North Lake: A Year of Resistance

Though it may feel like much longer, it’s now been one year since October 2019, when in spite of community opposition the GEO Group reopened the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan as a federal immigrant-only prison. In the year since its reopening, reports from inside have confirmed and exceeded the fears of people in Baldwin and of immigrant advocates around the region and the country: this facility is a terrible threat to the life and safety of everyone inside and near it, exhibiting conditions that are, in the words of one prisoner, “unbelievable to humankind.” It needs to be shut down. But we are also inspired by the action and organizing undertaken by people incarcerated at North Lake over the last year.

The GEO Group and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have both shown themselves to be utterly negligent and mercenary in their mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. In the early days of the pandemic, when they had a chance to save lives by committing to a serious mass release plan, the BOP instead neglected to follow their own stated policies and transferred hundreds of people across state lines to a packed facility that could never safely hold them, allowing infections to multiply unchecked. For months people incarcerated at North Lake struggled to obtain facts regarding the virus and the threat it posed, as prison staff ignored their requests, gave them false information and even mocked their concern for safety. Family members and loved ones searched for answers on a website with a national prison map where North Lake at first didn’t even show up. More than a hundred incarcerated people and twenty staff members are confirmed to have gotten sick, and two incarcerated people are confirmed to have died, with prison staff shown to have lied about the circumstances of one death. Those are just the cases we know of, and there’s reason to believe the numbers could be much higher. The BOP’s online records for North Lake haven’t changed in months and show signs of simply no longer being updated.

This has also been a year of determined resistance and courageous inside organizing. To our knowledge, 2020 alone has seen six hunger strikes take place at North Lake—one of them in the general population in response to medical neglect, and the other five in the Restricted Housing Unit, where a group of primarily Black men were cruelly and arbitrarily confined from early spring to mid-autumn. Their strikes were met with pepper spray, denial of necessary sanitary supplies, and vindictive restrictions on access to clean water in the middle of a pandemic, but strikers didn’t back down. Their organizing has won conditional but nevertheless important victories. Donald Emerson, the original warden since last October, who showed an especially callous disregard for the safety of people held in the RHU and throughout the facility, has been fired and replaced. And the men held in the RHU have started to be transferred out to other facilities in the BOP system, as they had demanded since March. None of this would have happened without their persistent and brave efforts.

This shadow prison should never have reopened, but as we reflect on the last year we are committed to maintaining support for those held inside North Lake and working toward the closure of this facility and the abolition of immigrant detention and incarceration in Michigan and throughout the region.

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