PRESS RELEASE: Immigrants at GEO Group’s North Lake Correctional Facility End Hunger Strike Amid Retaliatory Water Shutoffs; COVID-19 Diagnoses Among Staff Reinforce Urgent Concerns

For immediate release: 4/14/2020

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.”

Direct Testimony: Hunger Strike at the North Lake Correctional Facility

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 to call 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.”

PRESS RELEASE: Grievances Mount as North Lake Correctional Facility Hunger Strike Continues through Fourth Day

For immediate release: 4/9/2020

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. 

PRESS RELEASE: Immigrants at GEO’s North Lake Correctional Facility Launch Hunger Strike to Protest Unsafe Conditions

For immediate release: 4/7/2020

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.”