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Prison Abolition amidst COVID 19: Michigan jails and inmate hunger strikes

April 7, 2020

For some weeks now, there has been a growing concern about the safety of those in jail, prisons and detention centers. Human Rights groups, advocates, Prison Abolition’s and those in jail have been pleading with local, state and national authorities to empty the jails.

In the last week, there have been reports that the COVID-19 virus is now infecting those in jails, prisons and detention centers. This reality has led to an increase in urgent calls to free prisoners before the virus kills those incarcerated.

Scott Roberts, with Color of Change, stated recently in a Press Release:

“With the United States now at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, leaders like Kym Worthy must do everything in their power to protect those most vulnerable to this pandemic. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate health care in jails and prisons put incarcerated individuals at a disproportionately high risk of infection. And because these facilities restrict access to soap and hand sanitizer, imprisoned individuals cannot take even basic steps to protect themselves. As Wayne County works to stop a viral outbreak, it must not leave these individuals behind.”

The group Color of Change, along with several other organizations, delivered a letter to Wayne County Prosecutor, especially since the Detroit area has already been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the most powerful statements we have come across, is a statement from a group of prisoners being incarcerated at the North Lake Correctional Facility, a prison run by the GEO Group. This following statement was released yesterday, by the group No Detention Centers in Michigan. 

On Sunday, April 5th, approximately ten people incarcerated at the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan launched a hunger strike in response to unsafe conditions and the mistreatment they have experienced inside the Special Housing Unit, or SHU. Their concerns include inadequate food and lack of access to medical attention. North Lake is a private immigrant-only prison operated by the GEO Group through a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

“The main thing is the food,” said one incarcerated person, who stated that their diet had not been meeting the protein requirements of the federal prison system. In addition, he described a lack of proper medical care and treatment after an assault last month. Prison staff have repeatedly exacerbated violence inside the facility. 

The majority of those currently on strike inside the SHU are Black men who have expressed serious fears for their safety, describing an inhumane and chaotic environment in which they have suffered racial repression, including administrative segregation within the SHU for over a month after a conflict in which they had not been involved.

“We’re tired of the mistreatment and lack of protection,” one person told No Detention Centers in Michigan last month. “Incidents have occurred and will occur in the future; it’s inevitable.”

“Prison experiences are all unpleasant but this is next-level for so many reasons,” another person wrote. “I have been to six prior institutions, and I have yet to witness a facility like this one. To subject anybody to these living conditions is offensive, racist, and unfair. Are foreign citizens any less human than U.S. citizens?”

Although members of No Detention Centers in Michigan are not currently aware of any suspected cases of COVID-19 inside this facility, the hunger strike comes at a time of grave new dangers facing incarcerated populations worldwide, who are unable to practice social distancing or other steps needed to prevent the spread of the virus and maintain public health.

“The experiences we’ve been hearing about inside North Lake are a reminder that prisons aren’t safe for anyone,” said Jonas Higbee, a member of No Detention Centers in Michigan. “At a moment when COVID-19 is spreading rapidly throughout the Federal Bureau of Prisons as well as Michigan’s state prisons and jails, this is also clear evidence that the GEO Group is not able to protect the people in their custody during a crisis. GEO already has a long history of neglect and abuse, and when people are telling us that they’ve been fearing for their lives even before the COVID-19 emergency, it’s an indication that a quarantine inside a prison is not the answer to a pandemic. As we’ve been starting to see around the country, starting with the most medically vulnerable, the federal government needs to find a way to release people immediately.”

To be part of the work of Prison Abolition in Michigan, we urge you to contact No Detention Centers in Michigan. You can follow them on Facebook at

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