caused by staff. We should consider them murders and hold the DOC responsible.
I've also filed record requests and appealed and re-appealed them, met with Makda Fessahaye from Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) and Governor Evers’ staffers, and contacted AG Josh Kaul’s office about what policy changes the DOC is making to stop driving people to suicide. Nothing released yet. It's a brick wall.
The budget proposed by Tony Evers seeks to address this crisis by increasing beds and hiring more correctional officers. These are not solutions. According to another FFUP public records release, the DOC has been hiring COs at high rates for years, but remains understaffed because they are losing almost as many COs as they hire. Again, the DOC refused to release data for recent years, this time claiming they stopped tracking reasons people leave, but the number of correctional officers who quit without notice rose significantly in the data they did release.
Everything I've seen suggests that correctional officers are stressed by understaffing, mandatory overtime, and crowded conditions. The officers who stay are the most desensitized, and they acculturate new employees to callous disregard for people held in their facilities. Churn is creating an increasingly toxic environment. Correctional officers in fear of losing their jobs or retirements, and in reaction to critical public discussions about mass incarceration and prison conditions, are lashing out at the people most immediately available, their captives. Those people are dying of it.

Meanwhile, AFSCME lobbies for raises to lure more people into these toxic jobs; they lobby against reducing revocations, against releasing people, against CLOSEmsdf, and for expanding prison beds. Thus far, what we've seen from our politicians, even Governor Evers who ran on reforming this system, is appeasement to guards and their union. We aren't addressing the child abuse at Lincoln Hills, we're building more youth prisons and converting Lincoln Hills to an adult facility: more beds to fill, more guards abusing more people. This is completely unacceptable.

There are unseen casualties in the fight against mass incarceration. People are dying in the dark. You have a responsibility to shed light on this and to bring change. Please pass a budget that starts a bold and vitally necessary process of defunding prisons, reinvesting in community, and protecting the people of Wisconsin from their government.

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