By Mary Croy
As ideas such as prison abolition and restorative justice are brought into greater focus than ever before, it is important to thoroughly examine how unjust our “justice” system is. Every day, incarcerated people are denied basic human rights in a network of punishment zones that do anything but rehabilitate and restore.
One of the most damning statistics is how prison shortens the life of those incarcerated. “Each year in prison takes 2 years off an individual’s life expectancy. With over 2.3 million people locked up, mass incarceration has shortened the overall U.S. life expectancy.” Prison Policy Initiative
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of infection of both prisoners and staff has been incredibly high. Death rates are at a rate of 1 in every 761 prisoners. Shar-Ron Buie has personal experience- having been released from Oakhill Correctional Facility in 2020.
Shar-Ron was released after the start of the pandemic. He currently works for Marquette University as a Liaison for the Educational Preparedness Program of CURTO and for the Porchlight Veterans transitional housing program. In addition, he is a full-time student at UW-Platteville in the Graduate School, studying Criminal Justice.
“My observation in regards to staff is that a significant part of the staff didn’t believe,” Shar Ron said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “At first, they were contradictory.” Shar-Ron related how one staff member, not wearing a mask, would slide his chair all the way across the room, shouting verbal abuse, when a prisoner entered. The staff seemed to be very afraid of the incarcerated men, literally running away from them, yet did not wear masks. “I did not see any staff wearing masks, anywhere,” he said.
Shar-Ron was never tested for COVID, and the prisoners were given one paper mask per week. If they needed another mask, they were charged $1, a high price for people making $0.11 per hour. Prison Wage Report “Eventually, they made cloth masks from leftover fabric at the upholstery shop,” Shar-Ron said. Some of the fabric was very old, going back six or seven years.
Compounding the problems during the COVID-19 pandemic was the reluctance of prisoners to report symptoms. Many prisoners had symptoms of COVID-19, but refused to go to the hospital. Reporting symptoms led to a trip to the “hole,” solitary confinement.
Shar-Ron related the experience in solitary confinement. “A little bit of nothing is a whole lot,” he said, when describing the difference between a regular cell and solitary. In a regular cell, inmates have a bed with a spring and 2½ inch mattress. They also have a tv, utensils, books, a radio, and a tablet. In the “hole” they have a concrete floor with a 1–2-inch mattress, a blanket, sheet and two books per week. The light is on 24 hours a day. “The first week you have nothing,” he said. “The vents are at the top of the cell; you can hear everyone else talking.” When he was there, he recalls singing. One person starts singing, followed by others. Shar-Ron would sing for an hour, each person would take their turn. Because the light is on 24 hours a day, you “can never truly be sure what time it is, you guess by meals.” And if you report that you are possibly sick with COVID, you go in the hole.
According to Rule 43 of the Mandela Rules adopted by the U.N., prolonged solitary confinement or placement of a prisoner in a constantly lit cell is torture. UN Nelson Mandela Rules
Other health care was also inconsistent. Shar-Ron, when he initially arrived, studied to be a paralegal. He found this to be helpful in trying to get treatment. “I had a bone spur in my shoulder, I had to wait a month and a half to get treatment, then they wanted the $7.50 copay.” He filed a motion to sue, and then he finally got treatment. Other inmates began coming to Shar-Ron to get help with their health care problems and try to overcome the long delays in the prison medical system.
Mark Rayford also served in Oakhill Correctional Facility and was released before the pandemic. Before the pandemic, health care was just as bad. “They give you ibuprofen for everything.” Health visits are often delayed for a long time. He also described how incarcerated people were not allowed to see a doctor unless they had a $7.50 copay in hand. With the low wages of prison laborers, this is out of reach. He described the yearly medical exams. “They take your blood pressure, take your weight and give you a blood test.”
Prisoners with serious health conditions do not get the care they need. James Washington is currently incarcerated in Columbia Correctional Facility and went on a 30-day hunger strike. At only 41, he has serious hip issues which have left him confined to a wheelchair. Yet the prison authorities have deferred his medical appointments until late this year or next year. He is not given much more than pain medication and even with that, they have made three mistakes and gave him the wrong medication (6/30/17, 1/28/18, and 2/20/20). He needs physical therapy and the proper therapeutic equipment (medical mattress, pillows, orthopedic shoes) that will help him heal. Dane County Timebank is currently organizing a letter writing campaign on his behalf. Letter Writing Action
These problems are not just on the state level but are present in the Dane County Jail. Jimmie Joshua, 29, was seriously injured on December 23, 2020 and suffered a shattered hip and pelvis. He has been denied physical therapy and a walker.
In June, activists and friends of Jimmie organized a rally outside the jail.
Allison Davidson, his fiancée, describes Jimmy’s current condition and what happened to him last December. “Jimmy is still pretty messed up. The assault shattered his hip and pelvis. They threw him naked in a cell for 15 hours with no medical attention” When Allison didn’t receive any messages from Jimmie, she called him on a tablet. As she learned more, she requested medical treatment and the lieutenant told her “Jimmie must be lying.” Allison described how four deputies held him down after the injury. The nurse only took his temp and didn’t look at his hip.
Finally, he was sent to the hospital. He had surgery and was hospitalized for eight days. She was not allowed to call him at the hospital and had to find out his condition from the surgeon. Allison said she thought they released Jimmie from the hospital too early. They took away his walker for a cane and he has fallen twice. The UW hospital doctor overseeing his recovery told the jail staff he needs physical therapy. “No PT,” she said. “He has permanent nerve damage and will not be able to walk the same. What about accountability? The deputies who assaulted him keep on working, acting like nothing happened,” Allison said. Jimmie is in severe pain daily and deals with this along with continuing mental health problems.
In Jimmie’s case, he was being held in the jail as the court was considered revocation of parole. This is a tactic often used punitively and arbitrarily against people of color. In 2015, 40 percent of the people put in prison for revocation without a new criminal conviction were Black even though they only represent 6.6% of the Wisconsin population. Excessive revocations
Erica Evenson, described why she attended the rally to free Jimmie. “We came to support Ali and Jimmie. Ali needs him in her life. The prison is a crock of crap. I don’t think you should go to jail for stupid stuff and then get harassed. They left him untreated, naked. Unacceptable.”
During the rally, Allison spoke to the crowd of about twenty. “It’s beyond awful what has happened to him,” Allison said. “The world needs to know. When this happens to Black men, especially Black men with mental health issues, deputies look at them as being aggressive.” She contrasted this with the treatment of Kyle Rittenhouse, who was not arrested at the scene of the killing of two people. She stated “People need to be held accountable for their actions.”
A Black Umbrella activist also spoke to the crowd. “The abuses going on by the nurses and doctors at the jail are disgusting,” the protestor said.
In another case the activist described they disclosed a prisoner’s std status to the other prisoners, a violation of privacy. Then the inmate was given the wrong shot for STD. Concluding, the activist said that the Sheriff needs to be accountable for his current treatment. For Jimmie to be in the place where he was assaulted and see the people daily who assaulted him is torture. “Black men with a badge should advocate for a black man who was assaulted by deputies.”
Sheriff Kalvin Barrett, when asked about the incident, released a statement: “Due to pending legal litigation, I am unable to speak on any of the specifics involving Mr. Joshua’s incident.” Jimmie’s case was revoked by an administrative judge, forcing him to remain in custody. Currently, his public defender, Schuyler Boggio, is appealing the decision. Jimmie has since been sent to Dodge Correctional Institution. Recently, there was another Free Jimmie protest which was supported by members of the DSA, Madison, especially those in the Abolition Working Group. Jimmie’s case and the Free Jimmie campaign continues to be a strong point of focus for the Working Group.
There are a total of 36 prisons and correctional institutions in the State of Wisconsin. There are three jails operated by Dane County. In 2016, five times the number of Blacks were imprisoned in Wisconsin as compared to whites. Sentencing Project
The poor and especially people of color get caught in the maw of a cruel and arbitrary system of injustice which is rigged against them. We as Socialists need to be outspoken in our opposition to the vicious and daily abuses of human rights that our carceral system produces. These are not bugs but features of a system that ruins the lives of people of color and their families.
One of the ways you can fight back is to get involved with the work of the Abolition Working Group. They currently have a campaign to “Derail the Jail,” to stop or at least delay the construction of an expensive new County Jail. Go to the “Link Tree” to learn more and how you can become involved in a campaign for true human rights here in our country.