Fighting the Virus at Central Michigan Prison: Analysis from Prisoner Rand Gould and Report-back of Car Caravan Demonstration
Many weeks ago, on November 15th, abolitionists in so-called Michigan held a car caravan protest in the town of St. Louis, Michigan, to call attention to the start of what has become a devastating outbreak of COVID-19 Central Michigan Correctional Facility (STF). At that time we had just learned that the positive cases in the prison had rose from just 4 to over 670 in the span of two weeks. Now, in the first week of December, that number has risen to over 2,100 positive cases.
In what follows, we share some reflections on the car caravan, and we share the full text of a recent letter from Rand Gould, an anarchist and prisoner at Central Michigan C.F., in which he further describes the conditions at STF and the COVID-19 outbreak.
In short, the outbreak was caused by the following three factors:
- Long-term “structural” conditions imposed by the governor, the state legislature, and the MDOC including overcrowding and lack of adequate medical care. These conditions make social distancing impossible and any illness potentially deadly;
- Short-term negligence, especially by Warden John Christiansen. Prisoners were transferred from a different “COVID hot-spot” facility to Central Michigan C.F. and then hundreds of bunk moves spread the virus around the new prison;
- A complete lack of action on the part of Governor Whitmer and the Michigan state legislature to release prisoners during the pandemic (actions that are well within the state’s powers).
The car caravan protest on November 15 consisted of 10 cars, adorned with colorful banners affixed to the outside of cars and trucks. The messages ranged from the straightforward (“MDOC BROUGHT COVID TO ST. LOUIS”) to the aspirational (“FREEDOM WILL BLOSSOM IN THE ASHES OF THE PRISONS”). The caravan, trailed by a single state trooper, snaked its way past the prison and around downtown St. Louis on a freezing Sunday afternoon. Honking horns drew eyes and attention, and after about an hour of circling on the route, the group called it quits. The demo certainly succeeded in its intention of spreading the word about the outbreak. We want to draw attention to a few particular points:
1) Part of the strength of the action lay in the fact that it widened the existing fissure between the MDOC and everyone else.
The “culprit” of the COVID outbreak across the MDOC changes depending on who you ask. However, everyone seems to agree that the MDOC administration bears the brunt of the responsibility. Prisoners, their loved ones, and guards all blame the individual wardens and administrators in Lansing for the lack of PPE, lack of consistent testing, the inability to contain the virus completely, and the persistence of transfers between facilities. Our demonstration sought to expand this unlikely alliance to also include the residents of St. Louis. The people who live there might in general be supportive of or habituated to the prison facilities in their town, but the ongoing crisis wrought by the MDOC in their city might be shifting their perspective. People know that as the virus crosses through the prison walls it puts the residents in the surrounding community at risk. We tried to make this connection clear with our signs: “MDOC BROUGHT COVID TO ST. LOUIS.”
In this moment it feels like it is everybody against the MDOC. For example, after the demonstration we learned that guards inside the facility were “cheering” for the demo and freely sharing news about the protest with the prisoners. It is possible to make positive sense of this without dismissing the fact that it is the guards themselves that are enacting the deadly policies inside the facility. At the same time, it is also true that prison guards and residents of the surrounding town alike are contracting the virus, therefore also being fucked over by the MDOC. And these people are rightfully pissed. These sympathies between prisoners and guards and even across the divide of prison walls were important tools in organizing the caravan and in earning media coverage. They likely will continue to be useful in the weeks and months to come.
As the unrest inside Michigan prisons continues, how might we make the most of these shared sentiments between what are usually antagonistic groups? The Michigan guards union is holding pickets and calling for the resignation of Director Washington. And some guards are not silent about their sympathies with prisoners. In April, a CO at Cotton Correctional put it plainly, writing “I get it. [Prisoners are] panicking too. While prisoners can still call their families, visits have been suspended. Sometimes we look at each other and we can both tell what the other is thinking: I don’t know what to do.” From Attica in 1971 to the 2017 uprising at Vaughn Correctional in Delaware, between the convergence of prisoner rebellion and guard strike in Alabama in 2016 and the rare guard who brings in a contraband cellphone for a prisoner to communicate directly with their family, we ask: What is the possibility that the current shared rage in Michigan might contribute to favorable conditions for prisoners to enact immediate abolitionist measures? Of course we must never downplay the methods by which guards obstruct abolitionist efforts, abuse prisoners, demand more resources for policing, and so on. But without losing sight of these antagonisms we should now also be asking: How might guard strikes, defections, or support of prisoners help to foster opportunities for additional prisoner actions, for concrete steps toward freedom for all?
2) The more time and materials dedicated to banners the more clear the messaging of the action will be.
The day of the car caravan was extremely cold and windy, even for a Michigan November. In general the banners affixed to the outside of cars stayed put, but in a few instances the twine, rope, or other materials were not sufficient to hold the banners in place for more than 10 minutes of driving. This seems like a small point, but for the residents in the neighborhood around the prison the banners on our cars were the principal difference between “annoying honking cars” and “deliberate protest that we might relate to.” Additionally, the time spent attaching banners to cars before the caravan departed took much longer than many of us expected. In the future we suggest banners painted with thick bold letters, clear messaging, plenty of time to fasten the banners, and some sort of grommets to prevent the banners from ripping off at higher speeds.
3) More connections with family members and loved ones of prisoners would build a larger car caravan and a stronger movement.
Not only do prisons remove loved ones from families, they physically and geographically silo them away from their home towns and communities. There are tens of thousands of people who are directly connected to a loved one behind bars. Despite the organizers reaching out to a few connections and prisoner comrades inside to help spread the word, not many family members were able to participate in the car caravan.
With visitation cancelled due to COVID, we are only able to interact with our loved ones inside via phone, Jpay, or sometimes video calls. But family members are used to driving to prisons to visit. In non-pandemic times, they do this regularly and in large numbers. What if these car caravans and noise demonstrations were instead framed as a visit, as a way of making family members’ love and care audible and visible not just to prisoners but to the town around them? There is no replacement for visitation, but perhaps the event of the car caravan can be described as a form of visitation—especially one not on the MDOC’s terms. If so, then the next caravan would better succeed at breaking out of the activist milieu and would likely have its numbers swell from 10 cars to 50.
Unfortunately, despite the protest and the ensuing spotlight shined directly on Central Michigan C.F., the outbreak there has become immensely, tragically worse. More than 2,100 cases have been reported at STF, and two prisoners have lost their lives at the hands of the MDOC, Warden Christiansen, and this world that allows prisons to exist. As murmurs of follow-up actions grow in volume, we hope this short piece can be of use to the participants of future demos. A spotlight was not enough to stop the reckless medical neglect happening at STF. What should we try next?
Here is the full text of Rand Gould’s article:
Gov. Whitmer Hosts COVID-19 Super-Spreader Event in Michigan Prison: Prisons as Viral Incubators in Michigan Communities
A successful car caravan protest was held Sunday afternoon, November 15th, in St. Louis, Michigan, where the Central Michigan and St. Louis Correctional Facilities are located, and we made the local news broadcasts. Various community groups, including Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity (MAPS), along with families and friends of prisoners, demonstrated opposition to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s policy of operating Michigan prisons at double their designed capacity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a rotating series of super-spreader events, that is COVID-19 hot-spots, throughout Michigan communities where these prisons, come viral incubators, are located. This, despite her vocal opposition to nearly all other super-spreader events, particularly those of her political opponents.
After being warned against this by myself and others, Gov. Whitmer has continued her disastrous policy, causing multiple super-spreader events at prisons throughout Michigan. This has recklessly endangered prisoners, staff, and the public in nearby communities. (See Rand W. Gould & Kenneth Smith, “Open Letter to Gov. Whitmer, April 29, 2020,” at http://www.freerandgould.com; also San Francisco Bay View, July-August, 2020, 15.)
Consequently, it was only a matter of time before Gov. Whitmer succeeded in exposing all of us prisoners at Central Mich. C.F., along with the surrounding community, to SARS-CoV-2, causing 674 of us, and 84 staff, to contract COVID-19 and creating Michigan’s latest COVID-19 hot-spot and super-spreader event.[*] Gov. Whitmer has long known social distancing is impossible here, with 2,560 men piled on top of each other–8 men to a cubicle built for 4 and 320 men to a polebarn designed for 160–with no ventilation and all of us forced to eat, sleep, and use the bathroom and telephone within 1 or 2 feet of each other inside these viral incubators called prisons.
Incredibly, staff are not required to be tested for COVID-19 before reporting to work and are only given a cursory temperature check before entering the prison, guaranteeing the inevitability of every prison in Michigan becoming a COVID-19 hot-spot and super-spreader, and some more than once before this winter is over. However, given the temporal proximity of the cause and effect, it is likely that the October 15th transfer of approximately 160 prisoners from the Upper Peninsula’s Newberry C.F., a known COVID-19 hot-spot, to Central Michigan C.F. caused the current super-spreader event here (Much like the transfer of 121 prisoners from Chino to San Quentin caused that super-spreader event in California’s prisons!). The Michigan National Guard warned the MDOC administrators not to transfer prisoners from Newberry C.F. but they did it anyway, with full knowledge of the risks to prisoners, staff, and the public in nearby communities.
To add insult to injury, Gov. Whitmer, through her subordinates MDOC Director Heidi E. Washington and Central Michigan C.F. Warden John Christiansen, declared a so-called “quarantine” on Thursday, November 5th, confining every prisoner to their unit, i.e., lockdown, but then bizarrely began moving 600 prisoners from bunk to bunk and unit to unit on Friday November 6th, the very next day! Whether done intentionally or through sheer ignorance, these moves cross-contaminated the entire prison, super-spreading COVID-19 throughout. It did not take us long to realize that men were being switched between units because of “close contact” with a COVID-19 positive prisoner and that these moves were highly irrational. For example, 7 prisoners in J-Unit were switched with 7 prisoners in E-Unit, when the one other prisoner in each cubicle tested positive. This made no sense. Why not transfer the positive prisoners to a COVID-19 unit and leave the others be? Or transfer them to a “close contact’ unit? However, this was not done. What was done is the antithesis of a medical quarantine as required by the MDOC’s Control of Communicable Diseases policy, PD 03.04.110.
This type of reckless and wanton neglect of public duty by Gov. Whitmer and her subordinates within the MDOC led to the car caravan protest and several press releases including the following:
Now that Central Michigan Correctional Facility Warden John Christiansen has succeeded in exposing all of us prisoners and the surrounding community to COVID-19, infecting at least 674 of us and 84 staff, whether intentionally, as it seems, or out of sheer ignorance, there is no longer a reason to continue this so-called “quarantine” and/or lockdown, which in reality is nothing less than an ongoing super-spreader event that serves to deny us access to the yards–the only places we can practice social distancing and breathe fresh air. Thus, Warden Christiansen’s public duty requires him to end this lockdown and only quarantine COVID-19-positive prisoners in accordance with the procedures set forth in the MDOC’s Communicable Diseases Policy in PD 03.04.110.
In other words, Warden Christiansen can stop pretending any steps he has taken to date have been in any way effective in preventing COVID-19 from spreading through the eight overcrowded viral incubators he calls “polebarns”. Quite the oppositive, in fact, as he has allowed 160 potentially contagious prisoners to transfer here on October 15th from the COVID-19 hotspot of Newberry Correctional Facility, and, further, he did not require testing of staff before entering the facility, only requiring useless temperature checks instead. This, when he knew most of his staff did not take the COVID pandemic seriously, did not practice social distancing, and did not wear masks outside the prison, emulating the buffoon of a current president, Donald J. Trump, who is responsible for this debacle nationally, as Warden Christiansen is locally in both this prison and the surrounding community.
Today, November 16, in a panic due to the car caravan protest and resulting publicity, Warden Christiansen is having staff coerce prisoners, who are not positive, allegedly, for COVID-19, to sign “waivers of liability” in order to remain in their assigned bunks and avoid having to sleep in the gymnasium, or worse. Such a waiver is of no value due to how it was obtained and its lack of retroactive effect, with the Warden, Gov. Whitmer, and Director Washington all liable for the actions they took, or didn’t take, prior to this date. In effect, all Warden Christiansen has accomplished is a further waste of scarce state resources, i.e., taxpayers’ money.
In sum, Gov. Whitmer’s COVID-19 super-spreader events are nothing short of a colossal cluster-fuck and yet another example of her, and her subordinates, willful refusal to perform their public duties, which is a violation of the public duty doctrine enshrined in state law MCL 750.478.
16 November 2020