“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.”