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Michigan prisoners speak out against ‘epic’ abuse and retaliationFebruary 3, 2017
by Harold Gonzales
On Sept. 9, 2016, prisoners participated in the largest prisoner work stoppage in the history of the country. Prisoners in at least four facilities in Michigan joined in the workstoppage,including Kinross Correctional Facilitynear Kincheloe in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The next morning, after retaliatory actions from staff, Kinross prisoners held a peaceful demonstration in the yard. Since then, hundreds have faced harsh, unjust retaliation.Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity (MAPS)formed to help amplify the voices of prisoners brave enough to speak out publicly against the abuses of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). Harold “HH” Gonzaleswas a spokesperson for the prisoners at thedemonstration at Kinross and wrote the following account.This photo illustrates a Jan. 9, 2017, story broadcast by WCMU Radio, a NPR station, headlined, “Disturbance at Kinross cost almost $900,000.”It is hard for me to write these accounts because they are so numerous in blatant retaliatory actions against us, without any regard or fear of accountability. A lot of the public would not believe a state agency could stoop to a lot of the persecution I’ve faced for standing against past and presentinhumane treatment. They count on that fact, as well as the hope that an attitude of “prisoners don’t deserve rights,” or the public turning a blind eye to the mistreatment of prisoners, will be their license to mistreat us.I will try to give you a brief, concise description of events that precipitated the fall event, the event itself and the actions ofMDOC afterward. Before I do so, though, I would like to share a perspective that I believe will help people to understand our plight.When people hear prison or Department of Corrections, they think of a system of incarcerating criminals; they relate through what they’ve seen in movies and so forth. They see it as a state agency run by a pseudo-government, governed by a system of checks and balances.It’s an “easy on the eye, mind and soul” vision. What it really is, is a multi-million-dollar corporation. I believe it accounts for one of the top three largest parts of the state’s budget. It outsources to outside bidders for contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, for huge kickbacks.It is now beginning to monopolize the sale of goods and services to the inmate populations. In essence, it’s “big business” and, like all big business, its goal is to protect its interest. Couple that with a system that creates its own policies, answers to itself and, because its merchandise is prisoners, has no real moralor ethical responsibilities, and you have the Michigan Department of Corrections, or MDOC!It is hard for me to write these accounts because they are so numerous in blatant retaliatory actions against us, without any regard or fear of accountability. A lot of the public would not believe a state agency could stoop to a lot of the persecution I’ve faced for standing against past and presentinhumane treatment.Now I can begin the story of the events at Kinross that culminated in the fall work stoppage, and the subsequent actions taken by the department.All the inmates at what is now known as Kinross were transferred as a whole to that facility in the fall of 2015. The “new” facility was abhorrently below the health and safety standards required to open it. When we arrived, there was no heat, the plumbing didn’t work, the room and cell furnishings that are required by Correctional Facilities Administration (CFA) policies could not be met, i.e., blankets, sheets, washcloths, towels etc.The ventilation system, when turned on, caused three people to be rushed immediately to the hospital and 26 people ended up going in time. The chow hall was woefully inadequate to facilitate 1,150 inmates, the cable didn’t work, and there were not enough outlets for the eight men required to live in cramped cubes built for four men – in fact, there were only two outlets. There were no shelves for the inmates’ bunks, no curtains, no fans, no sprinklers for fire safety, and we were fed well beneath calorie and nutritional standards!There is more, but I will stop here. As you can see, though, the prison clearly was not ready for human or animal habitation. Everymaintenance man was heard to say, “I don’tknow why they brought you guys here; the prison is not ready.”This actually sparked a previous protest that was blamed by MDOC on Trinity, one ofthose outsourced, privately-owned, kickback-giving companies that was supposed to feed us. And so the onus of the cause of the protest was placed on Trinity, and the overall general conditions that it was really about were conveniently overlooked by the MDOC Public Relations Department.The prison clearly was not ready for human or animal habitation. Every maintenance man was heard to say, “I don’t know why they brought you guys here; the prison is notready.”We lived under these conditions for most ofthe time we were there. I’ve been doing time for almost 30 years and in all that timeI’ve never seen conditions so bad they united 1,150 prisoners: Bloods, Crips, GDs, Vicelords, Red Teams, Blue Teams, Five-Pointed Stars, Six-Pointed Stars, Christian, Muslim, all united in the common cause of ending the abusive conditions, mental and physical, that all inmates are subjected to, not just at Kinross, but all overMichigan.Kinross just created a united mindset to stand against it finally. Suddenly, everyone was an activist, willing to support in any way they could.We exhausted all the avenues for legal redress on the issues to the kangaroo judicial system – it just happened to be the same system we were seeking redress from: “Big Business MDOC,” the same people who approved and allowed us to be transferred there. Clearly, they were not going to answer in our favor and give in to the most hated enemy of Big Business: “liability.”So they took us on the roller coaster of “spins,” false promises, creative interpretation and bureaucratic red tape! It reached the point where we were clearly able to see the nature of the animal we were dealing with and the futility of seeking justice from the system built, owned, written by and answering only to itself, without outside assistance. There were many solutions to go about getting it, but the one that held was the work stoppage of Sept. 9, 2016.Kinross just created a united mindset to stand against it finally. Suddenly, everyone was an activist, willing to support in any way they could.Suffice it to say the work stoppage was organized and put in effect the morning of Sept. 9. The protest had taken on a nationalaspect, where it was no longer just about Kinross, but the idea and concept of mass incarceration, built with racial overtones, unfair and unethical sentencing practices, unjust taxation without representation, suchas the 6 percent sales tax on anything we order except food from store, even shippingand handling, “the New Jim Crow.”The warden knew of the protest and the truth of why it happened at his facility, a fact that can be logically proven by his stance of inaction against it. He instructed his staff not to write tickets or fire inmates for not working. If you check the records, no tickets were written and no one lost a job for not working that day. Clearly, he knew we had legitimate gripes against his facility.His staff, however, were of a different opinion. They chose to try and exorcise the protest out of us through mistreatment: malicious shakedowns, breaking property and underfeeding us with dated, spoiled food; and when seeking redress, we were told to “deal with it.”This sparked off the assembly on Sept. 10, 2016. In short, against my will I ended up out there. I blame no inmate for their actions. These were men who were desperate and believing they had no other option. While I did not agree with some of the methods used, I believed in the principles at their core.The warden knew of the protest and the truth of why it happened at his facility, a fact that can be logically proven by his stance of inaction against it.You have to realize the severity of the situations we face in here. They (MDOC) have literally killed people in here and gotten away with it. They were basically starving us, had us living in filth, no bleach, watered down sanitizer, with lying and abusive staff, and the only people to complain to would rather protect the interests of “Big Business” than the rights ofsome prisoners!So I ended up out there and, yeah, when things started to turn dark (mindsets, not the time of day) and people – scared, tired, frustrated, with hope almost gone – asked me to be the spokesperson for the inmates with the administration, I did it, and peacefully ended the assembly. This action has me labeled as the “leader” of the fall incidents, when in actuality I ended a situation that could have turned ugly for everyone. I thought I did a good thing for us: no one hurt, good discussion with the warden, a positive tone all around.You have to realize the severity of the situations we face in here. They (MDOC) have literally killed people in here and gotten away with it.But “Big Business” couldn’t allow it to end like that. It had too much attention and theycouldn’t allow the focus of the incident to be on the issues, so they literally sent in the guns to an already agitated, anxiety-filled, desperate group of individuals who were barely talked out of violence, to aggravate and intensify their aggression.They intentionally incited a riot-type atmosphere so the department would back their past transgressions – they would haveno choice! They intentionally collage all the events together to paint the picture of a bunch of inmates storming out of units rioting, when in fact the assembly had been over for at least two hours, inmates were in their units in their cubes and peaceful whenthey sent in the “storm troopers.” Inmates in my unit were on their bunks and still they gassed us repeatedly.They intentionally incited a riot-type atmosphere so the department would back their past transgressions – they would haveno choice!We were taken out of the unit and myself and 102 other inmates were taken to Marquette Prison, to a condemned block that had been closed down for four years prior to our arrival. We were placed in filthy cells here also, plumbing didn’t work, and supplies and treatment were below standards. We were always fed the same bag meals, although they had a functioning kitchen with workers, and already fed everyone else there in their cells hot meals.After the second day, I was separated from the rest of the transferred Kinross prisonersand placed in another block, where I was informed that they “knew” I was the “leader”and I had nothing coming. They meant my property was “lost.” Everything I possessed – hygiene, legal transcripts, coat, shoes, appliances, photos etc. – everything gone. Iwas denied toothpaste the whole time I was there.Twenty-severn days later, 88 of us were transferred again to Baraga Maximum facility, where again I was separated from the rest of the inmates. I was immediately called into an office, told they “knew” I was the “leader” of the “rebellion” and that I should plan to be there in segregation for two years.After this event, my security classification was raised up four levels and I was placed in administrative segregation where they can keep you for as long as they want. HereI was denied blankets, washcloths, towels and laundry bags for the first 10 to 12 days, an extra set of clothing for 27 days, the right to buy things from the store for 70 days, and none of these things did they end up giving me without me first having to go through the lengthy grievance process.I was immediately called into an office, toldthey “knew” I was the “leader” of the “rebellion” and that I should plan to be therein segregation for two years.These are all things that another prisoner is given by procedure, but here I have to grieve to get them. They have an “incentive”program here that allows inmates to earn privileges and even though I do all the things necessary to gain the privilege, I have to grieve to gain them. This is a process that can be stretched out to 60 days, so I’m always behind in anything I earn. They have still not “found my property.”As of Aug. 19, 2016, I was a level one-one prisoner, the lowest security achievable. I was a father with an 8-year-old son I have never seen face-to-face, not living in the best of circumstances, striving diligently to reach him. I had three years left on an 11-year sentence.Men like me are the perfect “patsy” for the MDOC. We are supposed to take the abuse and make no waves. They pit our desire to go home against our desire for humane treatment. Ninety percent accept the abuse,but the abuse throughout MDOC is reachingepic levels! Sure, on the surface they have asystem of checks and balances, but the checks don’t balance the scales. They cover up the transgressions, so in essence the checks balance the scales so that they ever favor “Big Business!”We need help, I’m shouting out from this 8-by-10 cell, help us! Don’t let them quiet our voice; be an amplifier for us. Don’t let what they are doing to us and throughout the MDOC fade into oblivion. We were not angels, but we don’t deserve this!We need help, I’m shouting out from this 8-by-10 cell, help us! Don’t let them quiet our voice; be an amplifier for us. Don’t let what they are doing to us and throughout the MDOC fade into oblivion.I cannot express adequately my appreciation and gratitude or the humbling effect that knowing I’m not in this alone hashad on me. I’m thankful for the strength andinspiration that your support provides at thetimes when things get overwhelming. I will not run from this or hide. There are too many inmates that are counting on me to be their voice, and since that’s where this started for me, that’s where I’ll be until the end!
Send our brother some love and light: Harold Gonzales, 194496, Baraga MaximumCorrectional Facility, 13924 Wadaga Rd., Baraga, MI 49908-9204.
Minutes from the Millions For Prisoners Human Rights March in Washington, DC on August 19, 2017