Speaking on July 7th, 2021, an immigrant incarcerated at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin describes deteriorating conditions as the prison nears a potential 2022 closing date and GEO Group administrators cut more corners than ever. Recently, fearing a protest among the incarcerated population, the administration put the whole prison on lockdown for three days. We will continue to share updates as we get them.
This recording has been edited for length. A transcript is below.
VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: “I’m pretty sure they know that they’re closing. People complain about it because the food is horrible, they give you less and less food, they don’t—they always, like, shorted us on toilet paper.
They never want to help. Like they never want to give you medication or anything like that. They just really, like, really trying to save money. A lot of people suffering from headaches and stuff like that because they never have enough stuff to give us. They give us a tiny little bit of food.
They give us like fake meat—I don’t know what kind of meat is that, but nobody eat it. It smells horrible.
They didn’t want to give me my medicine anymore. Because they say they sell it in commissary. The one in commissary doesn’t help. The commissary’s super expensive, way expensive, I mean, they want to make money out of us.
It’s pretty bad. And it’s getting worse and worse, like, they getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. We never have enough toilet paper. We always got to be begging them to give us toilet paper. We don’t have paper towels, we don’t have, like, anything that like a regular prison has.
The other day that we say we were going to protest, they lock us all down. For three days, everybody. The whole prison! They keep sending people to the SHUs. They don’t want you to say anything.”
No Detention Centers in Michigan stands in full solidarity with ongoing movements for freedom and dignity in both Colombia and Palestine that have faced massive repression and state violence in recent weeks.
These struggles are closely linked to the work of the NDCM coalition, not only because Palestinians and Colombians are among those affected by the violence of the detention and deportation machine in Michigan and across the United States, but because all movements against oppression and carceral power are connected. Though the recently announced Israel-Gaza ceasefire means some measure of relief for the occupied people of Gaza as they mourn over 250 killed, the harm of Israeli settler colonialism persists in the ongoing occupation. Expulsions of indigenous Palestinians from their homes in neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan continue, along with a nationwide system of discrimination recently recognized as apartheid by Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem בצלם. In Colombia, under the rightwing regime of Ivan Duque, police forces have killed dozens of protesters and indigenous organizers who spoke out over the last month against neoliberal austerity measures and militarism. More than a thousand others have been arbitrarily detained, and hundreds have disappeared.
Administrative detention—the practice of incarcerating a person without charge or trial—has been a prominent feature of both Israel’s campaign of ethnic cleansing and the Colombian government’s crackdown on activists. It is also a cornerstone of ICE’s policy in the U.S., another settler state that continues directly to enable and aid state violence against resistance movements in Palestine, Colombia, and around the world.
NDCM demands an end to the use of torture and administrative detention by the governments of Colombia, Israel, and the U.S.; the release of all Colombian, Palestinian and U.S. political prisoners; and an end to U.S. military and police aid to Colombia and Israel. In accordance with this last demand, we support Palestinian civil society’s call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the Israeli state.
Please consider joining us in donating here to support urgent mutual aid efforts on the ground in Colombia. Another donation link organized by Colombian immigrants and disbursed directly to groups on the ground can be found here. For more information on the international anti-racist BDS movement for justice and Palestinian freedom from occupation, you can visit the BDS website.
Immigrants incarcerated at the North Lake Correctional Facility finally received the COVID-19 vaccine last month, after a year of disastrous mismanagement and neglect on the part of the GEO Group which has resulted in extensive suffering and fear throughout the facility and at least two deaths. We continue to mourn the loss of Félix Repilado Martínez and Chi Cuong Hoang, who should never have been locked up in Baldwin in the first place and who passed away last year, as well as Jesse Jerome Dean, who died at the Calhoun County Jail in February almost immediately after being transferred away from North Lake.
These vaccines should have come much earlier; and, given GEO’s long record of secrecy, abuse and deceit, we strongly doubt that the numbers of COVID cases and deaths that have been reported at North Lake reflect the reality of the situation. As the article linked above also notes, COVID cases at the facility don’t factor into the Lake County totals, though vaccinations do. While we welcome this overdue news, there is no way to deny the immense harm that North Lake has caused both the people incarcerated there and the wider community in Lake County, and this facility can’t be shut down soon enough.
Along with Detention Watch Network, we are mourning the loss this month of Jesse Jerome Dean, Jr., a victim of entrapment by the federal government who served 30 years in prison on drug-trafficking charges and who consistently professed his innocence. He was recently imprisoned at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin until December 31st, 2020, and was then seized by ICE and held in immigration detention at the Calhoun County Jail until he died on February 5th. In their press release announcing his death, ICE misspelled his name.
“Despite […] very detailed showings of both my actual and legal innocence and the fraud that was perpetrated upon me and the court,” Jesse wrote in 2008, “I remain imprisoned; each and every court that has reviewed my claims has denied me relief, ignoring their own laws, the facts and the truth!” His full statement can be read here.
The North Lake Correctional Facility had already claimed at least two lives in the last year. Now another immigrant barely made it out of North Lake only to die a month later in ICE detention at a Michigan county jail. This terrible news comes as a reminder not only that shadow prisons like North Lake must be shut down, but that the entire immigrant detention apparatus of which North Lake is a part must be dismantled. #FreeThemAll
Joe Biden’s recent executive order reinstating the Obama administration’s plan to phase out federally operated private prisons reflects only one small part of the struggle against incarceration and immigrant detention. The order doesn’t affect private immigrant detention centers (which Biden’s pre-election platform also singled out for closure). Shutting down private prisons alone, moreover, will not address the crisis of mass incarceration. But it is nevertheless essential that private prisons like the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin be closed—and not just when the GEO Group’s contract runs out years from now, but immediately.
The horrors of the past year and the courageous organizing efforts of immigrants locked up in Baldwin have made this very clear. “This place is unbelievable to humankind,” one person incarcerated at North Lake told us last spring. “We’ve begun to be sentenced by death,” another said. Our playlist of recorded calls from the facility in 2020 includes testimony from multiple hunger strikes and reports of medical neglect, staff refusing to take COVID concerns seriously, vindictive use of solitary confinement and water shutoffs, sick people disappearing from units with no one knowing their fate, guards using pepper spray to force the ending of a peaceful strike, and more.
Between April and November 2020, prisoners at North Lake launched at least six separate hunger strikes to demand adequate food, medical care, and an end to racist abuse, in part due to the Bureau of Prisons’ and the GEO Group’s utter mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. This has resulted in at least two deaths at the facility so far. Terrible working conditions have led staff to quit in large numbers, making the atmosphere even more chaotic.
In an article from January, Village President Jim Truxton of Baldwin acknowledges none of this. He praises GEO and claims that “none of [his] friends and acquaintances complain that they feel they’re in danger.” But Truxton personally profits from this immigrant incarceration, because, by his own admission, he owns GEO stock. His statements and the GEO Group’s claim that Biden’s executive order is “a solution in search of a problem” are obscene.
People who have experienced the immense violence of this facility, along with their families and loved ones, have been trying to alert the world ever since they got there. In addition to the testimony of the many calls and letters NDCM has received, Felipe De La Hoz detailed this pattern of violence in an August 2020 article for The Intercept. The article describes the life and illness of Félix Repilado Martínez, who wrote “I need to see the doctor soon is possible” a month before he died from complications of COVID-19. GEO lied about the circumstances of his death. His blood is on their hands.
In the fight against the carceral state, closing private prisons is just the beginning. But there’s no question that facilities like North Lake need to be closed.
As the political situation beyond prison walls fluctuates day by day, conditions at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin remain unacceptable, and even continue to deteriorate. Last week one of the immigrants incarcerated at North Lake told us the food was getting worse and worse; the coffee tastes “like rotten wood”; medical issues take weeks to receive attention; and staff have been talking about at least one incarcerated person “getting super sick again.” The number of COVID-19 cases reported at North Lake on the Bureau of Prisons’ online resource page has not changed for months, but this by no means indicates an absence of cases. Sometimes days have passed without the BOP even adjusting the date.
They want to keep these conditions under the rug, but we will keep exposing and challenging the horrors of this prison until it’s closed down and the people held inside are free.
A transcript is below. The recording has been edited for length.
“I don’t know, it’s—they say it’s breaking down again, because they separated the people again. And the problem that a lot of people are having here, they’re not given enough food. We, like, been complaining about it—they refuse to give us real food. It’s getting out of control, you know, a lot of people get headaches. But they don’t … they just don’t care. The food is just getting worse and worse, every day that goes by. I don’t know if they’re running out of money, I don’t know what’s going on, but the food is getting worse and worse. And you cannot protest with them, because they always threaten you: ‘Don’t do this, because you’re gonna make it worse for yourself.’
They try to give us coffee, the coffee taste like dried wood. Like a rotten piece of wood, that’s the taste of the coffee.
The staff members over here are not trying to help you, they never, like, have an answer for you. They just—they isolate us, and we don’t have a voice over here, pretty much.
They say somebody got super sick again. That’s what the staff are saying, and they’re really short on staff, you know what I’m saying, they don’t, I mean—it’s pretty horrible here. We get treated like we’re not human beings.
Like, a person would have like a high fever. And you go and ask them for some Tylenol, and like, ‘Get a sick a call,’ and then the sick call take about a week, for them to get you to medic. They isolate us, they don’t care—like, they never have an answer for you. They refuse to give you the right information; they don’t want to.
Pretty much they’re using this prison like a big warehouse over here, you know what I mean? We don’t have none of the stuff that we’re supposed to have. Our voices are not heard. People like really mistreat us.
They say they’re not making move-ins, but they still bringing in people to the prison. Yeah, they’re still bringing people. We spend a lot of time in our cells because it takes them so long to count, you know what I mean?
I also talked to a lot of people that quit here. They straight-up told me to my face that the reason why they were quitting is because they don’t want to be punished for something, ’cause it’s like, a lot of the people here are, like, not bad people. And it’s not humanely, the way we’re being treated, and I don’t—like I said, we don’t have a voice. They don’t want nobody to know what’s going on over here, they don’t want nobody to know. They want to keep it under the rug.”
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.
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.
“I told them I was gonna move and they still come and sprayed me.”
In a phone call from Wednesday, August 19th, a hunger striker in the Special or Restricted Housing Unit at the GEO Group’s North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin describes being assaulted with pepper spray as a result of his participation in the most recent strike which ended on Monday, August 17th. Strikers have continued to demand an explanation for their prolonged confinement to this unit, as well as the restoration of phone access which has been denied in violation of GEO’s own policies. The recording has been edited for length.
“While we was on the hunger strike, they come and pepper-spray me, and also write me an incident report for not wanting to move, when I never refused to move. I told them that I was gonna move. Twelve o’clock, they come and tell me that we have to move to 224. Three o’clock, they come back and tell me, no, we ain’t gonna move to 224 no more, they gonna move us to the hallway. So I was like, ‘The hallway is not a part of the SHU! So why you want to move me there?’ So I was like, ‘If you want to move me, all right, move me to where I should be, at administration detention.’ While I was in there, we wasn’t moving, they come and pepper-spray us and pull us out.
They dragged me out, take me to the shower, and the nurse come and see me, wash up—they threw something in my eye, I don’t know what is it, to wash out the pepper spray, ’cause they pepper-sprayed my eye, I could not really see. My nose—I could not even really breathe with it.
I never really do nothing, I never really fight them or anything, ’cause with pepper spray I can’t really do nothing, so I just put my hands behind my back and they cuff me and take me out.
The incident report said that I ‘refused to work’—then, after, they scratched that and said I ‘refused to move.’ It was all—they’re just doing it because retaliation, because the shot doesn’t really match with what they said.
I’m simply telling them that we are not fighting for nothing that we’re not supposed to have. If you don’t want to give us the phone, give us the phone privilege, we are not going to eat, because you are not giving us what we should really get. Because in the GEO rulebook, it says inmates in administration detention should [be] entitled to the same privilege as inmates in general population. And what really happened—they haven’t do that. When every time you get locked up, and you come into prison, the first thing that they tell us—they say it’s your right to know the rules and regulations. To respect staff and expect staff will treat you with respect. But we know the rules, they try to treat us bad. My old place, I never get a shot. Since I’m here, within less than two weeks, they write me five different incident reports.
We not eating is a problem to them, and they tried to do everything to get us to eat. But I was like, I was not gonna eat until either I pass out—I was really trying to get to pass out. I think if I had gone like until Monday or Tuesday, I would have passed out.
Everyone is tired here because we are not supposed to be in the SHU this long. It’s over 90 days now and Obama did pass a law that we’re not supposed to be in the SHU this long. And I haven’t even done nothing to be back here. I keep begging them, ‘Send me back to the compound.’ They refuse to send me back to the compound. I haven’t do nobody nothing on the compound. I haven’t said nothing to no one on the compound. I keep telling them, ‘Send me back to general population if you’re not gonna give me what I’m supposed to get back here.’ Because—at least have some sympathy on us. We are here, we can’t talk to our families due to coronavirus, and you’re gonna take the phone from us?
Everything we do, they write us a shot—incident report. From all the incident reports that they write me, I ask them, ‘Give me—call the Jamaican consulate, let them translate for me, because me English is very very bad.’ They haven’t do it one time as yet. So that’s the thing they do up here, they’re always writing us shots. They write us all the shots back here. And I know it’s all retaliation, for the hunger strike.
I never refused no direct order. I told them I was gonna move and they still come and sprayed me, and the incident report, what they write also said something different.”
On Wednesday, August 5th, more than two dozen people held in the Restricted Housing Unit (or RHU) at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan launched the largest hunger strike to have taken place in that unit since the prison’s reopening last October. The strike, which has continued into the current week, came in response to longstanding discriminatory treatment as well as strict rules imposed by the facility’s new acting warden, Angela Dunbar. Appointed this summer as a replacement for Warden Donald Emerson, Dunbar has implemented harsh limits on phone access at a time when those in the RHU face an urgent need to communicate with loved ones.
“Initially there was only three inmates in the Restricted Housing Unit that wasn’t participating,” one of the strikers said on Monday, August 10th. “Latinos as well as Black as well as white. Everybody’s on the hunger strike for the purpose of [addressing] human rights violations. We got kids, we got brothers, we got sisters, mothers, fathers that we need to touch base with, and friends. Instead of making some accommodations allowing us to communicate effectively with our families, they have taken those rights away from us.”
North Lake is a private facility owned and managed by the Florida-based GEO Group on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, holding non-U.S. citizens convicted of federal crimes. A group of around a dozen Black men have been confined to the RHU since March, following a fight in which they were not involved. This is the fifth hunger strike in which they have taken part over the last six months in response to racist repression, unacceptable living conditions and religious discrimination, and the sixth hunger strike to occur at North Lake overall in that time. Two people from the unit have been placed on suicide watch within the last month.
Strikers strongly suspect that Warden Emerson’s departure from the facility is connected to public awareness of their mistreatment and Emerson’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, yet they say the new warden is trying to make conditions even worse. “The warden has made changes with the phone. But it is her rules and not GEO’s rules,” another participant stated last week, referring to a new policy limiting those in the RHU to one 15-minute non-legal call every 30 days. “In the inmate handbook it states that inmates in general population and inmates in Administrative Detention should have the same privileges. The warden took away those privileges, and I have not done anything to lose those privileges.” (The inmate handbook for North Lake affirms: “To the extent practical, inmates in Administrative Segregation shall be provided with the same general privileges as inmates in general population.”)
“We’re demanding to be transferred; if they can’t transfer us, then to accommodate us in a way where we could deal with this a little bit better under the circumstances,” one of the men in the RHU said on Monday. “I feel like I do deserve the same rights as any other human, the same rights as any other prisoner across the country. Under no circumstances will I eat, unless they can accommodate us or get us out of here.”
“I know none of the Black individuals back here are eating, and I believe more than half of the Hispanic are not eating. Approximately I would say about 25 people right now. Between 25 to 30.”
In a phone call from Monday, August 10th, a participant explains the reasons for the new larger hunger strike in the Restricted Housing Unit at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, which has seen over two dozen people refuse to eat since last Wednesday night in response to cruel conditions imposed by the new acting warden, Angela Dunbar. This is the fifth hunger strike in the RHU and the sixth at North Lake overall since March 2020.
“Initially there was only three inmates in the Restricted Housing Unit that wasn’t participating. Latinos as well as Black as well as white. Everybody’s on the hunger strike for the purpose of human rights violations. I think as of today, a few people eat, but the majority still are not eating. There’s a substantial amount of inmates—I know none of the Black individuals back here are eating, and I believe more than half of the Hispanic are not eating. Approximately I would say about 25 people right now. Between 25 to 30.
We have been here for over five months. That’s over 156 days and counting, we have been back here.
We was instructed that there are movements being made within the BOP—the Federal Bureau of Prisons is moving individuals, inmates—however, the inmates here at North Lake Correctional Facility are immigrants and ‘they are not a priority.’ We demand to be moved, and they told us that we can’t be moved. So our human rights have been compromised. But at the same time, the institution, instead of making some accommodations allowing us to communicate effectively with our families, and still keep communication—understanding what’s going on out there with them, knowing that we have other family members, we got kids, we got brothers, we got sisters, mothers, fathers that we need to touch base with, and friends, as well as friends—they have taken those rights away from us. To where they put us in a position to make a decision—whom to call but with one phone call a month.
The 14th Amendment of the United States guarantees us the same protections as any of the citizens of the United States. Because we were sentenced in the United States court, by a sentencing judge, and under United States Constitution, for violating United States statutes. Proper rehabilitation, proper reentry preparation, and proper programming to get us ready to reenter society—all of that has been taken away from us, just simply because we was Black. And now, furthermore, the family time—that has been taken away from us. Because not only can we not receive any visitation at this time, due to the COVID-19, but you’re taking the conversation away from us and our families, being able to communicate with our kids. That’s wrong. All we’re asking for is to communicate effectively with our families, know that they’re OK, and for them to know that we’re OK, while we wait this thing out. That has been taken away from us.
So we’re demanding to be transferred; if they can’t transfer us, then to accommodate us in a way where we could deal with this a little bit better under the circumstances. Because we have—our time is past due, sir. It is not past due by three days, it is not past due by five days. It’s past due by almost three months. We’ve almost doubled the amount of time that the law says we’re supposed to be in the Restricted Housing Unit.
I feel like I do deserve the same rights as any other human, the same rights as any other prisoner across the country. For that purpose and that reason only, I will not eat until they accommodate and understand our situation and the position that we’re in.
I need to speak to my kids; I need to speak to my grandmother; I need to speak to my father; I need to speak to my grandfather; I need to speak to my brother effectively, and I need to fight my case effectively. All those have been taken away from us. They’re retaliating by giving us unnecessary write-ups and incident reports, they’re trying everything that they can to get us to eat. But I will be honest with you, that under no circumstances will I eat, unless they can accommodate us or get us out of here.”
There’s a new warden at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, and the group of mostly Black men who have been confined since March to the Special or Restricted Housing Unit started another hunger strike on Wednesday, August 5th. This is their fifth hunger strike and the sixth to our knowledge in the facility since March.
Donald Emerson, who had served as the warden at North Lake since its reopening in October, has been replaced. At first we welcomed this news since Emerson’s cruelty and his shameful mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis had been named specifically by people incarcerated at North Lake. But there are signs that his acting replacement, Angela Dunbar, is attempting to make conditions even worse. In 2016 Dunbar was sued by a federal prisoner in Indiana for prolonging his own confinement to a restricted unit for over six years without any procedural due process. Now, at North Lake, she has instituted harsh new regulations for phone use at a time when people desperately need regular contact with their families and loved ones.
While the conditions at North Lake are unacceptable for anyone, administrators had sought to appease people in the general population with increased phone access in the midst of the pandemic. The facility’s inmate handbook states: “To the extent practical, inmates in Administrative Segregation shall be provided with the same general privileges as inmates in general population.” The men in the RHU have been told that they are in Administrative Segregation, yet they continue to be treated as if they had violated prison policy. Dunbar first limited their phone time to 15 minutes every 30 days (as seen in this form). When they started their new hunger strike on Wednesday, August 5th, the limit was changed to 15 minutes every 10 days—a sign that their organizing makes a difference. But they are demanding a full reinstatement of phone access, as well as a transfer away from North Lake and access to another unit in the meantime.
CALL THE NORTH LAKE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY at 231-745-9711 to say you support the hunger strikers in the Restricted Housing Unit and their demands for fully restored phone privileges and access to a more spacious unit pending their transfers. We will continue to share updates as we get them.
On Tuesday, July 21st, one day after people around the country participated in a historic #StrikeForBlackLives, a group of nine predominantly Black men held in the Special Housing Unit (or SHU) at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin are entering the fifth day of a new hunger strike to protest intolerable conditions. One of them, Carlington Cruickshank, urgently needs medical attention. Carlington has been experiencing worsening chest pain, stomach pain, and blurred vision for over a month and a half, and he has been told that he won’t be able to see a doctor until the end of August. He is afraid for his life.
The men in the SHU are also demanding adequate food (after months of nothing but rice and beans every day), an end to vindictive incident reports from staff, more regular access to clean laundry and hygiene supplies, and a transfer out of this restricted unit. This is their fourth hunger strike since March, and the fifth strike to our knowledge in the facility. Please join us and take a few minutes on Tuesday to make sure prison staff know we’re watching and to demand that Carlington receive medical care immediately.
CALL: North Lake Correctional Facility: 231-745-9711 Federal Bureau of Prisons, North Central Region Office: 913-621-3939
SCRIPT: “I’m calling in support of the men who have been on hunger strike since Friday in the Special Housing Unit at the North Lake Correctional Facility, and to demand medical care for Carlington Cruickshank, inmate number 70473-004. By law prisoners must receive adequate nutrition and healthcare. This strike is sending a clear message that after months in the SHU, these men’s basic needs are still not being met and their basic rights are being violated. You have an obligation to cooperate with their demands, and Carlington needs medical attention right away.”
TIPS: Try to get someone—anyone—on the other end. But even if you can’t, leaving a voicemail is helpful. Add your own thoughts to the script if you want. Try not to be flustered if the person on the other end attempts to derail your message by arguing small points. Remember the big point: People are putting their bodies on the line and we’re here to voice our support for their demands.
Please feel free to leave a comment letting us know how your call went or reach out with any questions.
“We was never supposed to be back here to begin with. And they admitted it as well! We didn’t have no business for being back here, because we never did anything to violate institutional rules. We went on a hunger strike about it. And I also would add that they let us stay at least six days without no food, before implementing the rules that they should’ve been following from the get-go.”
Speaking on Monday, June 22nd, 2020, one member of a group of predominantly Black men held since March in the Special Housing Unit (or SHU) at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin describes the awful conditions they all have faced, including a period of several days when they had no access to soap or other hygiene products. In the time since this call, we’ve heard that the men in the SHU were finally given soap and toothpaste after five days. To our knowledge, the other conditions described in the call remain the same.
“It’s been an ongoing issue: the mail that we send out is not being received. They’re not letting the mail go out, for whatever reason. And they’re also having an issue letting us receive mail coming in, which is a violation of the mail procedure, because if they’re not going to send you the mail that I send to you, or not give me the mail that you send to me, they have to give me a reason why so we could try to fix the issue.
The hygiene is a problem. Since Thursday we been up here asking for soap, we can’t get soap. We been here asking for toothbrush, we can’t get no toothbrush. We been here asking for toothpaste, we can’t get no toothpaste. We been asking for toilet papers, we can’t get no toilet papers. We asking for deodorant, we can’t get no deodorant.
The food—we already talked to the guy from the BOP. It’s unhealthy, man. It’s the same meal every day. It’s rice and beans, every day, twice a day. I don’t know as far as, like, what can be done about it, but it’s unhealthy. I’m not eating it, personally. I stopped eating it because it’s causing me stomach issues. I’m not the only one with the stomach issue.
It’s hot, but we don’t have no AC in the facility. So there’s air coming in here. The air is filthy, man. It’s filthy. And they’re not letting—I don’t know if the institution don’t have air conditioning, or if they’re just electing not to let the air conditioning go.
There was an issue with the phone, because they’re not letting us use the phone as we should. Because there’s two forms of segregation. Administrative segregation is entitled to the same privileges, to the extent practical. We was never supposed to be back here to begin with. And they admitted it as well! We didn’t have no business for being back here, because we never did anything to violate institutional rules. We went on a hunger strike about it. And I also would add that they let us stay at least six days without no food, before implementing the rules that they should’ve been following from the get-go, because it’s GEO policy.
Being that we back here in the SHU, we don’t have access to do anything on our own, and the case manager’s supposed to be here once a week. We haven’t seen the case manager in over a month and a half. None of us even know who our case manager is right now at this time.
It’s 23 and 1 right now. And that 23 and 1 is only five days a week—on the weekend, it’s 24. 24 hours in the cell. We are being held right now until we can get transferred to the next facility. We been designated since probably the beginning of April. As of right now, nothing has happened yet. We still back here, crossing our fingers, hoping this nightmare will end anyday, and it just hasn’t happened. It hasn’t happened. And there’s really no sign right now that it’s going to happen in the next week or so, neither.”
On Sunday, June 21st and Monday the 22nd, as rebellions against anti-Black state violence and campaigns for police and prison abolition continued around the country, two members of a group of primarily Black men isolated within a restricted unit at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan reported that longstanding dangerous conditions in the unit had been getting worse, and that prison staff had withheld necessary hygiene products for over five days despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“For a month and a half now, they haven’t been switching out our blankets or giving us new sheets,” one person in the Special Housing Unit (or SHU) said on Sunday night. “Since Thursday, they haven’t been giving us any hygiene products. We’re just trying to get basic hygiene materials.”
North Lake is a private facility owned and managed by the GEO Group on behalf of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, holding non-U.S. citizens convicted of federal crimes. The group of Black men confined to the SHU have been there since March, following a fight in which they were not involved. They have launched three separate hunger strikes over the last three months in response to racist repression and religious discrimination.
“Since Thursday, we been up here asking for soap, we can’t get soap,” one of them confirmed on Monday afternoon. “We been here asking for toothbrushes, we can’t get no toothbrushes. We been asking for toothpaste, we can’t get no toothpaste. We been asking for toilet paper, we can’t get no toilet paper. We been asking for deodorant, we can’t get no deodorant.”
This denial of essential sanitary supplies comes at a moment when the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of decline or effective containment at North Lake or elsewhere in the U.S. prison system. Even with its lack of comprehensive testing, North Lake has had one of the highest counts of coronavirus cases throughout the Bureau of Prisons, more than any other private facility appearing on the BOP’s COVID-19 resource page. Two incarcerated people are confirmed to have died after contracting the virus there, more than at any other private federal prison listed on the site.
Immigrants incarcerated in Baldwin over the last several months have described a climate of denial, cruelty and negligence which allowed the virus to spread unchecked throughout the prison. A new report from The Interceptdetails the BOP’s pattern of transferring incarcerated non-citizens across state lines well into the so-called lockdown period, with many ending up at North Lake and suddenly exposed to grave new health risks. But while many new people have been shipped into the prison, few appear to have gone out. The men in the SHU state that since April they have repeatedly been promised transfers to other facilities which have never materialized. “There was rumors that we were going to be shipped, but it never happened,” one of them said on Sunday. “We’re all still here.”
“We don’t have access to do anything on our own,” another added on Monday, “so we need the assistance of a case manager. And the case manager’s supposed to be here once a week. We haven’t seen the case manager in over a month and a half. None of us even know who our case manager is right now.”
“The anti-Black violence and neglect experienced by these men in the SHU is a reminder for us that struggles for the abolition of police, immigrant detention, and prisons are all connected,” said JR Martin, a member of No Detention Centers in Michigan. “This facility is not a safe place for anyone. And the GEO Group’s specific anti-Black repression is part of the same machinery of state terror that killed Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and countless others, leading to the uprisings we’re witnessing right now. This fight will not be over until the whole system of policing, detention, and incarceration is abolished.”
“From day one, North Lake has been a nightmare and should be shut down,” said Kara, the wife of one of the men in the SHU, on Monday. “My husband has been incarcerated there for about six months, and the entire time he has been denied basic healthcare, nutrition and sanitation. At times they cut the water off on his room, and the staff attempted to interfere with his religious practices. The discrimination, outright racism, and mistreatment my husband has suffered at the hands of North Lake should not be tolerated and is another strand in the national dialogue about injustice.”
On Friday, May 15th, a group of around a dozen predominantly Black men who have been confined since March to the Special Housing Unit at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin launched a new hunger strike. The strikers cited multiple instances of prison staff denying access to legal mail, continued religious discrimination, and a pattern of staff ignoring complaint forms or even throwing them away. North Lake is a federal prison privately owned and managed by the GEO Group to hold non-U.S. citizens convicted of federal crimes. This is the fourth such strike to have been confirmed at the facility since March, and the third in the Special Housing Unit (or SHU).
“It’s a lot of stuff going on in here right now,” a member of the group said on Friday in a statement to No Detention Centers in Michigan, describing a consistently chaotic and unsafe environment in which GEO staff had entered cells during recreation time to remove incarcerated people’s complaint forms, had withheld one person’s legal mail from a court outside Michigan which required a response within 30 days, and had chosen to restrict access to kosher meals for some of the men whose religious practice includes a strict diet. “These people have not been answering the grievances.”
This new strike reflects both the continuation of alarming conditions at the North Lake Correctional Facility and an ongoing commitment to organizing for justice among incarcerated and detained people across the state of Michigan and beyond in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this month, more than a hundred people from at least one unit in the general population at North Lake participated in a days-long hunger strike to demand COVID-19 testing and adequate medical care for everyone held in the facility, where more than 80 staff members and incarcerated people are now confirmed to have tested positive for the virus. This action at North Lake, which appears to have ended after four of its alleged organizers were thrown into the SHU, mirrors a reported hunger strike initiated last week among people detained by ICE at the St. Clair County Jail in Port Huron.
The men who have been in the SHU at North Lake since March had previously launched two separate hunger strikes of their own, demanding adequate food and healthcare, renewed access to phone time and showers, and an explanation for their continued confinement to the restricted unit. “Right now we have already refused two meals—tomorrow, to the next day, to the next day, to the next day,” one of them said on Friday. “The wrongdoing, everything that’s going on here—it’s gonna be a long hunger strike.”
On the evening of Friday, May 15th, we got word that the group of around a dozen predominantly Black men who have been unjustly confined for over two months to the Special Housing Unit at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin would be launching another hunger strike. The strikers are demanding full access to legal mail which the GEO Group has denied them, an end to religious discrimination, and a response to their complaint forms which have continued to be ignored or thrown out.
To our knowledge, this is the fourth separate hunger strike to have taken place at the North Lake Correctional Facility within the last two months.
The strike in the general population from the last week, which saw at least a hundred people demanding COVID-19 testing and adequate medical care for everyone in the facility, may have ended after the warden retaliated by throwing four people allegedly involved in organizing it into the SHU. More details on this new hunger strike will be included in a press release coming soon.
“We’re about to get back on hunger strike. We’re not coming off. As far as the nine meals, ten, eleven—I don’t think we’re coming off.
Because, let me start with one. Legal mail—we are not getting our mails. Even just like when you’re sending your mails to me and all that, they’ve been taking our mails and they’re not giving our mails. We sent mail to the court, and I know the court’s been sending us back, because they have to send back certain stuff, right? These people, instead of giving his legal mail to him, they actually hid his mail inside the property room. And he found out, and now they’re trying not to do what is right by making a statement that, you know, they did wrong by him. Because the judge has wrote back to him that he has 30 days to send back another mail to them, to the court system, about certain stuff. And by them doing what they did, by having our mails in the property room down there … it’s a lot of stuff going on in here right now.
Our grievances—we’ve been sending our grievances back and forth. These people have been not answering the grievances, and they’ve been—they be throwing away our grievances. They come in and steal it, when we go outside for rec—’cause we have an hour rec—they come in the room and took their papers. That’s another thing.
Religious food. You know, it’s Ramadan, right? The kosher meals—they have actually said they’re limiting the kosher meals. They’re actually discriminating against them. So this has been an ongoing problem in here.
As far as us going and getting designated to the other prisons, they were saying that they’re in fear of their life, in fear of retaliation ’cause we’ve been taking action against GEO. And they just fear that, because of what’s going on—like, people are saying they’re going to go to another GEO—and they’re gonna be, you know what I’m saying? Targeted. So they are really trying not to go back to no GEO. They want to actually go back to the BOP, instead of this. ‘Cause it’s basically the same environment. The same people, the same thing, you know? It’s just going to a different state.
The chaplain is part of the religious food, and been lying, and all this. The Assistant Warden Gray—he came and been lying and do not want to come and deal with the situation that they have actually put us back into now again. So now we’re going back through the whole system, and it’s just crazy. Miss Kramer, who had the signature for the mailing of the legal mail that we’re supposed to get—when you get legal mail, you’re supposed to bring our mail, and they have not done that. She was the one that signed off, they ended up giving it to somebody else, and that’s how our mail has been—you know, just crazy. And as you can see yourself, when you even send us mail, we’re not getting it. And we sent you mail, and you’re not getting it. So it’s obvious they’re opening our mail, throwing it away, taking and doing whatever they’re doing, which is against rights, like you cannot do that. We’re entitled to our frickin’ mail.
So right now we have already refused two meals—tomorrow, to the next day, to the next day, to the next day, to the next day, until all this shit is resolved. I mean, it is ham. It is going crazy over here. The wrongdoing, everything that’s going on here—it’s gonna be a long hunger strike.”
On Friday, May 8th, amid news of countless sick people going without treatment and multiple reports of deaths at the facility due to COVID-19, immigrants incarcerated in the general population at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan confirmed that everyone held in at least one unit would be launching a coordinated hunger strike. The strikers, potentially numbering in the hundreds, are demanding that all those incarcerated at the facility be tested immediately for the virus and receive adequate medical attention. Michigan’s only private prison, North Lake is owned and managed by the GEO Group and holds non-U.S. citizens convicted of federal crimes.
Also on Friday, more than a month after the first knowledge of COVID-19 cases among GEO staff in Baldwin, the Federal Bureau of Prisons released limited data on coronavirus cases among incarcerated people in contract prisons such as North Lake. While private facilities still do not appear on the BOP’s online map of cases, a new subsection on their COVID-19 resource page documents 120 “lab-confirmed positive tests” in these facilities, including 54 people said to have recovered (their location unspecified), and 18 of the 66 remaining positives situated at the North Lake Correctional Facility. This puts North Lake second on the list of such infections among private federal prisons nationwide, following the Great Plains Correctional Facility in Oklahoma, also operated by the GEO Group.
Because only a portion of incarcerated people with symptoms have so far been tested, the true number of infections is likely much higher. “There’s a lot of people sick in here,” an immigrant imprisoned at North Lake stated on May 5th, adding that staff had been testing only those who exhibited a high fever (one of many possible symptoms of the virus), and that one person who needed emergency medical care on the previous day had been forced to wait five hours before passing out on the floor foaming at the mouth and being carried out by a cellmate. “So the guy went to the emergency room and we haven’t heard since then,” he said. “Things have been horrible here.”
“My husband let staff know that he had been feeling the chills a few days ago,” said Leasha, the wife of one person incarcerated at North Lake, “and then his eye got super red and now he’s lost his sense of smell and he has burning pain in his back near his lungs. A doctor screened him and said he was fine because he didn’t have a fever. He said a guy in the cell next to him had similar symptoms and they haven’t been quarantined, just given Tylenol and threatened that they’ll be moved if they keep claiming they’re sick.”
“I am so fearful for his life,” said the spouse of another incarcerated person on Friday. “The conditions in this facility are deplorable and not once since this global pandemic began has my husband ever seen anyone clean. I am very worried for these men. They were told ‘everyone is going to be locked back up.’ All of the men said no, and now they are all on a hunger strike. The inmates in this facility are human beings and they have people on the outside who love them. I wish the facility would value these men’s lives more because they are not just inmates, they are someone else’s whole world.”
On Tuesday afternoon, May 5th, an immigrant incarcerated at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin described an incident from the day before, when another prisoner had needed emergency medical attention and was not seen for five hours. No one yesterday knew what had happened to him.
The conversation also touched on medical neglect throughout the facility: “Things have been horrible here. They just don’t care. Some people start feeling the symptoms and I don’t know if it’s really—you know what I mean? Me, I got red eyes today, and I have a little fever going on.”
Despite knowing of confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff at North Lake for over a month, the GEO Group has still not released any information on positive test results among incarcerated people at the prison.
“Listen, yesterday an incident happened. This guy was complaining to somebody that he was sick. They ended up coming to get him later, later on, like 4:00. By the time they come and get him, the guy was on the floor, with yellow stuff coming out of his mouth and stuff, you know what I’m saying? One of the COs told me that they didn’t have communication. So the guy went to the emergency room—they take him to the emergency room—and we haven’t heard since then. They really don’t—we don’t have any information.
I also wanted to mention that the medical system here is horrible. They don’t even know, like, the guy was on the floor and all they did was staring at him. They didn’t even know what to do. It take like five hours from he asked to be seen to they seeing him. So he was already on the floor. They say his heart was going a little bit too fast, beating too hard or too fast, I don’t know, something like that.
Things have been horrible here. They just don’t care. Some people start feeling the symptoms and I don’t know if it’s really—you know what I mean? Me, I got red eyes today, and I have a little fever going on. The one nurse come over here and she’s, like, being a lot more nicer than everybody else. But they not really like paying attention to this, you know what I’m saying? And they not really trying to help. I don’t know if you guys do something to let the world know that we’re here, and like, there’s a lot of people sick in here too. And they’re not releasing the information. That’s the problem.”
By the time of its mailing on Monday, May 4th, more than 45 relatives and loved ones of people incarcerated at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan had signed a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons regarding the COVID-19 outbreak at North Lake. The GEO Group, which owns and manages this private prison holding non-U.S. citizens convicted of federal crimes, has refused to release any information on positive test results for COVID-19 among incarcerated people, despite knowing of cases among staff since the first week of April. On Monday, April 20th, the Michigan Advance reported that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services had confirmed nine diagnoses of the virus among incarcerated people at North Lake.
“My loved one is 64 and sick,” said Elsa, a signatory to the letter, on Friday. “All they do is take their temperature. He always tells me he loves me like it’s goodbye.”
No Detention Centers in Michigan joins over 35 other organizations from around the state and the country who have also signed the letter, demanding transparency, a commitment to protect public health by releasing more people throughout the federal prison system, and a recognition of how the GEO Group has mishandled the crisis.
Limited information coming from the prison in recent days has continued to reflect rapidly worsening conditions. “We don’t know if there are 20 or 200 people or more infected,” said Richard Kessler, an immigration attorney in Grand Rapids. “There is simply no transparency. We’ve heard from people on the inside of possible unconfirmed deaths from COVID-19. We have also heard that many of the people detained there were just given face masks within the last couple of days, and are forced to live and eat in very confined areas. We do not want this to turn into a situation like many of the other federal prisons where there are estimates that over 70% of persons are infected.”
“They go around and just take names like they’re doing something,” said Candy, another signatory to the letter, on Friday. “All they say is ‘We’ll see what we can do.’ I just talked to my boyfriend and he’s been complaining for two or three days about getting something because he’s having trouble breathing. They do nothing.”
“This prison is a nightmare and the GEO Group can’t keep anyone safe,” said JR Martin, a member of No Detention Centers in Michigan. “When we organize in solidarity and talk about hearing from people who are distraught because their loved ones are at risk and they can’t find any information on what’s happening, GEO accuses us of introducing a political agenda into a neutral situation. But we know that GEO’s own agenda is to profit from incarceration, and the company donated thousands of dollars to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. When we note their complicity in this suffering, GEO falls back on the reminder that COVID-19 is a terrible crisis throughout public prisons as well as their private facilities. We think that’s exactly the point. The fight against shadow prisons like North Lake is just one part of a broad, critical struggle for abolition. We’re focused on GEO because they’re making money from locking up immigrants in Baldwin, they’re keeping the COVID-19 cases secret, and people need to know about it.”
George Zoley, the founder and CEO of the GEO Group, expressed financial optimism during the company’s quarterly earnings call on April 30th, a transcript of which is available online: “Despite this quarter’s many challenges our revenues and cash flows remained resilient and continue to support our dividend payments.”
“They were still moving people from other places, like especially California. And then when we tell them what was going on, they thought it was a joke. They would laugh about it. The major told us not to listen to the news. That it wasn’t really happening. […] They didn’t take it seriously. They laughed when we told them they could wear gloves, wear masks.”
No one outside the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan has been able to get official information on COVID-19 diagnoses at the facility since Monday, April 20th, when the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that nine people incarcerated at North Lake had tested positive, in addition to five guards. A spokesperson for the GEO Group has stopped responding to requests for information.
In a phone call from Monday the 20th, an immigrant incarcerated in the general population at North Lake spoke about the climate of indifference, dishonesty, and extreme negligence that led to the mounting cases of the virus within North Lake’s walls: constant transfers from around the country, well into the period of the Bureau of Prisons’ so-called lockdown, with people being shipped thousands of miles from low-security facilities and ending up in rural Michigan at a prison effectively running as a maximum-security facility or U.S. Penitentiary. Staff members telling incarcerated people not to listen to the news about the pandemic, and laughing at their requests for sanitary measures to keep themselves protected.
The actions of the GEO Group and Warden Donald Emerson have been catastrophic for the safety of everyone at North Lake, for the people of Lake County whose need for jobs GEO has ruthlessly exploited, and far beyond. We will continue to demand answers and to fight for the freedom of people held at this prison, which should never have been built in the first place, and should never have reopened.
In a phone call from Tuesday afternoon, April 21st, a participant in the second hunger strike in the North Lake Correctional Facility’s Special Housing Unit describes the reasons for the strike and its outcome. The strike is over for now—and the warden has promised to provide more phone time, increased access to the commissary, and a written explanation for the decision to confine this group of predominantly Black men to the SHU for over a month after an altercation in which they were not involved—but they may begin striking again if the warden doesn’t fully honor the demands. The striker told us they were all ‘still in stress mode, still in agony’ over what they had experienced, and still in need of support even though the strike is over. It took 46 days of confinement in the SHU, and two separate hunger strikes, to get any response to their request for better treatment.
He also told us that the second strike started on Friday night partly in response to the warden’s attempt to move more people into the SHU as part of a quarantine procedure, rather than into a separate unit. These were understood to be incarcerated people who had either tested positive for COVID-19 or been directly exposed to it, and the men already in the SHU were terrified of getting sick: “Put them in the same place where you just brought those other guys, the other people that’s quarantined. You don’t bring them down here. […] I just never seen no prison like this, man. Never seen it.”
Imprisoned immigrants at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin are afraid for their lives.
On Sunday afternoon, we heard from someone in the general population who reported that cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated people are inevitably following the confirmed diagnoses among staff. “Because we are deportable people,” he told us, “that’s why they’re doing what they’re doing with us. One of the COs told me that we are not allowed—you know, the Constitution of the United States, it don’t protect us, because we’re not from here. And I told him that we’re on American soil, we should be protected by the Constitution. He told me no. That’s why they’re doing what they’re doing with us. And now the virus is already here. It is like a matter of time to fully kick in inside here.”
We continue to hear multiple reports of incarcerated people testing positive for COVID-19 at North Lake, as well as reports that some of the men confined to the Special Housing Unit have relaunched a hunger strike. We will share more details as we confirm them and more actions to take in support. #FreeThemAll
“See, the GEO—this private company make a deal with the BOP. But this place right here don’t fit the correct conditions to hold federal inmates. First of all, the cells don’t have no light, number one, they control the light for us. Second of all, they have no windows. And a window is very important, you know what I mean? They’re denying that we can get some sun, sunshine.
The police is everywhere, they’re doing—right now they don’t really come in, because they got the virus going on inside here already. And because we are immigrants, they don’t treat us right. The water right here does not even taste right. It has a lot of Clorox—like bleach, like Clorox—every time you take a shower, you start feeling itching all over. This is my sixth prison. I’ve never seen stuff like this. You know, I feel—whoever built this place, they built this place really wrong.
I have seen a CO—a guy didn’t want to be here in the unit. The CO slapped him, put him on the floor, and put him back in the unit.
They’re not telling us the truth, you know, police is getting infected. Because we are deportable people, that’s why they’re doing what they’re doing with us. One of the COs told me that we are not allowed—you know the Constitution of the United States, it don’t protect us, because we’re not from here. And I told him that we’re on American soil, we should be protected by the Constitution. He told me no. That’s why they’re doing what they’re doing with us. And now, what are they going to do with this—the virus is already here. It is like a matter of time to fully kick in inside here. We’ve begun to be sentenced by death right now. We’re gonna die. Because the GEO—I don’t think they’re ready, with more than a thousand inmates over here. Someone’s got ten years left. And this is not the place to do ten years.
I heard today that a couple of guys is getting sick, and others started getting sick. So that’s what I’m saying—this is a little matter of time, the virus will hit this unit over here. Yesterday they gave us the masks. And the COs now, they’re wearing the masks and everything. But this is a matter of time, you know, you will hear, when the virus kicks in. It’s already here. We is sentenced to death, imminently.
Me and my cellmate, it’s two person per cell. About two feet, three feet away. Very small cell. It’s impossible to have this six-feet distance. Can’t do that. I gotta buy my own hygiene. The people who are here, they control the water, and the water is a very, very little bit of water. I don’t have a lot. For the last five days, they started wearing gloves and masks now. I don’t think they’ve been changing the whole day. They keep it the whole time. I see that they don’t really change gloves on a daily basis. And I never see any of them handwashing. I see the masks, they take it off. A couple of times I see someone keep the mask around his neck.”
[“Do you know if there’s a hospital that people go to when they get sick from your facility, or what the treatment is?”]
The Federal Bureau of Prisons claims to be “carefully monitoring the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” and their website has an online map that’s meant to show all the diagnosed cases of COVID-19 among staff members and incarcerated people around the country.
The North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan is a federal facility operating under the authority of the Bureau of Prisons. At least five staff members at North Lake have now tested positive for COVID-19. Diagnoses have been confirmed since the first week of April. But because it’s a private contract facility, owned and managed by the GEO Group, North Lake doesn’t show up on the BOP’s map.
This lack of transparency illustrates exactly why Detention Watch Network, the ACLU, and other immigrant advocates have long referred to these federal immigrant-only facilities as “shadow prisons.” The GEO Group and the BOP don’t want us to know what’s happening there, and they don’t think we’ll notice. But we will keep fighting for the safety and freedom of immigrants incarcerated at North Lake.
Call the Department of Justice’s public comment line to say you know that COVID-19 is at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Michigan, and that you want to see the DOJ and the BOP take immediate steps to protect public health by expanding their release plan: 202-353-1555.
“Hi, my name is [NAME] and I’m a resident of [CITY, STATE]. I’m calling because I’m extremely concerned for the safety of people imprisoned at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan. We know that at least five staff members at North Lake have now tested positive for COVID-19, even though Baldwin doesn’t show up on the Bureau of Prisons’ online map. This private facility is operated by the GEO Group, which has an extensively documented history of neglect and abuse. Immigrants at North Lake have already gone on hunger strike this month because the warden put them in danger.
Every day that people remain incarcerated at North Lake poses a threat to their lives and to public health in Michigan. The Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons need to act immediately to protect public health by expanding their release plan.”
[Image description: a screenshot of the Bureau of Prisons’ online map of COVID-19 cases, with an orange arrow pointing to the area where Baldwin should be, and text superimposed with a red background:
“GEO’s SHADOW PRISON IN BALDWIN IS NOT ON THE MAP”]
No Detention Centers in Michigan confirmed on Monday that around ten immigrants imprisoned at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan ended their hunger strike last week after at least some of them had gone without food for five days. The strike had taken place in response to a chaotic and unsafe environment, inadequate food and medical care, and reports of religious discrimination and repression experienced inside the prison’s Special Housing Unit, where a group of predominantly Black men have been held for more than a month after an altercation in which they were not involved. Prison staff and spokespeople for the GEO Group, which operates the private facility under a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, had consistently denied the existence of any hunger strike last week.
Strikers stated that while Facility Administrator Donald Emerson and prison staff had negotiated and met some of the hunger strike’s initial demands, mainly involving the quality and nutritional value of food available, they had also used retaliatory force. “I got off the hunger strike because they turned the water off,” one participant explained in a letter from Wednesday, April 8th, adding that water is a critical element as his religious practices mandate washing before praying.
This decision to shut off water is doubly alarming at a time when handwashing is widely acknowledged as one of the most crucial components for maintaining public health amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. These concerns are magnified by the news from Monday afternoon that three staff members at the Baldwin prison have now tested positive for COVID-19. Incarcerated people and their supporters have long held that staff are a threatening vector for transmission of the virus to people inside. Men imprisoned at North Lake had previously expressed anxiety over inadequate safety and sanitation measures in the context of the novel coronavirus.
“We knew that this hunger strike had started as a response to appalling conditions that predated the COVID-19 crisis,” said Erin Paskus, a member of No Detention Centers in Michigan. “But those conditions have always been evidence that the GEO Group is unable to keep people safe during a pandemic. As for the Bureau of Prisons, this private facility doesn’t even show up on their online map of COVID-19 cases. The events of the last two weeks have given unmistakable proof of gross mismanagement, neglect, and a lack of transparency. Now we know the virus is inside the facility. We’re calling on the federal government to release people from North Lake today, before it’s too late.”
In an article published on Friday by the Michigan Advance, a spokesperson for the GEO Group, which operates the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin under a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, went on record to “strongly reject [the] unfounded allegations” of a hunger strike in North Lake’s secure housing unit. We also heard from many supporters who had called the prison on Thursday, and who were told emphatically by prison staff that there was not and had never been a hunger strike.
So we wanted to share this recording from Wednesday night, in which a participant speaks directly about the appalling conditions that gave rise to the strike, the continuation of the strike throughout the week, and the warden’s efforts to negotiate with strikers. The recording has been edited for length. Because communication is so limited, we’re unable to confirm at this time that a hunger strike is still ongoing, but we can confirm that the statements from GEO were false.
Again: the strikers’ immediate demands for better food, adequate medical care, and religious freedom need to be met; and, in light of unmistakable evidence of the GEO Group’s cruelty, mismanagement and deception, the North Lake Correctional Facility needs to be closed down.
“Oh man, it’s havoc in here, man. We going through it in here, man. I don’t know if you heard what’s going on, man? But you know, we’ve been on hunger strike … they ain’t been giving us no food, and then when they served us the food they served us little portions. Man, they’ve been giving us the same thing. They been lying to us about the transfers. You know what I’m saying? It’s going crazy.”
[“Is that strike still going on right now?”]
“Certain guys—I forgot the name, what’s his name, he’s still on hunger strike. It’s just a lot of things, boy, you know. All of us are the ones that—they just threw us in here. The guys that’s been on hunger strike because they doing us wrong. We have not done nothing. And we still in here, you know what I’m saying? They violated our rights. They’re not giving us our commissary, they’re not giving us most of our phone time. The warden has been lying to us, telling us all kind of stories. And then he decided he’s not giving us nothing. So we are basically—we’ve fallen to nothing. And we haven’t done anything. They don’t know what they’re doing. This place is unbelievable to humankind.”
[“I’m actually recording this call on my computer. So if you would want to say anything that we could send to the media, we could possibly do that without using your name. It’s up to you if you would want to say that or not.”]
“I don’t care, you can use my name. This place needs to be closed down. They’re not feeding us. The warden does not know what he’s doing. He’s putting people in situations, he’s breaking BOP and GEO policies by not giving us the things that we need. The showers—even if you in the general population, if you in the showers, people could see you taking a shower, like they could count the bubbles, the soap on your body. The rooms are the smallest rooms, they have no locker, you can’t put your stuff nowhere in these places. There’s nowhere to put your things. It’s basically a one-man cell but they have two guys in there. If one person stand up it’s like I’m touching him. There’s no way somebody’s supposed to be living like this. No way.
There’s no rehabilitation. There’s no computer, there’s no email for you tocall your family if your minutes ran out. Our prisoners’ rights have just been violated to the highest ability. The warden do not come straightforward and tell you what’s going on. The policy is, when you come here, they’re supposed to give you a paper on why you’re in here. None of us got any of the papers. Nothing. This is how terrible it is. And he’s coming again every day, because he knew we was on hunger strike, and trying his best.”
Immigrants imprisoned at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan continued their hunger strike on Wednesday amid escalating complaints of inhumane conditions, violations of Federal Bureau of Prison regulations, and discriminatory treatment by staff. A group of men began the hunger strike on Sunday, April 5th. At the close of their fourth day of hunger strike, strikers reported that Facility Administrator Donald Emerson is aware of the strike and has attempted negotiations with at least some of the men.
Initial reports of the strike cited inadequate nutrition, lack of medical attention, and unequal treatment by prison staff, who have a history of fomenting tension among those detained. Some of the men who’ve been on hunger strike are followers of the Hebrew Israelite faith and report that they have faced religious discrimination. One of the men also reported that staff “demonstrated a lot of racism.” Conditions at North Lake are described as “unbelievable to humankind.” “There’s no way somebody’s supposed to live like this,” one of the men said Wednesday.
The strikers’ mounting grievances come amid increasing concern about COVID-19 in prisons and jails and worry that the facilities cannot provide the space necessary to follow the six-foot social distancing recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prisoners in touch with No Detention Centers in Michigan have described incredibly close quarters and below-regulation cell sizes at the North Lake Correctional Facility, which is operated by the GEO Group, a private prison company that contracts with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The spouse of one of the men participating in the strike has expressed concern about the well-being of her husband and said that staff at North Lake are now wearing masks to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Her husband and other inmates have not been given the same protection. Strikers noted other inequities during their contact with outside supporters on Wednesday, including lack of commissary access. Prisoners across the country are turning to commissary purchases to get cleaning products and protective equipment to guard against COVID-19 infection.
No cases of COVID-19 have yet been confirmed at North Lake, but there were 380 cases confirmed across Michigan prisons as of Tuesday. These include 262 prisoners and 118 prison staff. An additional two prisoners have died, as have two employees.
On Sunday, April 5th, approximately ten people incarcerated at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan launched a hunger strike in response to unsafe conditions and the mistreatment they have experienced inside the Special Housing Unit, or SHU. Their concerns include inadequate food and lack of access to medical attention. North Lake is a private immigrant-only prison operated by the GEO Group through a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
“The main thing is the food,” said one incarcerated person, who stated that their diet had not been meeting the protein requirements of the federal prison system. In addition, he described a lack of proper medical care and treatment after an assault last month. Prison staff have repeatedly exacerbated violence inside the facility.
The majority of those currently on strike inside the SHU are Black men who have expressed serious fears for their safety, describing an inhumane and chaotic environment in which they have suffered racial repression, including administrative segregation within the SHU for over a month after a conflict in which they had not been involved.
“We’re tired of the mistreatment and lack of protection,” one person told No Detention Centers in Michigan last month. “Incidents have occurred and will occur in the future; it’s inevitable.”
“Prison experiences are all unpleasant but this is next-level for so many reasons,” another person wrote. “I have been to six prior institutions, and I have yet to witness a facility like this one. To subject anybody to these living conditions is offensive, racist, and unfair. Are foreign citizens any less human than U.S. citizens?”
Although members of No Detention Centers in Michigan are not currently aware of any suspected cases of COVID-19 inside this facility, the hunger strike comes at a time of grave new dangers facing incarcerated populations worldwide, who are unable to practice social distancing or other steps needed to prevent the spread of the virus and maintain public health.
“The experiences we’ve been hearing about inside North Lake are a reminder that prisons aren’t safe for anyone,” said Jonas Higbee, a member of No Detention Centers in Michigan. “At a moment when COVID-19 is spreading rapidly throughout the Federal Bureau of Prisons as well as Michigan’s state prisons and jails, this is also clear evidence that the GEO Group is not able to protect the people in their custody during a crisis. GEO already has a long history of neglect and abuse, and when people are telling us that they’ve been fearing for their lives even before the COVID-19 emergency, it’s an indication that a quarantine inside a prison is not the answer to a pandemic. As we’ve been starting to see around the country, starting with the most medically vulnerable, the federal government needs to find a way to release people immediately.”