Wisconsin inmates plan hunger strike

Posted at 11:04 AM, Jun 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-07 13:20:19-04

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- A small group of Wisconsin prison inmates plan to launch a hunger strike this week in hopes of persuading the Department of Corrections to eliminate long-term solitary confinement, likening it to torture.

The Industrial Workers of the World, a labor union working to draw attention to the strike, has been communicating with the inmates via mail. Ben Turk, a member of the IWW's Milwaukee chapter, said the inmates -- six at Waupun Correctional Institution and one at Columbia Correctional Institution -- plan to stop eating Friday. According to Turk, DOC rules don't consider an inmate's refusal to eat an actual hunger strike until he or she has missed nine meals.

The inmates want the DOC and the Legislature to end solitary confinement beyond 90 days and immediately move prisoners who have been in solitary for more than a year into less restrictive housing. They also are demanding a federal investigation of alleged harassment by guards and staff.

"This aim is not to facilitate death, but to facilitate human dignity and humanitarian accountability," one of the prisoners, Cesar Deleon, said in a news release issued by the IWW. DeLeon was convicted of armed robbery in 2002. He's not due to be released until 2059, according to DOC's website.

Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook said in an email that the agency is aware of the situation and will monitor it to ensure inmates' health and safety. He didn't immediately respond to a follow-up message asking how the department typically handles hunger strikes.

A coalition of church congregations known as WISDOM launched a campaign in 2014 calling for a range of reforms within DOC, including doing away with solitary confinement.

DOC officials relaxed their solitary confinement policies in 2015. The agency no longer uses solitary confinement to punish prisoners for minor rule infractions or for harming themselves, and the maximum initial term of confinement is 90 days. Prisoners can still be placed in solitary for longer periods under DOC rules if they present a serious threat to themselves, staff, other inmates or the orderly running of an institution, although the agency secretary must review all confinements lasting longer than 120 days. The DOC's old policies stated a prisoner could be isolated for up to 360 days for a wide range of offenses.

Cook said about 100 inmates are currently in long-term solitary confinement out of a total prison population of about 22,700.

The striking inmates say they've spent months or years in solitary confinement, according to IWW. One of the Waupun inmates, Laron McKinley Bey, said in a handwritten lawsuit filed in federal court in April that he's been in solitary confinement for 25 years. He said inmates in solitary are confined to bathroom-sized cells for 23 hours a day, four days a week and 24 hours a day on three days a week, depriving them of all meaningful human contact.

The prison's psychologists don't spend enough time with the inmates, no clear criteria exist for getting back into the general population, the guards force them to take freezing cold showers, the sewer becomes backed up, flooding cells with fecal matter and urine, and the cells are infested with insects, he added.

"Many mentally ill prisoners cry and act out because they've been broken by the effects of isolation," he wrote in the lawsuit.

Online court records show Bey was convicted in 1988 of two counts of attempted first-degree murder. He's not due to be released until 2164.

The IWW has planned rallies at the state Capitol building in Madison on Friday and at the Milwaukee County Courthouse on Saturday to promote the strike. The union also has set up an online petition to send to DOC Secretary Jon Litscher.

President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons earlier this year. Five states also have banned juvenile solitary confinement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.