Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Wisconsin Lockdown

In the middle of May, 1992, the Wisconsin DOC distributed a new set of property rules to all prisoners. It contained a lot of new restrictions but the most significant is that the total amount of property a prisoner may possess must fit into a footlocker measuring 32" x 16" x 16". Of course, TV's are exempted from the rules since no prison official would ever discourage an inmate from becoming addicted to TV. The rules are aimed directly at jailhouse lawyers and inmate writ writers because they accumulate all the books and paperwork.

Three years ago the Waupun prison tried to confiscate everyone's legal papers saying they created a fire hazard. That didn't fly so now this. Their justification? Inmate possession of property leads to theft and inmate property is used for gambling.

The new rules went into effect on June 1st for people entering the system after that date. Those of us already here have to be in compliance by June 1, l993, or upon transfer to another prison, whichever happens first.

Needless to say, everyone is pissed. The Wisconsin chapter of CURE (Citizens United to Rehabilitate Errants) staged a demonstration at the state capitol on June 1st to protest the rules. Since then prison officials have rejected all mail sent to me by CURE.

700 of the 800 prisoners at one of the medium security prisons went on a one day food strike boycotting the dining hall on June 1st.

On May 23rd prisoners here at Waupun took over the messhall and beat up all the guards. We've been locked down ever since [Editors note: as we go to press the Waupun lockdown continues.] eating in our cells and allowed out twice a week for showers.

Nonviolent protests by prisoners are not often heard of because prison administrators ruthlessly oppress prisoners who organize such actions. Waupun prisoners have often attempted to organize nonviolent protests such as strikes and sit downs. In order to be effective, such collective efforts require mass participation. Organizers must inform the inmate population of the planned event and encourage participation.

It is impossible to conduct such efforts covertly. Prison officials will inevitably become aware of the organizing, and when they do, they immediately lockdown the prison and conduct an investigation. Any prisoners who can be identified as organizers will be sentenced to long terms in segregation and transferred, usually to prisons in the federal system or in other states. Prison officials simply do not tolerate prisoners who organize non violent protests. The Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners have no constitutional right to organize collective protests, so prisoners have no protection from such retaliation.

In April, 1988, I was confined at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution. A group of prisoners tried to organize a mass hunger strike to protest conditions. There is no rule in Wisconsin prisons against going on a hungerstrike. In fact, prison rules specifically state that prisoners may decline to eat any meals they choose. The activists in this case were therefore encouraging prisoners to do something that they're specifically authorized to do. Nonetheless, the organizers were rounded up, transferred to maximum security prisons (Oshkosh is medium security) and sentenced to lengthy terms in segregation.

Other states take the same approach. Marion Penitentiary, the federal prison that exists for the express purpose of isolating the most dangerous prisoners in the nation, is actually full of activists. Prisoners whose strike organizing in state prisons tests the limits of official patience are exiled to Marion, where the perpetual lockdown and control unit regimen disable the activists. The inmates prison officials consider the most dangerous are not the most violent, but the one with political consciousness and organizational skills.

Prisoners planning a violent protest, on the other hand, are able to organize covertly. Because they need only a small group of confederates, they are spared the necessity of organizing the mass of prisoners. The ability to plan covertly enables violent prisoner protestors to at least carry out their plans. Prisoners thinking of organizing a collective, non violent protest must always grapple with the grim likelihood that their prison will be locked down and they will find themselves in the segregation unit of a max prison in another state before the protest ever takes place.

Of course the prisoners who beat up the seven guards on May 23 will be confined in segregation, but they won't be transferred to Marion. The fact that prison officials punish violent protestors less harshly than violent protestors is not lost upon prisoners.

Wisconsin has no administrative grievance system. While one exists on paper it is non existent in practice. The courts are also inaccessible to the vast majority of prisoners, who have neither the money to hire an attorney nor the legal expertise to proceed in court without counsel.

With the extreme, malicious persecution of non violent protestors and the lack of an operational grievance system, it is no surprise that prisoners turn to violent protest. Given the near certainty that the human spirit will rise up against the conditions that prisoners in this country are forced to endure, one might suppose that prison officials would prefer that prisoners choose to protest nonviolently. But prison officials adopt policies that encourage, and even ensure, violent protest.

Every act of violent protest by prisoners strengthens the correctional administrators hand. In the wake of the May 23 incident, DOC officials have called for increased funding, more oppressive security measures and the construction of more maximum security prisons.

When conservative DOC officials do battle with a Democrat controlled legislature for dollars to fund their severely repressive program, they can possess no stronger bargaining chip than a record of seemingly senseless inmate violence. Prison officials actually hope that inmates react violently to their conditions. It is of course, the guards, not the white collar officials who make policy, who will always be the victims of violent inmate protest.

The proposition that prison officials want inmates to lash out violently against guards is a radical one, but I am not alone in making it. Since the May 23 incident, AFSCME Local 18, the union that represents Waupun guards, has publicly alleged that Waupun administrators knew in advance that prisoners were planning the attack, and did nothing to prevent it.

As always, prison officials blame prisoners for the problems in Wisconsin prisons. But it is the administrators who hold the power and make policy. Appropriate policies would render violent prison protest non-existent.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login