Sunday, November 24, 2019

Warfare at Columbia Correctional Institution

Columbia Correctional Institution
Columbia Correctional Institution (CCI) has had off-and-on lockdowns in recent weeks due to conflicts we have come to believe were instigated by racist staff members in order to demonize captives who defend themselves against abusive conditions. CCI is operating at 150% of its design capacity. This unnecessary and avoidable overcrowding is the root of problems in this and other Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities. The tension and “psychological warfare” practices of CCI’s guards seems to be escalating, while incarcerated people demand new structures to interrupt cycles of violence.

What’s happened

The DOC has confirmed a series of three violent incidents leading to facility lockdowns. Our incarcerated contacts sent us detailed reports about these incidents, which conflict with what DOC officials were told by their staff.

On October 22- a sergeant named Fitz called a Black man “boy”. The man responded by attacking Fitz, leaving him “severely beaten”. The facility went on lockdown until Oct 25.

On October 29- four days after coming off lockdown, another sergeant, Sgt Gander provoked another Black man by calling him the N-word. Gander was also assaulted, but less severely. The facility went on lockdown again until November 5.

On November 8- a CO or sergeant named Sainsbury (spelling uncertain) was stabbed during program services. The facility has been on lockdown and people inside deprived of basic rights and the fundamentals of human dignity from November 8 to the date of this writing (November 21).

On Tuesday November 19, Makda Fessahaye, the head of the DOC’s Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) spoke on a panel at Marquette University in Milwaukee. After the panel she told Ben Turk of FFUP that she was investigating these incidents, but had been told all three staff members “were blindsided”. Our sources insist “nobody is just randomly assaulting staff.”

Given Wisconsin DOC’s history of taking abusive guards’ word at face value, however unbelievable, we are demanding thorough investigations. FFUP has also filed open records requests for shiftlogs and any “inmate complaints” filed over the last month in an effort to contact the people most directly involved.

One of our main sources is an incarcerated artist and advocate named Nate Lindell, whose work can be found on Facebook @PrometheusWrites. He says he attempted to send more detailed information, but CorrLinks (the institutional email system) flagged his emails and staff blocked them, then issued a conduct report to punish him for writing to us about the incidents. Nate appealed the conduct report and filed a complaint about censorship of his emails. In the emails that did get through, Nate described Sainsbury, who was stabbed on November 8 as “notoriously foul mouthed, yells at prisoners, follows them around to make sure their shirts are tucked in. I saw him stare at a prisoner insultingly/aggressively, with contempt, for over a minute.” Nate said that Fitz and Gander also go out of their way to exacerbate harm against captives held at CCI, stating, both had rude/insulting, lazy attitudes, as do many staff here.” He said these guards frequently “delayed letting us out of our cells for passes, didn't let us out to use the phone, didn't pass out our mail”.

This conduct violates standards and training that correctional officers are supposed to be held to. Within the context of incarceration, the routine violence of captivity and basic deprivation of human agency, attacking a guard who engages in verbal abuse and harassment should be considered an act of self defense. At the very least, DOC officials should recognize that these guards were not blindsided without reason.

Collective Punishment

FFUP has long documented a culture of abuse and violence at CCI. Guards often target certain captives with relentless harassment to provoke a violent response, which they then use to justify a lockdown and collective punishment against everyone in the prison. In the context of the lockdown, the violence against captives escalates. Other people incarcerated at CCI describe the situation as psychological warfare and collective punishment.

In this instance, from November 8 to the time of this writing, collective punishment took the following forms:
  • No hot food. Instead, three times a day people get “the same bag meal... asmall bag of chips, one sandwich of one very thinly sliced piece of meat, one slice of processed cheese, piece of fruit, carrots, and a cookie or other small bakery item.” On that diet people are rapidly losing weight.
  • No commissary. People are not allowed to purchase food to supplement the bagged meals.
  • No clean clothes. Laundry service is suspended and new clothes cannot be purchased.
  • No showers. November 17, nine days into the lockdown was the first time captives were allowed to take a shower.
  • Property ordered from commissary prior to the lockdown is not being delivered.
  • No recreation.
  • No phone calls.
  • No visitation.
  • No supplies, including complaint forms, state issued soap and toothpaste.
On top of those deprivations, staff is reducing increasing already negligent medical and health treatment. Medically prescribed showers and medical and psychological treatment request forms are being denied. Nate reported that on October 9, Sgt Bideau denied everyone on his range medications because one person didn’t stand for count. Others refused to stand for the next count. Many people at CCI are taking serious psychological medications, and missing a dose can have powerfully negative effects, especially under the stressful circumstance of a lockdown.

Art from inside a WI DOC solitary cell by DaRen Morris
The Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU) at CCI houses people who’ve been in solitary confinement for months, years, or even decades. These people have suffered great trauma and many developed severe psychological disorders. Under normal prison operations, every day is a potential crisis for such people. The additional restrictions imposed during lockdown can increase distress to catastrophic levels.

According to a memo from Warden Susan Novak that  another incarcerated contact transcribed to us, television channels have also been limited due to an antenna replacement project that won’t be completed until sometime in December. Also, the institution information channel is inexplicably broken. So, during this lockdown, people have been additionally deprived of a conduits for information about the institution and the outside world, as well as a means to pass time while trapped in their cells. Warden Novak’s memo said she is “tentatively reviewing the possibility of restoring visits beginning Monday Nov 25”.

The person who sent us the warden's memo
also said that in his 25 years of “banishment [he doesn’t] recall any… lockdown being as depriving” as the one that began November 8. Another contact named Jimmy Baldwin, who works as a barber wrote “it’s a psychological warfare going on here… a lot [of people are] trying to resist this attack on their mental psyche [others have] been broken into submission.” Being a barber, he sees many people and hears their complaints, and says "I have become stressed listening and witnessing the abuse… this administration here is part of the problem.”

Reform at the Staff’s Pace

Wisconsin’s prisons have been overcrowded for years. In the more than fifteen years that FFUP has been researching Wisconsin prisons and advocating for people held in them, conditions have only worsened. Abuse by staff has proliferated, especially in solitary confinement units. Horror stories from inside Wisconsin prisons are worse than ever. The election of Tony Evers, who promised to shrink and reform Wisconsin prisons, sparked hope, but reform has been gruelingly slow.

Governor Evers knows he has the authority to reduce the prison population by many thousands without any laws passed. Ending crimeless revocations would reduce the DOC’s intake by 40% or 3000-4000 people annually. Sentence commutation and pardons for people convicted of low-level crimes under unpopular drug war policies could release hundreds or thousands more. Expediting parole for people sentenced under the “old law” who are ready for release would take the population down by around 2800. Evers can also end the torture of long term solitary confinement by instituting real treatment for the mentally ill. There are many excellent successful models for this. Instead, Wisconsin continues policies that cause people to become mentally ill like stuffing them into solitary simply because people stuck in a cage are easier to deal with and solitary units have space. The Evers administration knows the DOC has completely abandoned its mission to keep the public safe and rehabilitate people.

However despite the glacially slow pace of reforms, Incarcerated people believe guards who are escalating abuse to provoke assaults are motivated by fear that Evers will deliver on reform promises. Their argument is compelling. Nate Lindell reported that Sainsbury is “loud about how he's going to retire in some months, seems like he wants to leave w/ disability benefits. EVERYONE has a story about how he insulted or harassed them.” He says supervisors allow harassment by staff and either don’t see how their inaction makes assaults more likely, or they “are smart and want these assaults so they can attack progressive changes”. This provocation dynamic exists beyond CCI. Julio Soto, who is currently confined at Oshkosh Correctional Institution reports the same problem at other institutions:
I’ve seen correctional officers disrespect inmates by calling them names including the "N" word... Bitches, and other names that degrade people...all the community sees or hears on the news is ‘correctional officer was attacked by inmate?’ but yet no one on the news or media or even the warden of the institution, they never say or explain to the community what lead to the inmate attacking an officer, or how the officer provoked the inmate to attack him/her, no one out in the community ever gets the full story on what lead to what and that’s not right!
I've witnessed numerous confrontations [where] other officers jumped in started attacking the inmate by punching him and spraying a whole can of pepper spray in his face… the inmate gets placed in segregation/ ac- administrative confinement, and all the officer gets is a talking to and a pat on the back.
In the prisons inmate handbook it states ..words from the warden: that we inmates have been sent here (prison), removed from our family and loved ones as punishment for a crime we've committed, (BUT) are not to be punished by the staff-officers in the institution, now that right there is false because there’s officers that go out of their way to provoke us inmates any way they can!
As of right now i am currently in Oshkosh Correctional Institution, after doing 7 years in a max setting… this medium setting is still like a max because officers here try and provoke us inmates in any way they can, they've tryed to provoke me a couple times here at OSCI a officer that got lippy with me I asked for their name and was told to come get it as she did not have her ID exposed… In all my time being in prison I’d say 15% of staff members/officers are good and treat us like humans and with respect, the rest are just corrupt!”

Guards provoking violence and using lockdowns to harm captives and manipulate the public is a known practice. Nate shared with us a civil suit about the same thing filed in Illinois called Turley V Rednour (7th Cir. 2013). In this suit, Turley claimed that Illinois prison officials “repeatedly and regularly imposed lockdowns for improper purposes” as part of a conspiracy to pressure the state government to increase pay and benefits to attract more staff. We at FFUP have found evidence to support this theory. We’ve presented them in our report “Staffing, Crowding and Death in the Wisconsin DOC” which we put out this summer. Through open records requests for DOC human resources data, shift logs, and other government reports, we found that Wisconsin DOC’s staffing shortage has been exaggerated to justify requests for increased pay. Multiple facilities have frequently gone on and off lockdown or “modified movement” status with arbitrary or secret reasons.
Self portrait by Nate Lindell.

We’ve heard the very top brass of the DOC, including officials appointed by or hired since the election of Governor Tony Evers. Both Makda Fessahaye and DOC secretary Kevin Carr have called for increased pay and benefits to attract and retain more staff. Evers included raises for DOC staff in his budget, so the manipulative understaffing narrative seems to be working.

Last month we met with Fessahaye and DOC communications administrator Molly Vidal to discuss reforms. When we asked about long term solitary confinement, harassment and racism in Wisconsin prisons they recognized the problems, said they were working on improvements, but said that they need “buy-in” from staff. Fessahaye said “staff sees solitary confinement as a tool that helps keep them safe, so we can’t take that away until we’ve given them alternative tools”. Fessahaye told us she’s made cultural competency and implicit bias training a priority since becoming administrator of DAI, but is rolling it out cautiously to avoid backlash from guards. Vidal said they are working to present these trainings in a way that “isn’t scary”. Apparently, DOC officials think it is too much to ask guards to stop hurling racial epithets at captives, or to stop putting them in solitary confinement on a whim.

Thus, captives have been left to take defense upon themselves. Some of the assaults described in this report led to serious injuries for staff members, but they occurred in a context of self-defense against daily threat of worse. On our youtube page, FFUP has a video of a cell-extraction in CCI’s restrictive housing unit. In this and similar videos obtained by news sources, you’ll see how staff prepares for confrontation with unruly or protesting prisoners. In our video, five men in body armor, carrying OC spray and tasers gather to pull a single, naked, unarmed, 19 year old kid named Kuan Barnett out of his cell and strap him to a chair. The night after that video was made, guards returned and beat Kuan severely, gouging his eyes and breaking his fingers after he was restrained. We have requested, but the DOC has not yet released video of that incident, even though investigations are concluded. These videos suggest that DOC staff’s insecurity is more rooted in emotional or mental fragility than actual physical danger. Yet, protecting their racist insecurities remains a top priority for even the supposed reformers in charge of the DOC today.

 One reform Fessahaye and Carr are pushing is the creation of an “internal affairs” division to look into complaints. Wisconsin used to have an ombudsman who worked for the Governor and investigated complaints against the DOC. We and other organizations suggested the position be re-created at a meeting with Evers’ staff in March of 2018. Instead of this independent oversight, the new Internal Affairs Division will maintain a system where the DOC self-regulates. In short, the official pace of change in the DOC has been set not by the urgency of the humanitarian crisis caused by overcrowding, but rather by the emotional comfort and white fragility of staff, including the most belligerently racist and sadistic guards.

Unfortunately, Carr, Evers and Fessahaye have reason to proceed with caution. The last time reformers ran Wisconsin’s prison system, staff resisted them stridently. In 2005, guards even organized a “no confidence” petition to oust DOC Secretary Matt Frank and Deputy Secretary Rick Raemisch because these officials dared to reduce costs, limit use of state vehicles, and bring outside law enforcement in to investigate sexual misconduct by guards. Raemisch left Wisconsin and later became the head of Colorado’s DOC, where he swiftly eliminated solitary confinement.

Collective Agency and Reconciliation

Rather than trusting an Internal Affairs Division, or even a Governor’s ombudsman to self-regulate, people held captive at CCI have proposed a better solution: collective agency for incarcerated people. They call for a body composed of both staff and incarcerated people who will mediate and reconcile conflicts and resolve grievances together. Jimmy Baldwin, the incarcerated barber quoted above describes this proposed body in some detail:
if you want a solution to resolve the issues here let everyone come together and institution staff meeting as well as one which includes prisoners to stress their concerns. You can have spokes for each group whether it's institution’s staff officers, a spokesman chosen by the officers collectively, and two spokesman chosen by the prisoners for each unit. There can be a memo submitted to ask for names of individuals who wouldn't mind being a spokesman of their represented unit or group [then] another memo to each of those groups with the names to democratically select whoever they represent. Have them in on this meeting to address concerns here and any institution that has similar concerns. This is a need now in these institutions or else DOC will continue to have prisoners feeling abused.

Another captive named Ras Uhuru Mutawakkil (state name Norman Green) has developed an even more robust proposal called Common Ground. Uhuru was tortured at CCI by force feeding for participating in a hunger strike protest in 2016 and wrote up the Common Ground proposal in the summer of 2018. Common Ground is based on building structures for communication and mutual respect between staff and captives who are in conflict. The goal is to “find common grounds that everyone can respect each other’s security and classification concerns without placing blame and the use of inferiority labels that makes one party feel the need to be defensive, which is what most prisoners who are held in AC/long seg. feel. This defensiveness has been the main
reason no previous administration/ clinical programs have successfully led to the prisoners transitioning and eventual release from AC/long seg.”

Uhuru as a young man before incarceration
Incarcerated organizers have long advocated for this kind of agency as a class. Prior to the mass incarceration boom of the 80s and 90s, organizers across the country demanded basic respect and control of their circumstances. They defended themselves from staff abuse, both physically and in the courts, winning strong legal precedents and protections for improved conditions. Backlash from prison administrators and racist politicians was brutal. Mass incarceration justified by the war on drugs caused an influx of captives, overcrowding facilities and diluting people’s ability to organize. Meanwhile, the proliferation of restrictive housing units and other forms of solitary confinement isolated prisoner organizers, skilled litigators and social leaders. Today it is common for prison systems to use years of administrative confinement to not only isolate leaders, but also break the minds of anyone who stands against them. Wisconsin’s use of administrative confinement and abuse of people held in solitary confinement stands out nationally.

The fundamental problem in Wisconsin’s prisons is overcrowding, the system is 33% above capacity, with some facilities like Columbia more than 50% overcrowded. This overcrowding is entirely avoidable, as the DOC and Evers administration have at their disposal numerous tools discussed above that would rapidly reduce Wisconsin’s incarcerated population. Addressing overcrowding will improve conditions for both captives and staff, reducing the frequency of conflicts and the need to retain high staffing levels. Currently, racist and sadistic behavior from the worst staff members is tolerated out of fear of staffing crisis. The massive cost savings could be invested in treatment programs and facilities, allowing staff to be in a helping rather than harmful role.

FFUP supports Ras Uhuru’s Common Ground proposal. We demand a transparent investigation into conditions at Columbia CI and other prisons that have experienced violent incidents or lockdowns. We insist that reformers take the humanitarian crisis underway in Wisconsin prisons seriously and stand up to racist and sadistic staff members. Moreover, we demand movement from the administration to reduce the prison population. Governor Evers is too fearful of critique from conservatives and too insensitive to the plight of Black people subject to racist torture and abuse in his prisons.

Please contact the people mentioned in this article.

Incarcerated at CCI:

Columbia Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 950
Portage, WI 53901-0950

Ras Uhuru Mutawakkil
228971 (N. Green)

Nathan Lindell
Also see his art and writing at

Jimmy Baldwin

Incarcerated at OSCI:

Julio Soto
P.O. Box 3530
Oshkosh, WI 54903-3530

DOC and Government contacts you can write or call demand the lockdown be lifted and staff conduct thoroughly investigated.

Susan Novak
Warden CCI
2925 Columbia Drive
Portage, WI 53901-0950
(608) 742-9100

Makda Fessahaye
Administrator of DAI
P.O. Box 7925
Madison, WI 53707-7925
(608) 240-5104 Office


Molly Vidal
Communications Director
(608) 240-5000

Kevin Carr
DOC Secretary
3099 E. Washington Ave.
Madison, WI 53704

Governor Tony Evers
PO Box 1879
Madison, WI 53701
(608) 266-1212

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