In early 2019 more than two thousand people deprived of their freedom inside Michigan’s Huron Valley prison for women were placed into quarantine. In this episode we discuss the action with two women who experienced the quarantine firsthand, and with Victoria Law, abolitionist activist and author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.
Image credit: Fatima Meer, anti-apartheid fighter
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Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is a Maria. On January 2019, more than two thousand women confined at Michigan’s only women’s prison were put in quarantine. The quarantine comes in the wake of a possible scabies outbreak at the facility — which has a long history of abuse and multiple cases of medical neglect. While many of the women held captive there displayed no symptoms, and pointed out other health hazards, such as black mold and infested showers, all of those who refused the state’s systemic administration of medical treatment were put in solitary confinement. In this episode, we speak with Sara and Tracy — two poets that were locked up at Huron Valley during the quarantine. We also speak with Victoria Law, abolitionist writer and activist, and author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women.
But before we begin, here’s Kaif Syed with some movement news you have missed.
On March 15th, prosecutors dropped charges against several inmates charged with involvement in the 2017 uprising at the James T Vaughn Correctional Center due to lack of evidence. After only being able to convict one out of seven inmates tried, the Delaware Department of Justice has decided to focus on 3 inmates out of an original 18 charged. The 2017 uprising in Vaughn Correctional Center was sparked by resistance to poor prison conditions.
On March 15th, charges against protestors who disrupted the inauguration day of Donald Trump in 2017 were dropped with prejudice by a DC superior court judge. The charges against 234 J20 defendants, which held sentences up to 60 years in prison, had already been dropped in installments over the last 2 years. What the “with prejudice” decision comes down to is that defendants who did not take a plea will not have their charges come back — a victory that the defendants attribute to the strength of collective action.
On March 14th, after 3 days of refusing food and drink, an inmate in Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama ended his hunger strike. Robert Earl Council started his hunger strike on March 11th, protesting his unjust 4 year-long solitary confinement. Council has now been transferred to general population at Kilby Correctional Facility.
SARA INTERVIEW AND POEM
Alejo: I am Alejo and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio. An abolitionist media and movement-building and project based in Detroit. We first hear from Sara, who was locked up at women’s Huron Valley Prison (or “WHV”) of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) at the time of the quarantine. Sara reads us a poem of hers, titled “Venom,” written in the wake of the quarantine. She also tells us that the women at WHV were forcibly administered a drug named ivermectin. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), QUOTE Ivermectin is an oral antiparasitic agent approved for the treatment of worm infestations. Evidence suggests that oral ivermectin may be a safe and effective treatment for scabies; however, ivermectin is not FDA-approved for this use. END QUOTE Nonetheless, the MDOC administered this drug to quarantined women at WHV. Let’s now listen to Sara’s account.
Sara: For me, it’s been an interesting road. Because I am not like a lot of the people who believe that the prison has our best interest at heart. If they did, I think that the scabies treatment would have been done in a whole lot more humane manner than it was. They would have used medication designed for people, instead of animals. And I have a poem that I would like to read at the end that reflects that. It talks about how I am still seeking answers to the greater questions. I am not interested in the cover up that’s going on around here where they are trying to say that the rashes are completely scabies-related.
Here we are, weeks after quarantine and women who still have these rashes are still being subjected to being locked up. They are being quarantined. They’re being subjected to investigation and are not getting any answers. And this was supposed to be a cure-all. This was supposed to be something that completely cleansed the prison and it completely did not work. Some of these women are even going home with these rashes and they are being diagnosed with blood infections and they are on the verge of death by the time they get diagnosed. Others are being diagnosed with parasites, which they are blaming on the drinking water that we have. We drink this, we bathe in it, we cook with it.
Sara: The lawsuits are just amazing. The lawsuits coming up against WHV [Women’s Huron Valley prison] and against MDOC [Michigan Department of Corrections]. For the black mold infected showers that we are subject to. At some point, WHV is going to have to tell the public the truth. They are housing us in a condemned prison. And they have been for quite a while. Ever since I came to prison — and I have been here five years — this prison has technically been condemned. And they just continue to house more and more women in conditions that are causing us physical problems and they are refusing to address it in a timely manner. So, of course it would be easier if the truth never came out for them. But it’s in light of that truth, and seeking that truth, that I wrote the poem called “Venom,” to encapsulate the injustice that we went through in being quarantined, being forced to be treated for a disease that I know I personally — and hundreds, possibly even thousands of others — never even had. And we had to go through that. So….This is the poem called “Venom.”
In my history books
Hitler’s Reich ended
and those who thought
like him were not privy
to tolerance. Yet here
I am, herded, reigned in,
ramrodded with no voice
to reject — subject to ridding
an illusion from within
if I refuse the 5
miniscule pills in
my trembling hand. They try
to say we are all
infested to rid
themselves of obligation
to treat us as more
than subhuman. I have
not lost my intonation.
My angst does not wear
thing against my hips
when they tell me
this is not a punishment
as I am stripped
of every remaining token
that makes me human.
Lie to me again
as you lock away
meager possessions where bugs
live longer than on
my skin though
the news says “skin to skin”
not possessions lead
to reinfestation. Tell me
again that you have this rash
under control as we
sneak shampoo and coffee
into our bras, safe
from this vicious
takedown where segregation
awaits if I don’t swallow.
Invading my senses
with chemicals, I don’t
need and didn’t ask for.
Irony is not lost
on my that this is
a crime outside of prison
where no one can be
blackballed into ingesting
I wonder if we had
stood toe to toe, united
as women, demanding
real answers instead of fake
cures, if we would’ve
succeeded against this mass
dehumanization and had rebuttal
to the black mold dripping
from our ceilings
into our water source
draping our skin
in poison and drenching
our taste buds with contagion.
Instead we are disintegration
at its finest.
Sara: So I wrote that. And it seems that it’s just a topic is very near and dear for me. I mean, I’ve watched a lot of injustice goon in this prison. I’ve watched a lot of cover up happen. From women who have died in here for mysterious causes or just plain neglect. And it just seems like the long grind here, the more it’s exposed about this place….I appreciate this forum that can actually put the truth out there. Because I know that it’s very limited what actually gets said to the press. What actually gets published in the newspaper. You know, I have family members who talk to me about articles that were printed and “this is what we heard…”, and so it’s so completely convoluted from what we are actually experiencing in here. The public will have no idea just how bad it is here. You know, we’ll be locked down. Forced to take medication. You know, I can’t even imagine. It’s understandable that we lose rights when we come to prison. I’ve had that drummed into my head–that we lose our “human rights” when we come here. Not necessarily “human rights.” But we lose a lot of rights.
We don’t vote. We don’t have the opportunity to be a part of the general public any more. So along with that, I just think that they just assume that they can stomp over every human right. And it’s just an atrocious thing that goes on. And this last quarantine was really just kind of an epitome of that — where they just stripped us of everything for days and days on end and threatened us with severe punishment if we didn’t follow through with what they thought. At the same time, I have a nursing background. So I know that if they truly believe that this was a scabies epidemic they would have never have treated us with the medication that they used, because it’s not effective. It’s the cheapest medication possible. Ivermectin was what was used. It’s technically a medication they give to animals to deworm them. It’s really not meant for human consumption.
Alejo: We now hear from Tracy. Tracy also begins by reading her poem, titled “Raw,” which narrates living through four endless days on quarantine. She tells us of an instance in which one of the imprisoned women attempted to commit suicide by hanging herself.
What is this stranger lurking about undetected; roaming the hallways, concealing itself within the security of our personal space? Not so dangerous to cause wailing at the wall but not safe enough you can be comfortable in your own bed. Mass pandemonium forced on already miserably irate cohabitors, tears and huge waves of discouragement drag melancholy across the sea of faces I pass everyday, everynight, much like you can imagine the archaic epidemics were in military or mental hospitals.
Quarantine!!! Do you love me now? No makeup, bedhead, sick, showerless, everything I own locked up for decontamination for days.
Day 1: It’ Snot Me
No rash here! I realize that doesn’t rule me out as a carrier. Sleep, can I just sleep? Battling a major sinus infections / congestions from raw milk for over a month now & put off by health care again, so they can deal with a rash. I’m locked down for a few days and just want to get some sleep. Once on my bunk, I wrestle with rest as my belligerent bunkie stands in the door, bellowing down the hall with the others hurling venomous insults like a shot putt. I never understand lashing out at staff ordering our linens be thrown into the hall, shouting instruction for bagging clothes for laundering. Listen and you’ll know what to do. The net hour, we must pack personal and state property into plastic bags inside lockers for decontamination (4 days). Like a clearance sale, everything must go. Cups, bowls, clothes, books, pens, anything left out that shouldn’t be will be confiscated. Next hour, deworming pills must be swallowed, no one wants to take them but forced to or segregated. Didn’t think about this when you chronically complained about rashes did you? Swallow or wallow 90 days in the hole. Those inmates shouting, not so much hatred as caffeine withdrawal, desires to be out socializing, sick of being sick and fuses burnt at both ends. Why won’t they just rest a dew days to get healthy? A week of stop order for a ras but the ignored viruses spread like wildfire, get in your lungs and can kill you, like the inmate that died last quarantine. You focus on the rash, I;m going to catch a nap. You sic ones; Drink water and sleep.
Day 2: Itch-n-Scratch
Mass confusions, fear, discouragement, overcrowding in a small space, grown women more selfish and evil than I’ve seen them before. Our very own black friday brawls, some crying, and right in the middle of it all, someone runs in yelling, “we’ve got one hanging.” Every officer trying to regain some sort of control, runs after the inmate showing the way. Things change when one is hanging from the rafters. Everyone has a breaking point, even officers. Raw fear levels shoot higher and survival instincts set in. No organization, no communication, no kidding. It’s every woman for herself. Where is God in all of this? Does it matter when people won’t listen to him anyway? Once in survival mode, it doesn’t matter who you are. Man, woman, free, captive, religious, not, everything becomes a blur, you think of yourself and just go through the motions. Common sense must be packed away being decontaminated. God help us! Just one day in the life of…
Day 3: I Mite
The clothes on your back, toothbrush & paste, a roll of tissue, a bar of soap & shampoo packet and a styrofoam cup, your own survival tools for days. A blanket and my bible top the pie. Talk about natural, we’re roughing it worse than camping. Your daily rations, slopped on to tray at a stranger’s convenience, your stomach has no say. Oh how people scream when you confiscate their already minimal personal belongings. Tirelessly and boisterously they grumble about “going without”… “inhuman”… “this is crazy”. Similarly they grumble about the rash, the itching day and night for a year. Now they grumble about the measures taken to attempt to stop this invisible intruder. A week’s treatment, to kill what’s eating you, mocked continuously. Grumblers just grumble, it’s not the bugs, it’s never ending. No, raw isn’t natural.
Day 4: It Bugs Me
Imagine my surprise when at work I was suddenly called to go to a visit. Aren’t we locked down? Must be over. My belongings still sealed, I go on a visit in 3 day old clothes, no hairstyle, no makeup. Tolerating the inconveniences a week to rid the rash is minor in lieu of getting healthcare to cure it. I’ve avoided the rash thus far, thank God, and plan to cooperate so I’ll remain rash free, oh but the whining. Below zero temps, no coffee, no tea, or hot cocoa? Setting all thoughts aside my visit for more enjoyable food and Christian fellowship. God doesn’t change because of a lockdown, neither does His will for my life. My focus the same now as pre-quarantine, I merely see this as a few days rest, trust and await God’s sign it’s okay to go again. Seas popped, time to unpack, get back to prison normal? The governor grants a weather state of emergency, here we go again! -38 degree wind chills and heat turned way down. Raw!
Distinctively different insights, snapshots in our forever archives, portray instincts splayed on a platter for the taking. For people who hate chaos, it sure seems to be kept stirred like a simmering stew or port of chili, it’s stench not quite as delightful. Boredom and anger loom, caffeine withdrawal fuels hypochondriacs tedious whine, minimizing needed help. Staff stunned by grown adults mimicking a daycare temperature. Rebellion is some form always standing like Lady Liberty, at times in defiance, at times for rights, at time is shrivels like a grape chosen to raisun. It’s always raw.
Is this the hell our victims and the public sentence us to? With depression and terror this thick from helplessness against the silent stranger, I cannot fathom the torment of Hades’ eternal confines.
VICTORIA LAW INTERVIEW
Alejo: We also spoke with Victoria Law, abolitionist writer and activist, and author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, about this extraordinary, and yet common, event at the Women’s Huron Valley prison.
Victoria Law: Well, I think that one of the things that strikes me about the scabies outbreak is that it points to the systematic ways in which jails and prisons disregard incarcerated people’s health. So while I think this is the first time I’ve heard about a mass scabies outbreak inside of prison, the fact that medical staff continued to not diagnose the problem, not take seriously this problem when perhaps only one or two or a handful of people showed symptoms of scabies — is what led there to be a mass outbreak. This kind of neglect has happened in other prison systems in the past; there had been mass outbreaks of MRSA in Georgia and Texas prison systems because people were not diagnosed, they were not treated. They were told that they were faking their symptoms, they were not given treatment and medication, which then led to more people contracting MRSA and it led to a mass outbreak.
So we can see similar problems in Huron Valley and the way that they disregarded the health of the people who are inside to the point where there was a mass scabies outbreak. And now they are punishing people, even people who don’t have scabies, by forcing them to either take a pill or risk going to solitary confinement. They are taking all of their belongings away.
I had the misfortune of contracting scabies years ago, fortunately not while in prison or any — under any sort of state supervision and it is itchy, it is painful, it is really awful. But also it’s treatable and you don’t have to put all of your belongings in quarantine. What you do is you get, at least at the time, you get a lotion, you put it all over your skin, it kills the mites that live under your skin and then you wash all the clothes that you’ve worn and your blankets and your bedding because that is what scabies live on. You don’t need to bother with your books or your letters or eating utensils or your photos. These are not things that scabies can live on. So the fact that women’s property is being taken away from them and placed in a locker for days at a time is just wholly unnecessary. And that speaks to, I think, to the punitive-ness of prison. It’s not that there is a medical science behind confiscating everybody’s property. It is just another way to punish people who are already being punished by being imprisoned.
And we have to remember too that the only reason why the prison finally admitted that there was a problem with scabies in the prison was not because their own medical staff diagnosed it, but because women on the inside managed to contact a doctor on the outside who then came in and was able to diagnose this and said, this is scabies. You need to treat this because it is communicable. You know, it means that if I have scabies and I’m not treated, and then I go and I like sit on your bed or sit on the same, you know, plus chair that you sat on or you know, come into skin to skin contact with you, the mites that live on me will go decide to to you, which is fairly horrifying and disgusting, but it’s also easily treatable if somebody cares enough to actually treat it. And it was only because women managed to convince an outside doctor that he should come in, that this ended up happening, not because there was a light bulb that went off in any prison or correctional officers had that said, “hey, we should be concerned about this.” We only know about the mass outbreak of scabies because A.) It was a mass outbreak and B.) Because women have drawn attention to it, but other conditions like there being black mold in the shower, like there being, you know, like other unsafe conditions don’t necessarily come to light because people aren’t drawing attention to it.
Remember, there are prison walls and prison gates that not only keep people inside, but information inside. So it’s very hard to get information about what’s happening inside prisons. People inside prisons often don’t have networks and people, especially inside women’s prisons don’t have the kinds of networks to get information out in the same way that people on the outside do. There is no, authorized access to Internet. So you can’t just post something online, you know, and hope that somebody else finds it. You have to like snail mail, a letter, you know, a pen and paper, a letter that says, dear so and so, and send it to somebody and hope that they get it. And all mail goes through the prison mail room. So there’s also, uh, a chance that mail might be intercepted if a prison guard notices that somebody is writing to the New York Times or the Washington Post, they might say, “Hey, what does Mary Smith writing to the New York Times or the Washington Post?” And open up that piece of mail.
People are subject to all sorts of retaliation if they tried to challenge conditions of confinement. I mean, we see this over and over and over in men’s prisons and in women’s prisons. So we can think of the scabies outbreak as just the most visible problem inside prisons that you could say, like, only came to our attention because it was the most visible and because women brought attention to that and people were justifiably horrified. But that doesn’t mean that that was the only problem. It means that perhaps people need to be saying, what else might be happening inside that prison that people are not paying attention to? How many other people go to the medical staff and say, “Hey, I don’t feel well and these are my symptoms,” only to have medical staff say “great, wonderful. You know, that’s not my problem,” or “Go away” or whatever.
How many other people, you know, have said, you know, this is a problem that I’m facing and not had this taken care of whatsoever. I mean, we also have to remember that in Michigan there is a $5 copay to go visit a doctor or a nurse or get medical treatment if you initiate it. So how many people have symptoms and don’t have $5 or maybe say, I have $5 from working my 14 cents an hour job inside the prison, for our listeners who are math inclined, you know, do the math, how many hours do you have to work to afford a $5 copay? And they might say, well, especially in a women’s prison, they might say, you know, I can either spend that $5 going to see medical staff, only to have them tell me “it’s nothing. Don’t worry about it. Go Away, sleep on it. Go Buy Tylenol off the prison commissary,” which will cost you even more money. Or maybe they can buy tampons. Maybe they can buy sanitary napkins that you don’t bleed through. Maybe they can call their children or their grandmother at home. So these are the choices that people have to make concerning what happens inside prisons. So maybe there are other problems that we don’t, aren’t even aware of and incarcerated people themselves don’t know the extent of because there are these barriers to even seeking this kind of basic care.
That reminds me of a story that was told to me by a woman who had entered the New York state prison system when she was 18 or 19. She had a very high profile case. She’d been all over the newspaper and she got to the prison and she was very angry. You know, about this case. She felt like she was being bullied by other women. She felt like she was being picked on by the guards because she had had this high profile case and been in the newspapers and she was repeatedly put in solitary confinement in which you are locked into a cell 23 to 24 hours a day. You’re supposed to be taken out of your cell and allowed to either have recreation time in a cage that may or may not be outside. And if it is outside and it’s cold and it’s snowing, then you’re just like, I dunno, knee deep in snow, take your shower, maybe use the phone. But oftentimes guards don’t bother letting you out for that one hour. Or they wake you up at four in the morning and say, do you want to go to your recreation time? And most people say, no, I want to sleep.
So basically you spend 24 hours in this cell. And she was so distraught. She had just gone through this lengthy trial, been sensationalized by the media and vilified, was looking at a lengthy prison sentence. And again, she was 18 or 19, so she, you know, a lengthy sentence for somebody who’s 18 or 19 years old can seem really, really lengthy. And then she was placed in solitary confinement and she said that when she was in solitary confinement, there was an older woman there that talked her through it. You don’t see the person in the cell next to you, but they can shout through a vent and you can hear them. And the woman, basically, she said she credits this woman with keeping her sane and keeping her from harming herself. Um, so she would talk to her about books. She talks about music. She would take her out of mentally take her out of the prison by like asking her about other things in her life. “What do you like to do?” Maybe they would sing songs together. And through that she got through this period of solitary confinement where she might’ve otherwise attempted to take her own life or attempted to hurt herself, or maybe her mental health would have deteriorated and that would still have affected her today. So that’s a very overlooked way in which people in women’s prisons and perhaps people in men’s prisons as well, resist. Solitary confinement is designed to punish and break a person’s spirits. Oftentimes, as we see it not only breaks a person’s spirit, but it does irreparable damage to their mental and emotional health and might lead them to decide to take their own life. So that quiet, active resistance of just making sure that person in the cell next to you, whom you might never have met, who you might never see once you’re outside of solitary confinement, you know, it was really important.
So if we think about ways of resistance, we have to think about the fact that you can’t resist if you’re dead. So keeping people from deciding that everything is not worth it is an active resistance in a place that it is designed to break and punish you. And then women have also done other things. They’ve collectively joined for lawsuits, they’ve mass filed grievances, they stood up for one another when they see sexual abuse happening at the hands of officers. So they’ve done a variety of acts to challenge and change their conditions of confinement. I think that if people are interested, they should not only look into what is happening inside of women’s prisons, but they should see this as a gross exaggeration and distortion of all the injustices happening outside of prison. So if we’re talking about, you know, health care for all, keep in mind that we need to also be talking about health care for the most marginalized people who are inside prisons or you know, confined in some sorts of institutions. If we’re talking about Me Too, and the need to end gender based violence, we need to remember the fact that so many people who are inside prisons, particularly inside women’s prisons, are survivors of gender based violence. And that violence continues while they are inside the prison systems. So it’s not that people need to take on a whole new aspect of their organizing life, but to extend the organizing that they do to include what is happening behind bars.
Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes or read their transcripts on our website at www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: a Maria, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.