After George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, the full autopsy revealed he was infected with COVID-19. Racists and defenders of the police have attempted to use this fact to distract from the overt brutality of the cops that killed him. But the presence of both the virus and police violence is not contradictory. As the wave of protests and riots sparked by his killing (along with the killings of Tony McDade in Tallahassee, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia) continue to rage in the face of heavy police and military repression, the convergence of these two vectors of racialized premature death–the virus and police violence–serves as an important reminder that the pandemic also continues to exact its deadly toll. Three months into one of the largest pandemics in U.S. history, the experience of living under COVID-19 has confirmed much of what we already knew, while at the same time generating new and surprising feelings, alliances, and forms of solidarity. We are anxious in the grocery store. We clock in and clock out—if we still have a job. Caravans block roads demanding diverse and contradictory measures. Armed right-wingers enter state capitols to secure the foundations of capitalist realism by force if necessary. We prepare to “welcome” the first trillionaire in the history of the world. Policing and police violence continue unabated—and rebels respond in the streets. An initial polarization emerged: are you for life, or are you for the economy? And now, suddenly, a new polarization has crystallized: if you’re for life, whose lives?
When the pandemic first hit, prisons around the country quickly became hotspots of COVID-19. In response, prisoners have been hunger striking, organizing protests, and participating in uprisings. This wave of prisoner unrest is likely unprecedented in both scope and scale. In what follows, we summarize some reports from our comrades incarcerated in Michigan prisons and develop some arguments and strategic insights that might be of use for those engaged directly in prisoner solidarity efforts as well as struggles against the carceral state and carceral capitalism more generally. We write from Michigan—the state with the highest number of prisoner deaths from COVID-19—and are drawing directly from our histories of prisoner support, solidarity, action, and reflection here. Our hope is that this statement will provide some clarity and grounds for analysis that can be useful in our continued struggle against prisons and for abolition.
Since shelter-in-place ordinances were issued in early March, MAPS has been gathering and amplifying the voices of those locked up in the state of Michigan. As both prisoners and abolitionists on the outside already knew, viruses spread quickly and have devastating effects in the already cramped and unsanitary conditions of any prison. And conditions in Michigan prisons were already terrible. Long before the coronavirus pandemic started, for example, we had called attention to the black mold, overcrowding, infested showers, and medical neglect at the Chippewa Correctional Facility (URF) and Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV), and based on the MDOC’s apathetic response to these serious problems we understood that conditions were already ripe for an outbreak.
Comrades on the inside have confirmed our worst fears. On April 6, 2020, Robert Winburn described how the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility (JCF) had been turned into the official disaster site for warehousing infected prisoners. The re-opened K-Unit is now known as the “‘Korona Unit’ or the Catacomb of Death.” He goes on: “Plainly, in an open dormitory setting with 8 prisoners in each cube originally designed for 4 occupants, and having approximately 400 prisoners residing in each of these structures, ‘social distancing’ orders cannot be carried out.” Eugene Marr, also at Cotton, confirmed this danger, writing that “there are entirely just too many of us in one place to even begin to stop the spread of covid-19.” At WHV, we’ve heard stories of prisoners screaming for medical attention while their cellmate seizes helplessly in their bed. Conditions are so bad that prisoners tell us that they’re sharing their stories in spite of their justifiable fear of retaliation from MDOC. These accounts do not simply identify minor failings or mere oversights but are indicative of the values of MDOC and of carceral society more generally.
Not only are these terrible conditions driving the outbreak inside Michigan prisons, but when prisoners have asked for medical assistance they’ve instead faced retaliation and repression.
- On April 15, 2020, Gil Morales wrote that the guards at Chippewa weren’t following the governor’s Executive Order 2020-29, which was supposed to allow sanctioned prisoners to use the phones and JPay during certain hours of the day to contact their families and loved ones: “Well, the officers felt a little salted about that. Can you believe that? They were more concerned about a misconduct than bodies being stacked up that might be our loved ones. . . . This could be the last time we talked to our people and these fools are worried about a misconduct. Fuck a misconduct.”
- A disturbance occurred at Gus Harrison CF on April 19, 2020. According to an eyewitness locked up there, more than 20 prisoners at the facility participated in a protest demanding proper medical treatment for a fellow prisoner. Following an instance where “the facility failed to properly treat a prisoner,” other prisoners “went out on the base” and demanded appropriate health care treatment. After this disturbance more than 20 prisoners received “failure to disperse” tickets and 4 prisoners were sent to administrative segregation for “inciting to riot,” “riot to strike,” “threatening behavior,” as well as “failure to disperse” tickets.
- On April 24, 2020, Eric Woods told us his story from a few weeks prior: “I asked a guard making a round one night on third shift for medical attention because I wasn’t feeling well and thought to be experiencing some symptoms of the coronavirus. However, when the officer refused to call the health care office. I stated in a non-threatening manner that the officer shouldn’t have this job because he doesn’t know how to deal with people and even though I was in prison I still have rights. I guess the C/o instantly became upset by my comments because he had me placed in solitary confinement by writing a misconduct stating I threatened him with clenched fists and curses to the point he had to keep distance between he and I to stay safe. This charge was later proven to be a fabrication via video review upon my prison court hearing where the court officer review of the camera from the incident of the night in question and found that my fists were never clenched, nor did I act in a manner threatening to the officer. However, I spent 7 days in solitary confinement before the hearing and was then released, but place on 30 days loss of privileges/top lock in my housing because the court officer decided to find me guilty of a lesser misconduct that I was never charged with in order to cover the officer’s unethical abuse of power and position.”
From the architecture and overcrowding that turn prisons into viral hotspots to the punitive and sadistic practices of the guards who arbitrarily determine prisoners’ fates and ability to communicate with their loved ones, MDOC facilities are producing intense suffering on both sides of the prison walls. And for every story that makes its way out of an MDOC facility, many more go unreported. How many more stories of the lack of protective equipment, CO power-trips, and retaliation by prison officials are going unheard?
Publicly, MDOC officials insist that everything is under control, that social distancing is being “encouraged” and “extra care” is going into cleaning and sanitizing cells. MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz pats himself on the back for “just 80 positive cases” and extols the virtues of MDOC staff “doing an amazing job in very difficult circumstances.” But folks on the inside say the opposite, and their accounts are confirmed by the rapid—and deadly—spread of COVID-19 throughout the prison system. As the Governor continues to extend the shelter-in-place ordinances, infections at MDOC facilities steadily rise, with “almost everyone” at one facility having been infected, and death tolls spiking at Parnall, Lakeland, and Macomb. As we already mentioned, Michigan currently ranks highest in prisoner deaths from coronavirus in the country. And that is based only on official sources—the actual death toll is almost certainly higher.
Additionally, the ongoing abuses and subsequent protests by prisoners at North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, MI illustrate that this exposure to the virus is being meted out by all levels of government. North Lake CF is a recently-reopened prison that is operated not by MDOC but by the private company GEO Group, through a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The prison locks up “Criminal Aliens,” or undocumented people who are convicted of a felony. Currently, the facility has the highest number of coronavirus cases among inmates in privately run prisons across the U.S. Since early April, the prison has been the site of four different hunger strikes addressing a variety of issues, from staff denying access to legal mail and throwing away complaint forms to religious discrimination and food issues to the mismanaged response to the ongoing spread of the coronavirus. GEO Group and the BOP have continually delayed the release of updates on COVID-cases in the facility, leaving family members and loved ones of the incarcerated totally in the dark. Prisoners there have two choices: organize or die. On April 20, one hunger striker spoke to the group No Detention Centers in Michigan (NDCM) detailing the situation at North Lake and emphasizing the stakes of the protest: “Because we are deportable people, that’s why they’re doing what they’re doing with us. . . . [T]he 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.” While the positionality of the migrant as deportable is specific, the hunger striker voices a profound sense of disposability that is experienced by many prisoners at varied types of facilities.
Prison abolitionists and reformers alike have pointed out that Michigan is not a death penalty state, and that refusing to release prisoners in a deadly pandemic is effectively signing their death sentences. Certainly the COVID-19 virus spells a more imminent threat for everyone inside Michigan’s prison system. But whatever the new threats posed by the state’s lethal management of the crisis, we know that prison already meant premature death long before the virus hit, and prisons will continue to function in this way once the masks are off and the bars reopen. To take a clear example, the sentence of “life without the possibility of parole” (LWOP) also functions as a sort of death sentence. Our current crisis simply accelerates the timeline. This “accelerated death” is due to the ongoing refusal of the Governor, the state legislature, and the MDOC to grant compassionate release, to use emergency powers to shorten sentences, to repeal “Truth-In-Sentencing,” and even to provide the bare minimum such as adequate sanitary conditions and medical care at MDOC facilities. This scenario could be accurately described as a political failure, as the sign of a broken system, but it is also worth considering how accelerating prisoners’ deaths may actually be in the state’s interest—it makes it possible to reduce the prison population and thus the state’s $2 billion a year “Corrections” budget without having to release any prisoners, which the governor and other politicians view as politically “risky.”
As public and private prisons in Michigan come more and more to look like the death camps they have always been, the state has also been in national headlines as the site of the “Operation Gridlock” protests. These demonstrations in Lansing have featured armed protesters storming the capitol building to demand that the state “re-open.” These protests have been linked not only to the Michigan Trump Republicans and Betsy DeVos but also to white supremacist and street-fighting groups like the Proud Boys and Michigan Liberty Militia. These connections to far-right and fascist movements are of course important to delineate. But the recent media spotlight on seemingly fringe white-pride extremists should not obscure the fact that white supremacy in Michigan has never been limited to only spectacular protests like these. The demands to “re-open” and lift shelter-in-place laws have arrived at the same time that coronavirus cases in Michigan soar, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services confirmed the disproportionate effects of the virus on the state’s Black population (Black people represent just 14% of Michigan’s population but 31% of its total COVID-19 cases and 40% of its reported deaths). As AhJamu Baruti, one of our incarcerated comrades, succinctly put it, “The U.S. economy has been pummeled from the effect of the coronavirus, and this is more disturbing to President Trump than the coronavirus because it’s affecting his pockets. Low-wage and middle-wage income workers are bearing the brunt of the economic disarray coronavirus has brought with it, which will have more effect on black and hispanic workers because they are more than twice as likely to receive poverty-level wages compared to whites.” Additionally, in 2011, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that around 40% of state and federal prisoners reported current chronic medical conditions, the same conditions that make one vulnerable to the deadly effects of the coronavirus. To be clear, this is the result of a long history of multiple forms of racism that have made certain populations vulnerable to premature death in ways that generate profits for the largely White capitalist class. These trends, while shocking on their own, are unsurprising when placed in connection with each other.
Through all of this, Governor Whitmer has persistently ignored demands to decarcerate. In doing so, Whitmer has de facto signed the death sentences for the people locked up in Michigan’s prisons. Her Executive Order 2020-29 was framed as an effort “provide essential protections to vulnerable Michiganders who work at or are incarcerated in prisons, county jails, local lockups, and juvenile detention centers across the state,” but had little to say about state prisons and nothing at all to say about the prisoners incarcerated there. It didn’t even mandate the release of prisoners from county jails or juvenile detention facilities. All it did was “strongly encourage” county jail authorities to “consider early release” for elderly, pregnant, and immunocompromised inmates at their facilities—with the glaring caveat that they must not pose a “public safety risk.” Rather than using her emergency powers, as our incarcerated comrade Rand Gould has called for, to make across-the-board 90-day time cuts to prisoners’ sentences (like Governors Milliken and Blanchard back in the 1980s), Governor Whitmer has shifted all responsibility onto the shoulders of others who lack this authority. Moreover, by holding any release hostage to the specter of “public safety,” the governor excludes the incarcerated population from the “public,” reinforces racist perceptions of criminality, and effectively condemns prisoners, especially those racialized as non-White, to a higher risk of infection and death. Like the U.S. carceral archipelago more generally, Michigan’s prison system has always been and is currently structured by racism: Black people make up 14% of the state’s total population, as noted above, but 49% of the prison population.
Following the political theorist Cedric Robinson, we use the concept of “racial capitalism” to understand the tight relation between ongoing practices of accumulation and the production and reproduction of difference over the long history of capitalism. This framework helps explain how mass incarceration in Michigan was initially born out of attempts to contain the crisis of deindustrialization and proletarian insurrection. And it also helps us understand the current crisis, marked as it is by mass unemployment, Black death, White insurgency in defense of “business as usual,” and a state government that struggles to appease “both sides” and ends up taking half measures—lockdowns without economic support, criticism of white supremacist symbols without action on white supremacist structures, calls for social distancing without making it possible for the most vulnerable to socially distance. The pandemic is novel yet unsurprising: in many ways, it confirms what we knew already about white supremacy and racial capitalism. The MDOC, and carceral society more generally, consigns prisoners to slow deaths. And this risk of death is increased based on the various other oppressions that cut through our society. Colleen O’Brien, a MAPS contact currently locked up in Women’s Huron Valley CF, recently described how studying the Black freedom movement helped her better understand her own struggles even though she is not Black. “The sad realization that we are born into a status that is just as hard to leave as the ancient caste systems written about in history books. For me, added to the burden of being a minority, large, aging woman with a mental illness and a substance abuse issue is the word ‘felon.’ So, where is the hope?” As the virus continues to spread so too does this sense of hopelessness. For the time being, death seems to be coming a lot quicker.
Since the shelter-in-place ordinances began, we have organized and supported multiple phone zaps with varying targets. (You can read about these phone zaps here.) Flooding prison phone lines can let officials and guards know they’re being watched and can make it more difficult to conduct “business as usual,” and puts pressure on prison officials from above. These actions also let prisoners know that people on the outside are thinking of and trying to watch out for them. At the same time, it’s important to remember that phone zaps are at best only one piece of a broader strategy for prisoner solidarity and prison abolition, and they are frequently ignored by officials and politicians in positions of power—especially during the last few months. They are also a weirdly individualized kind of collective action—although ideally tons of people make calls in a coordinated way, the calls are often made by individuals from their homes, by themselves (especially under the conditions of a pandemic) and it can be hard to know what effect, if any, the action has had. Phone zaps are one way that those outside of the prison walls can support the demands of people who are locked up inside—but when the people occupying positions of power ignore the demands of both the incarcerated and their outside supporters, what other options and tactics remain available? And what tactics help us, not to recover life as it was, but to build life as we want it to be?
If our understanding begins not just with the current virus but rather with the decades of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as the state-sanctioned and extralegal production of vulnerability to premature death for Michigan’s racialized and poor populations, then our response should avoid appeals to go back to the way things were before, to “business as usual.” The pandemic, the various responses of the state, and the ensuing rebellions have illuminated the deep link between normalcy and death. And people are already on the move. Since the first COVID-19-related action on March 17, there have been over a hundred instances of prisoner protest and rebellion in the U.S. and Canada. In Michigan, these actions include the hunger strike at North Lake mentioned above, as well as another recent action at Gus Harrison by prisoners who refused to return to their cells in order to protest the failure to promptly inform them of the results of their coronavirus tests. Meanwhile, news of the uprisings that have quickly spread across the country in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd has found its way into Michigan prisons—our comrades inside are paying attention, and often have the best analysis of these events. As our comrade Edward Walton says, the simple solution is to “unchain our people.” Freedom for all. As the coronavirus continues to spread, the shared goals of people on both sides of the prison walls, including those facing down the police and national guard in the streets, should remain the same: abolition, which means not only closing the prisons and freeing the prisoners but also building a world in which prisons and police are unnecessary.
For further reading, check out:
- No more business as usual: A black response to COVID-19 by Karen Kelly-Blake, Sabrina Ford, Rev. Reynard Blake, Jr., Laura Houdeshel-Putt and Kevin Brooks
- COVID-19 and the Color Line by Colin Gordon, Walter Johnson, Jason Q. Purnell, and Jamala Rogers
- Black Americans Face Alarming Rates of Coronavirus Infection in Some States by John Eligon, Audra D. S. Burch, Dionne Searcey and Richard A. Oppel Jr.
- Survival Pending Abolition featuring Amanda Alexander (Detroit Justice Center), Kim Wilson (Beyond Prisons) and Ruth Wilson Gilmore by Rustbelt Abolition Radio