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Prisons were not institutionalized on such a massive scale by the people. Most people realize that crime is simply the result of a grossly disproportionate distribution of wealth and privilege, a reflection of the present state of property relations. There are no wealthy men on death row, and so few in the general prison population that we can discount them altogether. Imprisonment is an aspect of class struggle from the outset. It is the creation of a closed society which attempts to isolate those individuals who disregard the structures of a hypocritical establishment as well as those who attempt to challenge it on a mass basis. –George Jackson

Over the course of the past few decades the Rustbelt region has witnessed severe changes to its economy. Put simply, an industrial system that provided employment for some, however tenuous or dangerous, to a large extent has disappeared in recognizable form.

Detroit has evolved from the “Arsenal of Democracy” to one of the most poverty-stricken cities in America. This trend has merely continued and taken new forms in recent years. The capitalist imperative towards exploitation ensured that cost cutting measures also cut into livelihoods. Mechanization means unemployment. Free trade agreements like NAFTA helped to facilitate the global migration of factories and other sites of production away from the Rustbelt. Labor unions have faced severe onslaughts and have been unable to mount any far-reaching offensive. The deepening crisis has produced huge numbers of new tenuously or unemployed subjects, people that the capitalist system has deemed disposable.

In the United States prisons have always functioned as the sites where “disposable” populations are dumped. Unemployed, poor, and usually angry, these populations are not only useless to the capitalists: their generalized discontent with the American system poses an existential threat to the maintenance of that system. Therefore, prisons are offered as a “solution” to the violence of capitalism.

They serve as warehouses for these populations of mostly poor, disproportionally black and brown, people. Instead of dealing with the contradictions in capitalism that create these populations, that create “crime”, the state solves these contradictions with prison bars and razor wire.

Today in Michigan the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) warehouses about 41,000 prisoners in 31 prison facilities. It also keeps tabs on about 71,000 probationers and parolees. The MDOC, as managers of this crisis, are inept at best and murderous at worst. According to one inmate, the “prison system… operates as a human warehouse, offering few programming opportunities (none for lifers), whether teaching job skills or rehabilitation, and slave wages of $.84 to $1.14 per day for the limited jobs available.” Considering these conditions, it was inevitable that “the chickens would come home to roost” and prisoners would rise up against the system oppressing them.

In early 2016 prisoners at several facilities across the state staged coordinated boycotts against the horrible food and abusive treatment served out by Trinity Services Group, a private food-services contractor. These protests were massive displays of solidarity: at some facilities upwards of 1,000 prisoners acted together in unity and resistance. The first of these kicked off at Kinross Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula where prisoners protested not only the abysmal food situation, but the overcrowded, unhealthy, and inhumane conditions they had endured since the old facility was reopened in the fall of 2015. Kinross prisoners held several more massive unity actions over the course of the year, but administrators at all levels ignored their grievances and conditions only worsened.

Meanwhile, a call to arms circulated from the incarcerated freedom fighters of the Free Alabama Movement (FAM). The proposal was a coordinated national prisoner strike, the first of its kind. The national strike was set for September 9th, 2016, the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising. Prisoners across the mitten state worked diligently to answer the call. On the morning of September 9th, prisoners did not show up to work at four different facilities.

At Kinross, administrators were aware of the planned three-day strike well in advance. They met with block representatives, promised that no prisoners would be penalized for participating, and even instructed prisoners to stay away from work to minimize conflict. However, the non-retaliation did not last. On the morning of the 10th, the scheduled hot breakfast was not served and the yard was kept closed. This unfair, unexpected treatment ignited a fire in prison rebels who gathered another massive protest in the yard to reiterate their demands directly to the warden and deputy warden. The demands addressed low wages, the commutation process, high phone rates, poor and insufficient food, overcrowding, visitor room restrictions, and more. After over four hours of standoff and negotiations, administrators promised to meet some of the demands and to not retaliate against any prisoner for the action. Prisoners agreed to return to their units.

The warden did not keep his promises. After hours of peaceful compliance on the part of the prisoners, suddenly an emergency response team stormed the prison. Over 100 armed police and correctional officers, imported from around the state, proceeded from unit to unit tear gassing compliant prisoners. This set off a riot in other units where equipment and structures were destroyed and prisoners attempted to barricade entrances in self-defense; no one was injured in the riot. That first night, prisoners were handcuffed and thrown in the yard for hours in a rainstorm. Over the next few days, at least 250 prisoners were rounded up, accused of “incite to strike or riot,” and transferred to facilities across the state. Most of their property, including legal documents, clothing, televisions, and other personal belongings acquired with great difficulty over many years, was destroyed or stolen.

After a kangaroo court found over 150 of these prisoners guilty, whether they had anything to do with the events or not, they were sentenced to one to two years of solitary confinement and eventually transferred to Oaks Correctional Facility and Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility where the mistreatment continues. With due process rights violated, their grievances have been routinely rejected and they have had no meaningful appeal process. Even after serving their time in isolation, their security classifications will be raised by several levels which would make many of them ineligible for early parole.

In the weeks following September 9th, three Michigan prisoners died under extremely questionable circumstances. One man died at Kinross in a case of medical neglect, according to fellow inmates. Another man was murdered by prison guards who tased him in the neck three times. This project seeks to amplify the voices of the brave prisoners who continue to fight together in this life or death struggle. As long as prison conditions continue to worsen, the riots will continue.

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