by Ben Turk
We have confirmed that at least two of the perhaps dozens of prisoners who have been refusing food since the week of June 10 are being force fed by Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials. Using a practice which has been condemned by the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Red Cross as a form of torture and “never ethically acceptable,” Wisconsin DOC personnel have been forcing a feeding tube through the nose and down the throat of their restrained and struggling captives three times a day since last weekend.
On Tuesday, Cesar DeLeon, one of the most vocal of the hunger strikers, was finally able to contact his family to describe the procedure, which he had already endured many times. During his weekly 15-minute video visit with his sister Erika he said that staff often leaves the tube in his throat for a long time after the actual feeding, that the procedure causes bleeding and that they laugh at him and mock him while conducting it.
According to the AMA, inserting a feeding tube in an unwilling patient risks tearing the esophagus, or accidentally filling the lungs with fluid, both potentially fatal injuries. DOC Communications Director Tristan Cook has assured the public that the DOC is monitoring the hunger strike, indicating that DOC Director Jon Litscher is aware of and responsible for his staff’s conduct with these prisoners.
Two days prior to the force feeding, DeLeon began refusing water. He is held in isolation at Waupun Correctional, Wisconsin’s oldest prison, which has high levels of lead and copper in the water. Believing this polluted water was causing stomach pains, DeLeon began refusing to drink it.
A person cannot live more than three days without water, and in DeLeon’s condition because of the hunger strike, this refusal of water presented dire health concerns. Under pressure from outside supporters, the DOC finally allowed DeLeon access to bottled water, but only for one day. After that, they began force feeding him.
We have confirmed that at least two of the perhaps dozens of prisoners who have been refusing food since the week of June 10 are being force fed by Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials.
The prisoners have been on hunger strike for 12-17 days. Most initiated the strike on June 10 but some, including DeLeon, started on the 5th. It is impossible to know how many prisoners are participating in the strike; DeLeon says over two dozen committed to it before they began, but the DOC has held him in isolation and moved some of the protesting prisoners to separate facilities.
They are also interfering with mail to and from the prisoners and refusing to make any public statement regarding how many prisoners are refusing food or are being force-fed. Prisoners have confirmed that there are five known participants, but the DOC may be hiding others.
Outside supporters have heard from two others of the five, LaRon McKinley Bey and Ras Aturn-Ra Uhuru Mutawakkil. McKinley Bey has spent over 27 consecutive years in solitary confinement under the Wisconsin DOC.
He names the other two, Joshua Scolman and Parish Golden, who as of June 19 were not yet being force fed but likely are by today. Uhuru was transferred to Columbia Correctional before the strike began, but he confirms that he has maintained the strike there and has also been threatened with force feeding. He is suffering from severe dehydration, burst blood vessels, weight loss and difficulty thinking clearly.
Force feeding dehydrated people without first replenishing fluids intravenously causes “refeeding syndrome” in which the body reacts to sudden intake of food with insulin imbalances, further dehydration, and risk of respiratory failure. Prisoners accused of terrorism in Guantanamo Bay were given more careful treatment to prevent this syndrome than the DOC has given these men.
The prisoners have been on hunger strike for 12-17 days. Most initiated the strike on June 10 but some, including DeLeon, started on the 5th.
McKinley Bey and DeLeon have sent out copies of the force-feeding court orders dated June 17 and signed by Dodge County Circuit Judge Brian Pfitzinger. State Attorney Gloria Thomas filed the requests. Pfitzinger’s office has not returned calls and Gloria Thomas refuses to answer any questions, referring callers to DOC Communications Director Tristan Cook and Legal Director Wynn Collins, who also have not answered or returned calls.
Wisconsin’s response to this hunger strike stands in stark contrast to other states’ practices. In Ohio, where a number of prisoners have gone on hunger strikes lasting 30 days or more in recent years, the prisoners were never force fed, and upper level staff always met with protesting prisoners to negotiate agreements and made transparent public statements by the fourth day of any food refusal.
In California where up to 30,000 prisoners participated in hunger strikes lasting 60 days, they were not force-fed and eventually the CDCR made promises and concessions to end the strike and then settled a lawsuit to improve conditions and place limits on the use of solitary confinement.
The prisoners in Wisconsin, in their Dying to Live declaration, offered six different ways that the DOC could demonstrate a good faith effort to reform the practice of long term solitary confinement. They are currently drafting a new set of rules for administrative confinement as a suggestion to the DOC.
Every move toward reconciliation, agreement and negotiation is coming from the prisoners and being ignored or rebuffed by the DOC. Rather than moving on or even discussing any of these conditions with the prisoners or their supporters, Wisconsin DOC has chosen a path of intransigence, opacity and increasing peril for the prisoners in their alleged care.
Whether activists, family members, journalists or elected officials call the DOC, all are either lied to – Columbia Correctional Institution staff claimed no one was on hunger strike, even though Uhuru clearly was – or sent to Tristan Cook’s office, where everyone gets the same answers: The DOC is “monitoring the situation” and anyone who wants to know more must file a public records request, a process that can take weeks.
Cook has demonstrated that the DOC is not willing to be transparent or accountable to the public they serve. They would rather preserve their ability to torture people in the darkness of their facilities without oversight from elected officials, journalists or the public.
In the early days of the hunger strike, supporters organized rallies in Milwaukee and Madison, as well as concerted call-in days, where concerned citizens called the DOC to request that they meet and negotiate with the hunger strikers. On Tuesday, June 21, the supporters took the action to the next level, marching on the DOC’s central office and delivering a letter suggesting remedies to the situation. TV coverage (in Spanish) is available, and a video is posted below.
Investigative journalists have reported on systematic harassment and abuse at Waupun Correctional months before the hunger strike began. Cesar DeLeon, who has been in solitary confinement for over three years for allegedly assaulting a guard, describes the systematic harassment as a mind control regimen, designed to provoke conditioned responses.
This program is targeted against those who stand up for themselves or assert their rights. He describes extensive sexual harassment and abuse that preceded his “snapping-out” and defending himself, to earn the disciplinary report that has put him in solitary for these years.
DeLeon’s is not an isolated case; another prisoner named Robert Tatum was targeted for similar harassment by staff at Waupun when he filed grievances and pro-se lawsuits against the DOC. This spring he went on a hunger strike and was force fed after 14 days, even though he’d quit the hunger strike, accepting and eating a meal voluntarily to avoid the dangerous and barbaric practice.
DOC Communications Director Tristan Cook says the staff at Waupun are following approved DOC procedures, so this is not a matter of a few bad guards in Waupun giving the Wisconsin DOC a bad name; it is a culture endemic to Wisconsin’s prison system. This culture is present at the Milwaukee County Secure Detention Facility, where reporters have exposed systematic provocation and harassment, as well as Lincoln Hills School for Boys, which is being federally investigated after reporters uncovered rampant sexual assault, abuse and misconduct by staff there. The Wisconsin correctional community is receiving national attention and shame because of these frequent incidents of abuse, torture and violence.
LaRon McKinley, Cesar DeLeon and Uhuru Mutawakkil are determined to maintain their food refusal protest until the DOC lets them out of solitary confinement or otherwise makes moves toward real policy change regarding administrative confinement. Outside supporters are calling on the DOC to meet and negotiate with these prisoners and are hoping to build enough public pressure to bring the DOC to the table. They are planning another day of solidarity actions for July 2 and asking people to call daily to the DOC director and Wisconsin governor.
Callers should simply demand that the DOC meet and negotiate with the hunger striking prisoners. They will likely be referred to Tristan Cook and are welcome to contact him as well, at 608-240-5060 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Writing letters to the editor of newspapers or contacting non-profit and human rights organizations are also helpful ways to support.
The Coalition of Prisoner Supporters believes the prisoner’s action has already been successful because of the awareness and urgency it has raised. They hope their comrades on the inside resume eating and intend to continue pressure on the DOC regardless of what is happening with the hunger strike.
People are also encouraged to write to the hunger striking prisoners directly. When writing, keep statements of support vague. Direct language including “hunger strike” will most likely cause the mail to be blocked. Write to
- Cesar Deleon #322800, LaRon McKinley #42642, Joshua Scolman #422508 and Parish Goldman #188323 at Waupun Correctional Institute, P.O. Box 351, Waupon, WI 53963
- Ras Aturn-Ra Uhuru Mutawakkil (s/n Green) #228971 at Columbia Correctional Institute, P.O. Box 900, Portage, WI 53901
People who wish to write can use the Milwaukee IWW post office box as a return address: P.O. Box 342294, Milwaukee, WI 53234.