Friday, January 24, 2020

Report from January 22 meeting with DOC Secretary Kevin Carr and other officials.

These are notes from the meeting we had following our march on the DOC. We will send copies of these to hundreds of incarcerated people today via Corrlinks.

The meeting attendees included Secretary Carr, his assistant Shannon Carpenter and the head of Division of Adult Institutions Makda Fessahaye on the DOC side. Myself, Rachel Kincade from Moses and Linda Rose from Soul Sessions. The meeting was supposed to be 30 minutes, but it went on for more than an hour, making Secretary Carr late for his next meeting.

We definitely appreciate their willingness to take time and meet with us. We came away with the impression that Secretary Carr and his newer heads of staff believe they are doing their best, but we remain impatient. We were over-all disappointed with the lack of detail, transparency, and commitment in this meeting and the lack of progress in DOC reforms.

Demand #1 Fire or discipline Warden Novak and other staff

Secretary Carr said that he meets with Warden Novak regularly and had a meeting with her recently. He said he doesn't think she broke any rules or did anything fireable, but would not hesitate to fire her if she did. When we asked him about specific issues that include what we understand to be violations, though, he was evasive.
For example, on Warden Novak denying flu vaccines (described here) he said he would need to look into the issue. William Ledford filed repeated complaints about the situation in December and I also raised it with Makda Fessahaye on December 13. So they've had time to look into it, through the channel they insist works, but haven't done anything. More importantly, they didn’t seem aware of the problem, demonstrating that their complaint process actually does not work.

Another example: on the question of any CCI staff being disciplined at all for any of the incidents, like the death of Muhhamad Bracey, the provoked violence, the inappropriate interception of correspondence, all of jn which we raised with Makda back in December, they refused to answer, simply saying “we’re not going to describe disciplinary actions”.

Carr did express concern about the people who had died and the violent incidents. He clearly admitted that there are problems that need to be addressed in the DOC and the institutional culture, but would not get specific or make clear commitments. He was particularly upset with our report that a guard at CCI wrote “convict dead” on a letter being returned because the intended recipient had died. He emphasized being a devout and practicing Catholic and spoke about how he was ready to retire, but took this job because god called him to do it.

Secretary Carr also read from a chart he brought about discipline at CCI. In 2019, there were 30 disciplinary terminations at CCI, whereas in 2018 under his predecessor, there were only 13. He said that when he is made aware of a problem, and investigates it, he will not hesitate to discipline people, including firing them. This is good news, it is a commitment we can hold him to. His chart also showed an increase in investigations and discipline for “unprofessional communication”. He would not give us a copy of the chart and other notes though, so we don’t have specific numbers.

Potential Next Steps:
Unless incarcerated people tell us to, we will not back down from the demand that Warden Novak be fired. No one incarcerated at CCI is safe while she runs the facility. We already have evidence of grounds for her to be fired, which we presented to Carr and Fessahaye, but in a disorganized way. We can get organized, specific and detailed about her policies and practices, particularly things that explicitly violate DAI rules. If we continue to make those things public, we can hold Carr to his word that he will fire people who break rules. FFUP volunteers are currently working on gathering information from open records requests and correspondence. Some experts on DAI rules could help with this task.

We hope to make an example of this lockdown, because it was particularly long, egregious and unjustified. Novak’s policies precipitated the violence that started the lockdown and led to the deaths that occurred during and after it. We will use the work we’re putting into exposing this lockdown to set a new standard for wardens and institution staff across the system.

Demand #2, end the CCI lockdown

This is the only demand that has already been met. Secretary Carr read from a timeline that Makda Fessahaye had already sent to us of when different restrictions were lifted. If any incarcerated people reading this would like to see that timeline and compare it to your experience, please let us know.

Under this section of our demands and questions we included descriptions of things still going on at CCI, including questions about an incident last week when a unit manager named Lindsey Walker told a prisoner that “with everything that has happened, we were told to be more aggressive and demanding with you guys”. Secretary Carr and Makda were very upset to hear about this and said they would investigate.

Potential next steps: Root out and expose the failure of the DOC chain of command. With his experience in law enforcement and internal affairs, Secretary Carr likely believes strongly in hierarchy and control. He talked about visiting all the institutions and not letting wardens lead him around, but talking to incarcerated people directly. If we can track back examples like this one of guards being told, by Wardens or other authorities to do things that run counter to Secretary Carr’s directives, he may be likely to address them more aggressively.

Demand #3, stop doing extended lockdowns

Secretary Carr was running out of time and often derailing the meeting from the agenda and questions we brought. It was also clear they were not going to give any details about incidents and complaints. By this point, the meeting was more of an unstructured back and forth. We did gather some information relevant to our questions though.

Today we got some evidence that our campaign has been successful. At one point, Secretary Carr told us that the christmas eve lockdown at Waupun only lasted ten days because he insisted it not be dragged out. This suggests that our advocacy and attention to the CCI lockdown has already had an effect on DOC behavior system-wide going forward.

We were unable to get answers about the inconsistencies surrounding the statutory justification for the lockdown or the lack of transparency about lockdowns. Nate Lindell has written about this extensively here. Makda Fessahaye and Warden Novak have cited different statutes when justifying the lockdown, neither of which properly apply to the situation.

We suspect the reality of the situation is that the lockdown was demanded by staff. Prisoners report hearing guards threatening to walk out if “changes weren’t made”. Such a staff walk-out did occur in 2015 after another violent incident. This walk out would not be an AFSCME authorized labor action or strike. Staff at CCI do not seem to be organized by AFSCME, who pride themselves on holding members to a professional standard that doesn’t seem to exist at CCI. Nevertheless, CCI guards do seem to be engaged in collective action organized by some other means.

Further evidence supporting this explanation for the lockdown is that the DOC built an armored glass enclosure in the program services building, where the November 8 incident occurred. This is a clear appeasement to insecure guard staff, as this area is used by outside volunteers and people who run programs with incarcerated people. Other prisoners also work in the area (indeed one of them used Sainsbury’s radio to call for help while he was unconscious after the fight). The glass enclosure will protect guards by separating them from the area where non-security personnel are interacting with prisoners. Ironically, in this arrangement, it is the guard who needs more security than the people they are supposedly tasked with protecting.

Part of the dispute about the lockdown justification regards pay for incarcerated people. According to Admin Code 309.55(a) pay can only be suspended if the lockdown was “precipitated by the misconduct of any inmate.” If in fact the lockdown was an emergency caused by staff threatening to walk out it both indicates a breakdown in DOC order and chain of command and also means Warden Novak owes incarcerated workers the pay she denied them during the lockdown.

Nothing that was said refuted our suspicions about what happened with this lockdown. We remain doubtful that DOC’s top authorities understand or have actual control of what’s going on at CCI.

Potential next steps: Keep the pressure on, try to track lockdowns and continue demanding that valid official reasons be given for lockdowns. Emphasize that the absence of this transparency means the DOC is a lawless institution.

Demand 4, de-escalation and anti-racist training.

Carr was candid about the institutional culture at the DOC being problematic, and insisted that he intends to clean things up. He cited his experience working for law enforcement (as a US Marshall and Milwaukee County Sheriff). At one of those jobs he was in internal affairs, so he has a lot of experience reviewing misconduct and firing people. He also used to be a boy scout and intends to apply their rule of “leave the place better than when you found it” to the DOC. At one point he said something like: “I don’t know how long I will be here, whether it’ll be three years or eight years. I will stay as long as god gives me the strength to deal with this nonsense.”

He is the first black man to run the DOC, and he appointed Makda Fessehaye, the first black woman to run DAI. He said he put strong capable women in many other roles as well. He was emphatic about not tolerating dehumanizing and racist behavior from his staff. Makda has expressed a similar emphasis in the past.

Again, we cannot actually test the depth of this commitment because they will not (and probably legally cannot) share information about personnel and disciplinary actions. All we have to go on is stories from incarcerated people. Fortunately, after the meeting, we got one such story. Nate Lindell emailed us saying he heard multiple staff were fired in relation to killing Muhammad (Larry) Bracey through ignoring his medical requests. This appears to stand in stark contrast with the investigation by Columbia County Sheriff Mike Haberlee. Firing these guards obviously doesn’t bring Bracey back to life. It also doesn’t address the fact that Warden Novak instructed guards, who have no medical training to decide whether or not a medical request is an emergency. So long as Wardens are allowed to issue those kinds of directions, we will see people dying in the manner Muhhamad Bracey died.

The discussion of complaints was perhaps the most disappointing part of the meeting. Secretary Carr insisted that the ICE (inmate complaint) system is meaningful. Makda has told us this in the past as well. Meanwhile, incarcerated people tell us the complaint system is a joke, that complaints are thrown away, or might as well be. We raised our concern that complaints were maybe being intercepted by staff, preventing Makda and Carr from ever know about them. Carr discussed a recent meeting where he reviewed complaints and one example where he made a Warden replace someone’s television after reversing a complaint that was rejected by institution staff. We don’t need to hear isolated anecdotes, we want numbers. How many complaints are reviewed by who and how often is the complaint validated?

The above-cited example of Bill Ledford’s complaints about flu shots stands in contrast to Carr’s assurances. Bill is a seasoned litigator and knows how to file complaints and appeals. We also supported Bill’s complaints and underlined the concern about not distributing flu vaccines to immune-compromised people in an overcrowded prison by writing emails to Makda. Yet, in this meeting, none of the officials could speak to the issue.

We have been asked repeatedly to question and doubt the stories we hear from incarcerated people. My response is always that we take people at their word because someone has to believe and advocate for survivors. We know that incarcerated people are generally not trusted, so we often look for supporting evidence, that’s why we file so many record requests, which are often denied. It is the DOC who hides what is going on.

Secretary Carr talked about how he doesn’t believe survivors, but “must make decisions based on facts”. He admitted to getting those facts from investigators who he trusts. Incarcerated people know that the investigators work for the DOC and support the structure, they are not unbiased or reliable. Specific to CCI, we have stories suggesting that the investigation supervisor (capt Pigeon) is more interested in protecting staff than in honestly solving investigations (this is also something we have raised in emails to Makda). If Carr's estimation of the "truth" is based on what investigators find, then it cannot be relied on. If the inmate complaint and investigation system worked, groups like FFUP and MOSES would not need to exist.

Fundamentally we have a problem of transparency and accountability. Carr and Fessahaye won’t discuss the outcomes of their investigations so we do not know if corrective action has been taken. For example, they may still believe the staff's story that the assaults last fall were all cases of staff being blindsided by prisoners without specific motive.

Secretary Carr was careful to avoid using the word "inmate" and talked at length about avoiding dehumanizing language. We appreciate the effort, but a more substantive form of dehumanization is disbelieving the many accounts from incarcerated people about guard misconduct and instead believing absurd stories from staff about people randomly assaulting guards for no reason.

Carr said he would be very concerned if they found that staff were intercepting complaints or retaliating against people who file them, but wasn't able to describe procedures to prevent those things from happening. Also, we have sent evidence of that happening to Fessahaye and gotten no response. Carr was also surprised to hear that retaliation and abuse have gotten worse, not better under his administration. Makda tried to explain that away, suggesting that since they’ve given incarcerated people more access to communication, we may just be hearing more bad things. I explained to them that Peg from FFUP has been doing a lot of robust correspondance with incarcerated people for 15 years and asked them to please take her testimony about things getting worse seriously. That seemed to make an impression on them.

Potential action steps: We do not have confidence in the ICE complaint system and are not satisfied that people who use it will be reviewed fairly and protected from retaliation. At the same time, some rare complaints have succeeded and some people are being fired. Also, exhausting complaints is necessary to file a lawsuit under the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

The best advice we can give to aggrieved prisoners is the following:

  1. Be prepared for retaliation when filing a complaint. Avoid contact when possible with people you’ve complained against and do not take the bait when they come to provoke you. Remain calm and document the harassment.
  2. Absolutely always appeal negative outcomes. We do believe that Secretary Carr and his assistants are going to give at least a little fairer review than institutional staff.
  3. Document the work of investigators and send evidence of unfair practices and cover-ups to central office and to FFUP. We at FFUP do not have the capacity to track and follow up on every complaint, but we will try to compile records to show the unreliability of the complaint process and help identify and expose specific staff members and investigators who should not be trusted by the higher ups.

Demand #5, stop force-feeding

We had no direct discussion of this topic before running out of time in the meeting. Secretary Carr did hint (as Governor Evers has publicly) that there will be reforms of solitary confinement coming soon. He admitted that he expects us to find these changes insufficient and to continue fighting for more. We will.

Secretary Carr mentioned Rick Raemisch, who used to run Wisconsin’s DOC and now runs the Colorado DOC. In Colorado Raemisch focused on ending solitary confinement, making solid commitments from the first days of his administration and following through. At this point, Colorado is the only US state that conforms with the United Nations Mandala rules, restricting the use of solitary confinement to only 15 days. Meanwhile, a full year into his tenure as Secretary of the DOC Kevin Carr is only now dropping vague hints of gradual reform to come in the spring.

He made similar statements about a coming reform to DCC supervision and revocation policies, earned release programs and to facilitating releases of old law prisoners. If Carr had aggressively improved these policies months ago, he may have already reined in overcrowding, which is the best way to improve conditions for both people who work in the prisons and people held captive in them.

He talked about wanting to expand programming and treatment, but needing buy-in from the legislature to provide funding. He believes in and cited studies that show that institutions where incarcerated people get treatment, education and programming are also safer for guards and staff. We agree that this is a better approach to safety than building more glass enclosures around every area where a violent incident occurs.

In general, Carr said many aspirational things that we can agree with, but we need to see results. Lives hang in the balance, and he doesn’t seem to be aware of the level of disorder in his prisons or the urgent need for change. He says the pace of change will be slow. We've been hearing that same line from every administration for decades. Meanwhile, people are dying needlessly.

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