Leading up to Milwaukee’s Shut Em Down 2021 mobilization, it’s important to remember that there are rebels and fighters in Wisconsin prisons. We don’t often hear about the kinds of massive strikes, uprisings, and escapes that are tracked at Perilous Chronicle, but that doesn’t mean people are safe or passive within Wisconsin prisons. Part of the Shut’Em Down mobilization in Milwaukee will include holding up the sacrifices and struggles of Wisconsin prison rebels in greater depth, but here is a start.
A brief resistance history
During the 2020 pandemic, documented resistance to prison increased dramatically, but Wisconsin’s prisons were very effectively locked down. The the DOC put security and control over health and safety. We heard of little direct action other than a brief, staff-assisted escape. Meanwhile, outside solidarity during the pandemic included home demos targeting DOC secretary Kevin Carr and Governor Evers, a COVID Compassion Campaign demanding Evers issue emergency pardons, and body bags dropped on secretary Carr’s lawn. None of these efforts proved effective. The George Floyd marches and the Kenosha uprising also overshadowed the prison crisis for many, while Evers and Carr allowed DOC staff to neglect prevention and punish prisoners for getting sick. More than half of the DOC population were infected, no pardons were granted, and an unknown number of deaths piled up.
Even before the pandemic, conditions in WI prisons were deteriorating. In three separate incidents during the fall of 2019, prisoners attacked racist and abusive guards at Columbia CI (CCI). The DOC responded with a brutal and deadly lockdown regime. Solidarity actions continued into 2020, including a noise demo outside the facility and a march on the DOC headquarters. These actions forced a meeting with the then new, reform-aspiring DOC administrators, who failed to meet demands. Later, CCI’s Warden Susan Novak was quietly pushed to retire.
In 2018, Milwaukee organizers linked the nation-wide prison strike with the now-neglected campaign to close the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) where many have died over the years. Word spread about the strike and CLOSEmsdf in Milwaukee over the summer via high-visibility actions with floating banners, public nudity at Bastille Days, a powerful spotlight, and a day-long demonstration outside MSDF.
Direct action inside Wisconsin prisons during the strike did not manifest, but outside organizers held solidarity rallies and an action trolling the guard union at the labor day parade (a stunt repeated in 2019). In November, two people held at MSDF briefly took over a day room. It took months to gather details and make contact with the rebels, preventing this inside action from integrating effectively into the CLOSEmsdf campaign. The campaign sputtered out in late 2019 amid demoralizing non-profit squabbles over grant funding.
Youth held at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake (LH/CL) have been particularly robust in fighting back against abusive guards. Events at LH/CL get more coverage after investigations exposed widespread and horrific child abuse. The guards union also likes putting out press releases and public testimonies to try and redeem their public image. Efforts to prevent further abuse and end the battles between Milwaukee youth and racist guards by closing LH/CL have stalled, despite conditions at the youth prison continuing to deteriorate.
The largest organized prison resistance action Wisconsin has seen in recent years was the 2016 Dying to Live food refusal protest. It started ahead of the national strike, in July. Thirty people held in indefinite solitary confinement (or “administrative control” status) at Waupun CI refused food demanding limits to their confinement in solitary. The hunger strike spread to maximum security facilities across the state in the summer and fall. At the same time, the Milwaukee Uprising broke out in the Sherman Park neighborhood after police killed Sylville Smith. Outside supporters organized demonstrations at the DOC headquarters, a large march around Waupun CI, and solidarity events for the September 9 national prison strike.
The DOC started force feeding people after only ten days, which largely broke the strike. Force feeding is a painful and medically unnecessary form of torture used to stop people from engaging in the protest. Nevertheless, two Wisconsin prison rebels, LaRon McKinley and Cesar DeLeon, maintained their hunger strike while being force fed for many months. Eventually, the DOC granted McKinley an interstate transfer to Colorado, where he was released from solitary in a few month’s time. They granted DeLeon a transfer to Racine CI, and promised opportunities for him to “step down” and be released from solitary confinement. Officials did not keep their promise, leading him to engage in more hunger strikes.
The force-feeding created a torturous stalemate that dragged the protest out and sapped energy from reporters and momentum from solidarity demonstrators. At the same time, word of hunger strikes at other facilities, particularly Green Bay CI (GBCI) began flowing in. Communication was often delayed or broken up by mailrooms, making it impossible to track how many were refusing food at any given time. Later, a record request revealed that the number of deaths classified as suicide in the DOC had multiplied from 1-3 per year to 12 in 2016. Many of these deaths were in GBCI. The DOC hides behind federal health information privacy laws to conceal any information about these deaths, but some were likely hunger strikers killed by force feeding or driven to suicide by other forms of guard retaliation.
People who have been down a long time in this state will sometimes recount a powerful work strike in 2004 and other prison uprisings that haven’t been well-documented. In recent years, the DOC has prevented such incidents by improving their practices of repression and control. Following the reclassification of the Wisconsin supermax to a “secure program facility” (WSPF) solitary confinement became widespread and torturous across the state’s max level joints. Patterns and practices of psychological manipulation, malicious misclassification, routine depriviations, and strict controls have been effective at reducing the frequency and strength of prison rebellions in Wisconsin. To this day, the DOC continues to expand it’s technologies of restriction and control. DOC staff have driven countless would-be rebels into isolation and many to suicide.
Today, the Wisconsin DOC responds to both non-violent prisoner protests like hunger strikes, and militant self-defense actions with torture, brutal lockdowns, and medical and psychological neglect that results in extrajudicial execution. Solidarity actions and organizing have not been robust enough to deter the DOC from these practices or hold them to account. Efforts to sue the DOC over abuse, solitary confinement, and mistreatment are handled by jailhouse lawyers without adequate support from Wisconsin lawyers or legal organizations.
In particular, the deaths dealt by DOC staff in response to the 2016 hunger strike, at MSDF, during the CCI lockdown, and the pandemic, cast a pall over prisoner resistance efforts in Wisconsin. Planning organized collective action in a context of isolation, torture, and with potentially fatal consequences is beyond difficult. Resistance continues, of course, but in a more spontaneous, individual, and decentralized form. Most of these actions fly below the radar of mainstream media and even correspondence with advocates. We do not know the extent and shape of resistance in Wisconsin prisons.
All of this occurs within a backdrop of white supremacy. Wisconsin is consistently at or near the top of lists for racial incarceration disparities (for both Black and Native populations), concentrated police violence, segregation, and other measures of racially disparate outcomes. The torture regime in Wisconsin prisons exists alongside and because of Wisconsin’s widespread culture of white supremacy. Denial of our racist culture, by both centrist democrats and all republicans, contributes to willfully ignoring the prison crisis.
Milwaukee prison abolitionists hope the shut em down 2021 mobilization helps to expose and erode the DOC’s repressive machine, while building a stronger outside solidarity movement, and weakening the grip of systemic racism on our city and the state of Wisconsin.