Staff at GBCI have been abusing and killing people with no repercussions or even public scrutiny for too long. Join us on August 28, 2021 as we march on the prison to confront and expose the routine atrocities staff commit with the tacit support of local and state authorities. Read more about, and help share the action on Facebook or instagram. To coordinate transportation or ask questions, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send Ben a text or signal message: 614-704-4699.
Here we will recount a sampling of oppressive dynamics, harrowing events, and abusive practices observed at GBCI. This article will contain graphic content about suicide, abuse, torture, and sexual assault. We share these stories not to simply raise awareness, or delve into the miseries of the prison system, but to inspire and justify action against it.
Green Bay CI is a horror. This facility presents an ongoing, ignored, humanitarian crisis. Every prison has a unique array of horrors, especially the maximum security facilities, so it is hard, and likely pointless to say which is “the worst”. Advocates and incarcerated people can make some generalizations. Some may consider Waupun worse due to the overt white supremacy of the staff, or their willingness to collaborate with captives who extort or abuse other captives. Columbia CI seems to be the most rigidly controlled, more prone to lockdowns. Rather than pitting captives against each other, Columbia CI guards like to just beat people themselves. It’s hard to say which maximum security joint is worse than another in Wisconsin, but it’s harder to say that the prison in Green Bay isn’t an unsustainable disaster.
Experts agree: GBCI is fucked!
GBCI is Wisconsin’s second oldest prison. In 2019, a 477 page report studying Wisconsin prison facilities centered on GBCI as a “higher priority” than others. The report found that the prison fails to meet standards of the American Correctional Association (ACA), the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), International Building Code (IBC), and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The report concluded that, “unless upgrades include extensive demolition and reconstruction of existing housing, program, and support services buildings, they will not begin to achieve the safety, security, efficiency, and flexibility found in modern correctional institution design.”
When this report came out, representative David Steffen, a conservative republican whose gerrymandered district skirts the city of Green Bay and includes the prison, proposed closing GBCI down. Of course, he also proposed replacing it, and building the replacement in his district, so his constituents could continue to make their parasitic living off Wisconsin prison captives. His proposal made it as far as the legislature’s 2019 budget, but was vetoed by governor Tony Evers.
Instead of tearing down GBCI, the DOC has been remodeling it. Estimated repair costs top $200 million, but that money hasn’t been approved. Instead, DOC is going about it piecemeal, and worsening conditions for their captives as they go. According to our article by Matthew McAffee, who is held at GBCI, the renovations make every cell a solitary confinement cage.
“This is not a house, room, place, cell,” McAfee stated, “or any other odd terms they use to describe the living conditions they lock us up to die in [it is a cage.]”
Death by medical neglect
In May of 2021, a man held in the GBCI restrictive housing unit (RHU) named Antonio Whatley experienced a medical emergency. According to witnesses, GBCI staff who responded refused Whatley’s request for a wheelchair. They said that, because he needed a wheelchair they would not provide, he was refusing the appointment. He died the next morning. Others on the block who heard Antonio struggling raised the alarm by shouting and banging on their doors. Guards threatened to punish them rather than assist Antonio, who then died.
The Brown county sheriff’s department investigated this death, but refused to speak privately with any witnesses. Allowing GBCI staff to observe witness interviews opens up anyone who speaks about refusal of treatment to retaliation.
Torture as mental health treatment
Emotional turmoil and self-harm are widespread in GBCI. The staff response is often to encourage suicidal behavior, or to put people into restraints for long periods of time. Prolonged restraint positions cause severe muscle cramps and is a painful form of torture. People with mental health diagnoses, cognitive disorders, or on the autism spectrum also report being targeted for sexual abuse.
Staff deny requests for separation, ignore complaints, and do little to prevent assaults. For example, we have three graphic anonymized reports that Forum For Understanding Prisons (FFUP) received from GBCI during the summer of 2021. FFUP has published many more testimonies from GBCI and other facilities over the years on their website prisonforum.org.
Peg Swan, who co-founded FFUP more than 15 years ago, and corresponds with dozens of captives across Wisconsin has said that conditions in the DOC have only gotten worse over time, and the rate of decline has only increased under the new, liberal administration. During the 2018 election, Tony Evers promised to drastically reduce the prison population and address conditions. He appointed Kevin Carr, a self-proclaimed reformer to be secretary of the DOC.
In office, Evers used his first budget to expand prison capacities and then made excuses. After failing in the budget, Carr and Evers started 2020 by promising improvements, but the population continued to gradually increase. When the pandemic hit, Evers let it rage through prisons without considering even a single person for pardon, clemency, or temporary sentence deferral. The DOC has admitted to letting COVID infect more than half their captive and kill 33 people, though their reported number of deaths is suspect. Thankfully, COVID-19 put courts and revocation proceedings on pause, which caused a significant decline in the population despite Evers’ inaction. Now as the state has begun re-opening, the prison population is also beginning to bounce back.
COVID at GBCI
According to the DOC’s COVID dashboard, between March 18, 2020 and August 13, 2021 staff negligence at GBCI allowed 484 people to be infected with COVID-19. In August 2020 the DOC began when the largest documented outbreak started, GBCI was 135% overcrowded, with 1,009 captives. People held at GBCI reported that staff did not quarantine those who had symptoms. Guards often did not wear masks, or adequately clean surfaces. Captives were not allowed materials needed to sanitize their living areas.
Instead, GBCI staff used COVID as an excuse to inflict further harm. They imposed punitive lockdowns, took medical equipment like CPAP machines, and fans away. Reducing ventilation in a crowded facility in humid summer months increases likelihood of disease spread. Causing people to suffer heat exhaustion or sleep deprivation reduces their immune response.
In 2016, leading up the first national prison strike, people held at Waupun CI organized a hunger strike, which spread to other facilities over the following months. After these protests, suicides in the DOC spiked, from 1-2 per year to 12 in one year. Four of those deaths by suicide were at GBCI, where guard retaliation against prisoner protestors and litigators was particularly severe.
One of the few well-documented examples of GBCI guards encouraging or assisting suicide came in in June 2017. Jovan Williams was held in the Green Bay RHU for self-harm and attempting suicide. According to Jovan, a guard named Jose Reyez, gave him a plastic bag and told him to “go ahead and have fun with it” when he said he would use the bag to self harm. Jovan did attempt to suffocate himself with the bag. After recovering, he filed a lawsuit against Reyez for showing deliberate indifference to a substantial risk.
As with many incarcerated litigators, filing suit only brought more retaliation. Continued harassment and mental health crisis caused him to miss legal deadlines. On appeal, he repeatedly requested court assistance in recruiting counsel. District court judge James D Peterson first denied the requests, claiming Jovan seemed capable of representing himself. Then Peterson dismissed the case due to Jovan’s inability to meet deadlines or effectively litigate from isolation and ongoing mental health crisis, a mental health crisis caused and systematically exacerbated by the people he was attempting to sue. Judge Peterson put Jovan Williams, through a catch-22 that protected and enabled staff’s ability to drive their captives to self-harm and suicide.
Why we march
From the local sheriff, to the state governor, to federal district judges, government officials have not responded to the plight of incarcerated people in Wisconsin. They enable and are themselves complicit in the abuse, negligence, and hardships inflicted by staff. Sadists and control freaks working at GBCI likely think they’re immune to public scrutiny. They’re used to government officials playing cover for them, or turning a blind eye to their abuses.
The media, non-profit, and legal establishments in Wisconsin also fail to scrutinize or pay sufficient attention to conditions and hardships in prisons like GBCI. When COVID numbers are spiking or child abuse at youth prisons hits a breaking point, reporters will publish stories about some adjacent individual personal tragedies, but never scrutinize guards, demand transparency from DOC officials or seriously question prison-loving politicians. Non-profits focus on policy changes that primarily aid the formerly incarcerated and rarely challenge liberal establishment. This focus perpetuates the foundational myth of incarceration: that until someone completes their sentence, they are unworthy of humanity or protection. Tough on crime laws from the 1990s protect prisons from litigation, limiting the fees lawyers can earn for representing incarcerated clients, so too few even consider representing the countless civil claims of people abused in prison.
Every established institution has failed to protect or defend incarcerated people in this state. When we march on GBCI, we hope to shine a light not only on the abuses of DOC staff, but also the shortcomings of Wisconsin’s culture broadly. Most importantly, we hope to shine a light on the humanity of those held within.
Incarcerated organizers with the Free Alabama Movement have often stressed protests outside of actual prison facilities as the most important form of solidarity. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak highlight solidarity actions at prisons for the the SHUTEMDOWN2021 effort. When democracy, watchdog media, and legal protections all fail, the people will resort to self-defense. Next year, JLS plans to see actions inside the prisons during the same dates as this year’s mobilization. They are calling for prisoner-initiated protests, work stoppages, and demonstrations. When we march on or protest outside of any prison facility, we send a message of solidarity. If we are successful, we bolster a growing movement of direct confrontation with prison authority, in the spirit of abolition.