North Lake: A Year of Resistance

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

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 The BOP’s online records for North Lake haven’t changed in months and show signs of simply no longer being updated.

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

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

An Account of the GEO Group’s Use of Pepper Spray to End a Hunger Strike at North Lake

“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.

TRANSCRIPT:

“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.”

#ShutDownGEO #FreeThemAll

PRESS RELEASE: As New Warden Imposes Harsh Conditions at Baldwin’s Immigrant Prison, Hunger Strikes Grow Larger in Restricted Unit

For immediate release: 8/12/2020

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.”

“Our Time is Past Due”: Fifth Hunger Strike in the RHU at North Lake

“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.

#FreeThemAll #ShutDownGEO

TRANSCRIPT:

“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.”

New Warden at North Lake; Continuing Repression; Fifth Hunger Strike in the Restricted Housing Unit

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.