On the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, hundreds imprisoned inside Michigan’s Kinross Correctional Facility refused to report to work or lock down in their barracks. Instead, they joined the largest prisoner labor strike in U.S. history.
Making Contact’s April 25, 2018 episode was co-produced with Rustbelt Abolition Radio
Click here to display the episode script.
MUSIC: [bed down under hosts]
ALEJO: Hi. I’m Alejo Stark.
A MARIA: And I’m a Maria. On today’s Making Contact…
GTL Recording: This call is from a correction facility and is subject to monitoring and recording. Thank you for using GTL
Fred: …guys decided they weren’t going to go into their housing, leaving from breakfast, leaving from the chow hall that morning. They decided they were going to stand out and protest. Protest the food, protest health services, protest the ventilation, protest the living conditions overall. So these few guys stood outside, walking in circles protesting, chanting, equal work, equal pay, chanting, and they were also calling for other guys inside the housing units to come stand with them in solidarity.
A MARIA: On September 9, 2016, prisoners across the U.S. went on strike. In Michigan, at the lower security Kinross prison, workers assigned to kitchen duties refused to report to their shifts. Hundreds gathered to protest in the prison yard. The strike spread like a prairie fire. Nationally, 24,000 prisoners participated, making it the largest prisoner labor strike in U.S. history.
ALEJO: Today we hear from the people whose lives were changed by this historic event — both inside and outside prison walls.
MUSIC FADE OUT
Act I – Conditions
AMBIENT HELICOPTER [3 s then bed down under hosts]
ALEJO: September 9 is the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising in New York. In 1971, prisoners across the country were organizing to end mass incarceration and unlivable conditions inside prisons. That August, prison guards had gunned down George Jackson, an intellectual and member of the Black Panther Party. News of his murder spread across the world. A few weeks later, when prison guards at Attica beat up two of the prisoners there, it sparked a full blown rebellion.
ATTICA: “We are men. We are not beasts and we do not be intended to be driven or beaten as such. The entire prison populace has set forth to change forever the ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of prisoners here and throughout the United States. What has happened here is but the sound before the fury of those that are oppressed.” – Elliott L.D. Barkley
A MARIA: The Attica brothers demanded that the state “Apply the New York State minimum wage law to all state institutions. STOP SLAVE LABOR”. They also demanded an end to the State’s political repression related to communications with the outside.
A MARIA: In the spirit of Attica the struggle for Abolition continues to this day.
ALEJO: In 2013, almost 30,000 prisoners went on a hunger strike in California to protest the use of solitary confinement. A few years after, and further East, the Free Alabama and Free Ohio movements formed and began coordinating with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.
ALEJO: Ben Turk is with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, and helped support the 2016 strike on the outside.
Ben Turk: The call for a coordinated strike came from Free Alabama movement, Free Ohio movement, and prisoners from various different places. And as soon as they heard that folks were talking about a national coordinated work stoppage, people everywhere were like “hell yeah, we’ve been talking about that forever! We’re excited to get on board, let’s do this.”
ALEJO: When people take action behind bars it’s up to those on the outside to share what’s being planned, and what kinds of support are needed by strikers inside.
Ben Turk: By the time September 9th was coming around, prisoners in Alabama, the lockdown situation was much more severe and they lost a lot of their communication. And so they did do strikes and work stoppages but it was shorter, and then in other places it was much larger than expected. Here in Michigan up in the U.P., at Kinross, I don’t think anybody expected the 200 people to go on strike there.
MUSIC: [bed down under hosts]
A MARIA: The “U.P.”, or upper peninsula of Michigan, is a tourist destination covered in woodlands and dotted with waterfalls. It is connected to the rest of the state by a towering four-lane suspension bridge.
A MARIA: In a small town an hour north of the bridge, a 50-acre site –surrounded by two perimeter chain-link fences, topped with razor-ribbon wire, monitored with electronic security devices, and patrolled by armed personnel– holds about twelve hundred people that have been labelled criminals. They are fathers, husbands, workers, activists, comrades. Many of them are from the Detroit area, which means they are held 5 hours from their friends, family, and communities.
MUSIC FADE OUT
A MARIA: This prison site is the Kinross Correctional Facility. It is part of an archipelago of similar facilities found across the state of Michigan.
ALEJO: Kinross used to be a military base. The government deactivated it after losing the War in Vietnam. A few years later the state opened a prison, called Hiawatha, a few miles away. Then, in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, the state closed this prison.
A MARIA: Clearly, when the State wants to, it can close prisons down.
ALEJO: Unfortunately, the State can also reopen them. In 2015, it reopened the facility, which was in terrible condition after being shuttered for six years, and renamed it Kinross. Hundreds of prisoners were transferred there and immediately faced the uninhabitable conditions of the so-called “new” Kinross facility.
ALEJO: Baba X and Ahjamu were at Kinross before the shutdown, and were transferred back when the facility re-opened.
[0:23] Ahjamu: That facility [Hiawatha] was only originally meant to hold 600-800 prisoners, but once they transferred us back over there, we had over 1200 prisoners and it was overcrowded. You see we was living in a condition a cube area where eight men were living in a cube area, a size of a large bedroom. We had 8 men sleeping in there .
AMBIENT METAL BED
A MARIA: The cubes are 15 by 9 feet – smaller than the average parking space. The tiny rooms were overflowing, crammed with bunk beds and storage lockers for eight men and their personal belongings.
Baba: Like packing on a ship, slave ships, that’s what they call it, “Tight-packing”, back then in the 1800s. It’s the same thing, they doubling, triple, quadruple themselves and we tumbling over each other just trying to get off the bunks.
A MARIA: In the 1980s, “Baba-X” and his family were terrorized by burning crosses staked into their lawn. He later founded “The Coalition to End Police Brutality”, after being brutalized by the local police department. In addition to community organizing, Baba X filed a legal suit against the department –and won– but was later targeted for retaliation and thrown into prison.
Ahjamu: There was no fire alarm system in there. It was overcrowded. And that’s what caused the condition. And we were getting less yard up there. Sometimes we only get a half hour yard because there were over 1200 prisoners and it takes all day to run chow. So we getting less chow and guys was getting sick from the ventilation because they had just opened that prison up to move us there.
Baba: Birds nests and stuff like that was still over there. The feces and everything was still in the air ducts when they moved us over there and about 10 guys went to the hospital within about a week or so because the air was so bad. And of course, you know about the food and the history of the food with the maggots. Me myself, I started coughing up yellow, black substances out of my lungs and stuff. I had to go around with my nose covered up constantly and slept with my nose covered up, you understand.
A MARIA: Like Baba X, Ahjamu Baruti has been locked up for more than two decades. He is a grey-haired bibliophile who often quotes George Jackson in his hand-written letters.
Ahjamu has also written extensively on psychological warfare inside of prisons.
AMBIENT VENTILATION SYSTEM [bed down under Ahjamu, fade out]
Ahjamu: Once they opened the ventilation up, the air that was coming through and getting in people’s lungs and it was getting people sick.
Baba: You go to the doctor, a lot of the doctors, my doctor, he’s telling me, hey you can’t send these guys back because they’re sick, when the inmates came to the hospitals.
Baba_5: It was so packed and everything was so bad, the air was so bad, the food was so bad, the inhumane attitudes of the COs and administration was uncompromising. They sent block reps up to talk to the people about the conditions. They talked to the people about the conditions and then, next thing you know they come in the middle of the night and chain the block reps up and send them up. They disappeared them, you see.
MUSIC: [then bed down under Fred]
Baba: It’s very bad, just went off like a fuse. Just exploded, especially when the chance came for september the 9th. I can see why the spirit, September the 9th back in Attica prison. Everything just exploded and went off.
MUSIC FADE OUT
Police Scanner: Yea, see if you can get some more escorting staff to help with the prisoners coming out of the units. Copy that and clear. There’s, the fire is out in Delta. We’re gonna clear the , okay? Command copy. Delta copy. Delta, can you open the end door?
AMBIENT FIRE ROAR
ACT II – Strike
A MARIA: Earlier that year, prisoners at several facilities across Michigan staged coordinated boycotts against maggot-infested food. At some facilities upwards of 1,000 prisoners boycotted the chow hall en masse.
A MARIA: The first of these protests kicked off at Kinross, where prisoners protested the food situation as well as the overcrowded, unhealthy, and unlivable conditions they had endured since the facility reopened. Over the course of the year, those at Kinross held several more unity actions, but administrators at all levels ignored their grievances and conditions only worsened. That was when people on the inside heard about the call for a coordinated national strike.
ALEJO: The Free Alabama Movement’s call to a national prisoner strike on the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica rebellion came as part of a broader shift in strategy within the prisoner resistance movement.
ALEJO: In 2015, the Free Alabama Movement had issued a three-part strategy called “Let the crops rot in the fields.” They argued that if we want to put an end to “Mass Incarceration and Prison Slavery” imprisoned workers should shift away from a strategy focused on hunger strikes to one focused economic non-participation. If imprisoned people organized as workers, as those who clean, cook, and maintain the prison, with the support of those on the outside, they can shut prisons down.
ALEJO: Harold Gonzales never expected to become an unofficial spokesperson for the strike. An eloquent writer and mediator, he fell into the role by chance and necessity.
MUSIC FADE OUT
Harold: They planned a protest, and they wanted it to be peaceful and open an intellectual dialogue with the administration to better the conditions.
Harold: the day before that, we had done a work stoppage where nobody went to work and that alerted the administration. But the administration, I guess I can say, was compliant, because at that time, they hadn’t wrote anybody any tickets or nothing and they were willing to communicate.
A MARIA: Inside prison walls, tickets function similarly to how they function on the outside. They are often issued by a correctional officer to discipline incarcerated people who are claimed to have violated some rule.
Harold: But the officers and the staff there had a different opinion. They were upset about it and they got abusive. They started mistreating us and malnourishing us. Feeding us spoiled food and things like that, which incited the inmates to get angry, which incited a whole nother set of inmates, an aggressive set of inmates. Which really sparked off the 9-10-16 incident, where they just rebelled and came out on the yard and wanted to hold the protest out on the yard.
AMBIENT KITCHEN SOUNDS [bed down under Fred]
A MARIA: Fred Williams is a poet and painter who was sentenced to life without parole at the age of seventeen. He’s called into several conference and community panels to discuss prison and abolition.
Fred: these guys took it upon themselves to disregard all rules and policies and they walked in circles in the common area chanting and the crowd just grew larger and larger and larger. Until the point where when I looked out the window, it looked like maybe five, six hundred guys out there. And at one point they basically stormed the control center. It seemed like it was like two hundred and fifty guys in the control center and some administration staff had went outside to talk to the guys and the prisoners were really hostile at that point because they feel like their voices weren’t being heard no matter how peacefully they made their requests for changes. For instance, some small changes, like the visiting room, prior to that date, you would have to sit across from your family member instead of next to your family member or loved one. So small things like that that could have been changed here within the administration, weren’t even being heard or considered. And so they were frustrated. They began yelling at administration and they began making threats.
AMBIENT FIRE ALARM [then bed low under host]
ALEJO: Then, an emergency response team, or ERT, was called in. The ERT is a specially trained unit of the Michigan Department of Corrections, which — much like riot police on the outside–are called to repress rebellions on the inside.
Fred: You’ll have a small ERT team that could come eradicate a small crowd, a small riot, a small fight, but the magnitude of this crowd, required much more, and so they called ERT. ERT members came from all over the state and so it took a while for them to get that team together. It took four or five hours and from what I understand, this is the first or second time the government allowed for live ammunition to be entered onto the prison compound in Michigan.
Fred: So I would say, four or five hours, because they had blew the emergency count, the emergency count is a institutional horn that everyone knows, right, once you hear that emergency count, it means get to your room, lock down, get on your bunk so you can be counted. And this is a horn that everyone adheres to, kinda like a fire alarm, when you know to exit the building. When you hear this emergency count horn, it means enter the building. and everyone ignored it. I told you all rules and policies went out the door like all consequences for breaking any rules or policies were not adhered to. And I noticed that once the ERT was about to come through the door of the control center to enter the compound, you know, the prison population who were out there protesting, they strategically closed off the entrance so that the ERT couldn’t enter into the facility to disperse the crowd. And then I noticed that once the administration noticed what the prisoners were doing, they rerouted the ERT to the side entrance, and once the prisoners noticed that, they blocked the side. So they had the front entrance and the side entrance blocked. It’s like a game of chess, you know, you move, we move, you move, we move. And in that game of chess, the administration came out and talked, and they said “ we’re gonna try to make these changes, we’re gonna try to make these changes, we’re gonna listen to you, we’re gonna allow block reps from your housing units to come talk to us, and we’re gonna sit down and discuss some of these things, and we’re gonna fix this and we’re gonna fix that, and some of your demands can only be met by suits in Lansing, or can only be denied or granted by suits in Lansing.” So they were saying it was unpractical for those guys to expect the administration to make those changes. So you know, the language that they used was enough to quell the rebellious spirit for that moment. So they told those guys, if you go lock in, if you go lock down and be counted so we can make sure no one escaped or anything then, we’ll get you guys hot meals, we’ll get you good food, and we’ll start discussing these issues.
Fred: It was a trick. Those guys went in and locked down and was counted, and then something that never happened before happened. All of the officers who worked in each housing unit fled the building. Once every prisoner was on their bunk to be counted, all the officers of each housing unit left and ran to the control center. So at that point, all the prisoners were like, “ah, armageddon…” like what was going on.
Fred: “Then the ERT came and they came in, “Get down, everyone get down, get on your bunks, get on your bunks” and you see red beams on the guy next to you’s forehead, and the guy next to you telling you there’s a red beam on your forehead.”
AMBIENT SMASHING SOUNDS
MUSIC: [bed down under host, fade out at end of host]
A MARIA: One of the few photographs that leaked out of the prison shows a cinder block bathroom, porcelain sinks half-shattered and falling off the wall.
Harold: the emergency response teams did just as much damage as the inmates did, when they did come in the units. But they blamed that on the inmates, too. But finally, they gassed us repeatedly, over and over again, even when nobody wasn’t doing anything. But finally, when they got us to walk outside the unit, put us in cuffs, they put us on busses and rode us to different facilities.
AMBIENT RAIN [then bed down under host]
A MARIA: The men rode to new facilities after being handcuffed on the ground for hours, freezing cold and wet from the rain, but also from having been left to soil themselves. This was just the beginning of the brutal retaliation that rained down on those held captive by the state.
AMBIENT FADE OUT
ACT III – Repression & Organizing
POLICE SCANNER: Just be advised: Uh, some of your … your vans may be going to Baraga so when you uh turn them over to the the guiding car just advise them you may be going all the way to Baraga.. And the last busses are leaving here right now are going to Alger, Alger, and uh our guys will care of that. Okay And uh, continue on to the prisons, and then we’ll advise.
MUSIC: [then fade and bed under host]
ALEJO: In the aftermath of the riot, more than 200 people were immediately transferred from Kinross to maximum correctional facilities. In such transfers, people lose all of their belongings, forever.
ALEJO: Ahjamu, Baba and Harold — were transferred out of Kinross and put in solitary confinement for almost a year. Fred remained in the Kinross facility for one year, and was later moved North to a higher security level inside another prison.
MUSIC FADE OUT
Ahjamu: When the incident happened, they rounded all of us up and took us down. They had opened a prison… that had been closed for several years… just to hold over about 100 prisoners from Kinross.
Ahjamu: They had to cut the water on, and when the water came out, it came out dark orange cause they’d been off. And the conditions were real, it was beyond human living, because there was so much dirt and filth in those cells. They put us in there for about three or four days and after that, they moved us to door stack quarantine and we had to stay there for about three weeks.
Ahjamu: The food condition was worse. We sometimes get less food. It was really about psychological control. I seen guys getting gassed in the hole in there because they was protesting about the food, about the condition of food and they was holding their trays, they was setting themselves up to be gassed as a response there was six guys that came to gas them and took their trays. It was really about psychological warfare in the hole.
Baba: When you do something like this, and stand up for something like this, you get the harassment, you get all that that goes with it. They took 1,532 days of good time from me, that’s five years. And the guards are always trying to provoke you or something, you know. I paid $175 to be heard for a rehearing in Lansing and they said I was two days late. So now, I was not allowed to defend myself for these charges.
Baba: They finally sent me to Oaks Facility. I lost 63 pounds in six or seven months and I know it had something to do with stressed living without heat. They wouldn’t turn on heat for months. You had to workout to stay warm down there. I had to wait 3 weeks to receive a coat, which I was supposed to have by law. Which kept me from going outside to the cage for my one hour, out of every two or three days a week to work out. And I didn’t get to get outside – because we locked up for the other 23 hours out of the day.
Ahjamu: The whole thing is about control: control your movement, control of what you received in here. Because I just received a paper from the San Francisco black national paper and they were talking about the Million Prisoner March that (just) happened August 19th, in Washington D.C. about the human rights and they rejected it. And I asked the counselor about why did you reject it, is that advocating violence? And she just said because it’s speaking about human rights and the conditions of prisoners here. So any time you talk about prisoner conditions, they don’t want the prisons to hear that, they don’t want that kind of news to come in here.
Harold: Since being here at this facility, they didn’t want to let me out of the hole. I guess on May 1st Lansing had said they were going to let all the Kinross prisoners out of the hole, they didn’t want to let me out of the hole. I had to actually have people actually call up here and it worked.
Harold: They called me back and told me, the Deputy Warden and the Lieutenant, told me that they were going to let me out. This is the exact words, they said, “I’m quite sure that we’re going to let all the people out from Kinross, and we’re quite sure you know that, because of the amount of calls we’ve been getting about you, we’re going to let you out” and he said if it was up to him, he wouldn’t be letting me out, but he’s gonna let me out.
MUSIC: [bed down under host]
A MARIA: Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity -or MAPS- formed in the wake of the Kinross rebellion. The group connected with prisoners who had been transferred as a retaliatory measure following the September 9 strike. MAPS organized a sequence of coordinated call-ins to release those held in solitary confinement. These efforts succeeded, but the retaliation continues in more subtle ways. The Michigan department of Corrections implemented a more restrictive mail policy which attempts to cut off and further control any kind of communication across prison walls.
ALEJO: To this day, the Michigan Department of Corrections denies that there ever was a rebellion — even as it issued “incite to riot or strike” tickets to those it immediately put in solitary confinement. “Incite to Riot or Strike” is considered a class 1 misconduct, which puts it in the same category of violations as “homicide,” and “sexual assault.”
ALEJO: Ben Turk argues that it’s important for us to remember and learn from these events, as this might better prepare us for the rebellions to come.
Ben Turk: I’m excited to see what happens in the future going forward, as we generalize the idea of supporting prison strikes. Then wherever it is they happen, there’ll be people on the outsid e who are ready and have already some experience doing it who can step up.
Ben Turk: There’s a feedback loop that happens when prisoners go on strike or take action inspiring to us on the outside, and then when we step up to have solidarity and to have their back, that shows them that they aren’t alone in those struggles. And that emboldens them to take more action, and if we can keep that feedback loop going, then we can really shake the foundation of this thing that’s strangling all of us really.
Fred: I don’t’ know sometimes I think about the fact that I heard that more facilities within the state were supposed to protest in the same way, at the same time, so I imagine, in theory, had that occurred, like I just imagine how, it’s hard to imagine how the state could have responded you know with having to employ so much manpower and resources to this one facility at that time. Can you imagine 10, 12, 15 facilities on fire, with prisoners jumpin out of windows and refusing to lock down and refusing to be counted and lootin, you know because there was a point where guys were looting the guard from what I understand they were really close breaking in and looting the chow hall and at a point at this facility during the protest, you can clearly see that the prisoners had taken control, that emergency count and the threats they were yelling over the bullhorn to go lock down, didn’t work. Guys did not go in and lock down.
Ahjamu: If you control a man’s thoughts, you don’t have to worry about his actions. And we in a psychological warfare so brothers got to start getting a political consciousness they gotta read, they gotta read, and broaden our awareness. Solidarity and love out there to everyone.
MUSIC FADE OUT
ALEJO: The fire of rebellion has not been extinguished by the retaliation that rained down on those in struggle–neither at Attica nor at Kinross.
MUSIC: [short fade in and bed under host]
ALEJO: In February 2018, a month-long work stoppage — named Operation PUSH — was launched by Florida prisoners and outside supporters. It was slated for Martin Luther King Jr day, to “Improve the Lives of Incarcerated People and the Communities We Come From”. The rebellions continue because conditions inside and outside remain unlivable. The rebellions continue because a persistent force organizing in the spirit of Abolition is rattling walls and cages to make prisons obsolete.
Alejo: That’s it for this edition of Making Contact.
If today’s show raised questions for you, share the show with a friend. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter where our handle is Making underscore Contact
This show was produced by Alejo Stark and a Maria of Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity and Rustbelt Abolition Radio with Making Contact producer, Marie Choi.
a Maria: The interviews with Ahjamu, Baba X, Harold, and Fred were originally recorded for “Michigan’s Kinross Prison Strike: reflections from Inside”. To learn more about the Kinross Prison Strike and prisoner resistance organizing, check out our website at rustbeltradio.org and follow us on twitter at @rustbeltradio.
Today’s show also included original music and sound by Bad Infinity and DJ Liveleaks. The Making Contact Team includes: Lisa Rudman, Marie Choi, RJ Lozada, Anita Johnson, Monica Lopez, Vera Tykulsker, and Sabine Blaizin.
Alejo: I’m Alejo Stark
a Maria: and I’m a Maria. Thanks for listening to Making Contact!
MUSIC FADE OUT