Stories from the Inside is produced by the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. It features stories from people inside Minnesota’s prisons about what it’s like to be there, how they’re working to build power, and how prisons keep our whole society chained up. Let us know what you think at facebook.com/tciwoc.
The first episode sheds light on the conditions inside the Stillwater Prison located in Bayport, Minnesota through testimonies shared by several folks incarcerated there.
IWOC Podcast Transcription, Episode 1
Joanna: This is the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee Podcast. My name is Joanna.
Sophia: I’m Sophia.
Irina: And I’m Irina.
Joanna: And today we are bringing you our first episode of our podcast about conditions inside the Stillwater Prison located in Bayport, Minnesota. Stillwater is about 25 miles away from the Twin Cities and we collected calls from prisoners to hear about what their experiences have been there. We’ll be talking about what prison abolition is, kind of the motivating factors for us to create this podcast, some background on the organizing that has been happening there, and then we’ll be listening to prisoners speak about what their experiences are inside of Stillwater.
Irina: A really important point for us is – we identify as prison abolitionists, and what that means to us is we’re not interested in reforming the prisons. We believe that they shouldn’t exist – and that there’s a way for them to exist. You know, I myself get hit a lot of times with people when I talk about this. You know, where are we going to put the folks who have committed these felonies. There’s definitely- definite alternatives besides caging people and sweeping them under rugs. And so, that is something we fight for.
Throughout this podcast, we’re going to be exposing prisons, and what’s happening in those walls, and making sure we’re bringing the prisons to people and not letting them disappear and be in these suburbs and be forgotten, right? So that’s why we’re here.
Joanna: So we’re a part of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee which is a committee of the IWW. And the work we do here locally in the Twin Cities is connect with prisoners inside – prisons inside the state of Minnesota – to really support them in the way that they see conditions inside of the prison – and how they want to organize around that. So we letter write regularly, we speak to them on the phone, and visit to stay connected with folks.
This work began as a result of the organizing that started in Alabama prisons with the Free Alabama Movement. And so they are responsible really for — again the prisoners at the center of the struggles are responsible for even beginning this movement — and we on the outside are supporting them. And we really see that as the framework for our struggle as well.
Sophia: So some of the work nationally that IWOC has been supporting – there was a call put out that initiated in Alabama – but also Virginia and a number of other states – from inside – for there to be a national prison strike September 9, which was the 50th anniversary of the Attica uprising.
And so IWOC did a lot of support work around that strike – and saw actions across the country. One of which was kind of an escalation in Michigan – that began a number of years ago around food. And there being maggots in food and people being served inadequate calories. And last spring, there was a number – there was three prisons in Michigan– where a fast majority of prisoners refused to report to the cafeteria.
It started there – and we saw on September 10th – an escalation and 11 demands. Food being one of them – but also talking about other issues. Access to visitation, phones, access to health care. One example in which issues around food was a catalyst of organizing around a broader base of things.
Joanna: So locally, we might think, well what do, for example, the conditions of the water and food and the health care that people are receiving have to do with prison abolition. What we’re saying is that those things can really be the beginning point for prisoners to get organized and to get really inspired to do the work based on things that they see on a daily basis.
In Stillwater, it has been for example an issue of getting moved around. For example, getting seats reassigned. That was a moment this last spring that really brought prisoners together. They stood up from inside the cafeteria and went and made demands – and really scared the administrators of the prison.
Sophia: To give people some more context about Stillwater, it cages 1,600 people, but was built to cage 900. So overcrowding is a big issue.
Joanna: So does that mean we need more prisons?
Irina: Uh, no, that’s not what that means.
Sophia: It’s a level four security prison. While there is a minimum outside of the gates, most of the prisoners were talking to today, most of the complaints are coming from inside the level four prison itself.
Stillwater was built in the early 1900s and while the water system was updated in 2013, the piping remains the same. So that’s the basis for some of the issues we’ll be hearing about today.
Joanna: With the old piping, prisoners are seeing water that is completely muddled and they can’t even tell really what’s in the water. The prison officials might say that the water is safe to drink, prisoners have been diagnosed with a host of diseases. One of them for example, H. pylori, is a spiral-shaped bacteria that latches onto your stomach basically and can ultimately lead to ulcers and stomach cancer.
Irina: And you know – water – y’all know – this is a reoccurring theme. You’ve got Flint Michigan, you’ve got stuff going on in standing rock – this is like water is life. So let’s bring it to the prisoners: How are they being impacted? What are they experiencing? What are they drinking? So we’re going to talk about water today.
Sophia: And we know this is an issue across the country with prisoners too – right? It’s not just Stillwater. There’s issues with other prisons in Minnesota. There’s been so many lawsuits filed on behalf of prisoners who are drinking toxic water. So while we’re hearing specific stories today from some really powerful people inside – also keep in mind that this is not an isolated thing.
We organized for prisoners from Stillwater to call in and share their experiences and give their testimonies surrounding water, food and health. So you’re going to hear from six people — we’re going to keep them anonymous, so listen in, they are powerful stories. We’re going to go into water right now.
Testimony 1: I believe the water that we’re drinking isn’t — it can’t be right. I mean like, even the staff won’t drink this water. You turn on a faucet every morning, the water is orange, there’s no way you’re telling me that water is healthy to be drinking.
Testimony 2: I’ve had a lot of issues with my stomach, I can’t drink the water out of the sink. The reality of it is, I used to go through a bottle of Tums every month. They got salts and filters down on the main living area where you can go down and get filtered water out of the tap water is filtered, but as far as the sinks go in our cells or we’re locked in the lot, we gotta use that water and unfortunately if you drink that a lot of guys do have stomach problems.
Testimony 3: I came from Oak Park Heights in 2013 and that’s when I started experiencing the water being discolored. I was in Unit E at the time. I didn’t really think about it but then when I went to another unit, the unit I’m in now, I found that the water was just brown all the time. That was in January 2015, that’s when I started using the aggrievement system — the process that you go through to grieve — about the water. And it was pretty much rubber stamped on all levels, I was getting comments back from Warden Steven Hammer, the previous warden, saying that “the water has a lot of calcium and calcium is all really good for you.” You know, comments like that. They just evaded the issue period because the prison is really designed to hold 900 people but it’s like 1,600 people in here so it’s pretty much over capacity. Once a prison’s over capacity that means you have to expand the services and one of the services is water. They just build a new water filtration system outside of the prison walls but they never changed the pipes. I got information from the Illinois Department of Health and it describes the water – cause the water is like a dark brown — from that information it said it’s ferric iron in the water. So that’s what’s pretty much going flowing here and they expect us to drink it and wash up with it. The showers, the washing machines, you know, the water it’ll get brown. So a lot of guys with white clothes get brown, you know they’re dirty clothes now.
Testimony 4: It’s so bad that if you get the water out of the sink out of your cell — like we have these hot pots that actually heat your water up in and to make things with — that it will, you know the minerals in it are so heavy that it will crust over in your hot pot within about a week and a half or two week and it will actually tint it brown. In the mornings – not every morning, but a lot of the mornings — you’ll turn the hot water on and it’s coming out it looks like coffee. That’s how bad the water is, as far as the hot water goes, cold water is usually real clear but the hot water gets brown.
Testimony 5: The water quality here is pretty poor. It’s one of those things that they been ducking us on for a long time here. They haven’t truly been doing the things they’ve been saying they’ve been doing as far as basically testing the water and stuff like that. So that’s another issue that I’m trying to get with this complaint and hopefully we’ll get some people in here to be able to do the proper testing to determine what is really in this water because this is a 100-year-old prison and we have 100-year-old piping.
Testimony 6: We have had people come through here that test the water and the people that test the water say that the results have been altered. They said they’re allowed so many parts per billion of this or that and they said that they wouldn’t drink the water. They took all the filters out of all the sinks and and all the water areas here — we have little sinks on the floor and between the cells here, on the stairways — and they take readings all over the place. We have an industry area, the living area, they take it from the kitchen areas, all around. And they say they wouldn’t drink the water, the people that test it. And then they have, it seems, that they have been altered — so they say, I don’t know how to prove this sort of thing. They took all the filters out of all the sinks that they used to have in our areas and then they put them back again near the officer’s desks, so the officers can fill their waters from filter receptacles and the rest of us go without. I mean we could use that one sink that has the filter but there used to be on ice machines that we have here and we had filters on every sink. And it was a cost management thing, they took them all out, but then they put them back again so officers could have filtered water, and we can as well but only in one sink in each house. It used to be in all. There’s probably eleven sinks in here, one has a filter, the rest do not. The one nearest the officer’s desk is the one that has the filter. So yeah, people often times think it’s the water that could be causing maladies here.
Testimony 7: I work in building maintenance and I change the filters out for the water, like the ice machine and sinks and what not. I know that we don’t change the filters regularly enough because those filters are shot by the time we change them. We change them like every couple months and they’re filthy by the time we change them. If the water was so safe like the memos they post up, the filters that we change out should not be that bad.
Testimony 8: It’s gotten worse since I’ve been here. The water comes out like black, like real rusty. They had some people come in from the world to test it or whatever but all they do is test the water fountains they flag that have filters on them. They don’t go to the ones in the rooms that when we’re locked in that’s what we have to drink out of and shower in.
Testimony 9: I filter my water. I put a little rag over the sink every morning and every week I change the little rag and it’s soaked black from all the rust.
Interviewer: Do other folks do the same thing?
Testimony 9 (continued): Oh well yeah. Well it kinda gives you peace of mind, but you know to be honest I’m not really sure how effective it is. In every housing unit there are bulletin boards and they post up memos saying that the state or the federal government has come in and they have checked our wells and our water and it’s perfectly within normal parameters and what not but it’s not really reassuring when the staff themselves don’t drink the water.
Joanna: What we heard in those clips really was the different ways in which people experience how the water quality impacts them on to a day to day basis. What all the places like Flint or whether it is folks on the front lines at Standing Rock or even other indigenous reservations like the Diné Navajo people. What we see is that folks are impoverished, are in conditions where they don’t have access to alternative sources of water. So this is again all these places have in common and so the water conditions and food conditions really impact people on different level when you don’t have any alternatives. So what people talked about in conjunction with the water quality was also the food and how that’s making them sick.
Irina: So we are going to transition into talking about the food in Stillwater but before we do you know to give honor to the testimonies you heard about water you know just kind of sit with the clips that you heard and the voices that you heard — these are people and this is their lived experience right? So, you know you heard from a prisoner early on about him tying rags to the faucet to filter his own water and him actually being the person that is changing the filters on a monthly basis and how he recognizes that staff are not drinking that water. So really taking in these testimonies that you are hearing and settling with them and cause you know later on in the podcast we are going to talk about what can you do? And I am sure that is what some of you are wondering. So yeah let’s go talk about food…
Testimony 1: With the budget and everything else, the rate of the food coming in and what they pay for our food and what they are allowed to spend on us it’s actually brought a lot of issues towards us, like I lost 20 pounds and I’m pretty skinny as it is. The rations that they actually give you are inadequate for an adult man. I know we’ve had health class here that actually teach you how many calories you get out of a meal — I know that there’s been days when for all three meals you don’t even exceed 1000 calories for the entire day. Most of the time the food is just room temperature. There’s no set temperature on there unless a health inspector comes in, you know what I mean.
Testimony 2: A lot of the doctors that diagnose people having gastric ulcers but that’s not, it simply comes directly from the kitchen. I mean you can’t eat food under a certain temperature, period. You can’t eat off wet trays, you can’t eat where mice are moving around all day.
Testimony 3: I used to go down there Monday through Friday and pick up a machine to go scrub the floors with, it was just a floor scrubbing type machine and I put sticky trap out there — every day there’d be mice on that thing. They would chew the wires up on that machine — that’s common. You don’t even want to go down there because you’re worried you’re gonna get food poisoning or upset stomach, get sick, you know, things like that. You know, the trays are dirty, the utensils are dirty, the water has a weird taste to it.
Testimony 4: I firstly contracted H. pylori from eating in the kitchen here. The food itself already substandard but it’s served below the serving temperature. The food is served on wet trays, so if they wash the trays today the trays are sitting around and they’re not dry. That’s how bacteria sets in that water so it starts to grow. Then you have mice in the kitchen that literally, they’re so used to human beings that while we’re walking through the line to get our food, a mouse might run right by you. You know so I wrote the kitchen supervisor, his name is Dan Kaiser, you know he pretty much ignores (inaudible) evades them and tries to you know, it’s not important to him. So his supervisor, Regina Stepney, she is the same court, and all the way up to the Commissioner of Corrections. I filed grievances on that issue too and they just don’t care. I got a letter from Nan Larsen— she’s the head of — she’s a dietitian and her comment with the mice, you know, the same as theirs: that it’s okay, it’s not a problem, we’re setting traps. And obviously they’re not. So it’s pretty much just evading the situation and letting the prison just be what it is. It’s an old prison, old piping system, and then the people they hire to work here — they just don’t care. I mean they got folks in charge of the kitchen and that’s really helped to attain standards of the restaurant. You know, they don’t hold those standards. I think I found like five or six violations from the Department of Health that I retrieved from the law library and they just ignore them. Now this goes all the way up to the Commissioner of Corrections — I think the Assistant Commissioner of Corrections name is Bruce Reiser, you know he just rubber stamped the issue. The warden rubber stamped them. It’s just an ongoing thing.
As far as the H. Pylori, I ended up taking medication for it and so far it’s gone. I go to the health services and get tested like every five or six months just to make sure. So since then I’ve been doing good. But at the same time, the threat is still there because I’ve talked to eight people and all eight people I’ve told to get H. pylori tested came back positive. But at the same time, that doesn’t trigger an alarm in the health services for them to say hey there’s a problem here, everybody in this particular skill line you know, all over the prison with H. pylori, it’s crazy. They’re just not concerned. I brought it to the health services supervisor and you know she ignored it. ‘Cause I asked her get me a separate tray, a styrofoam tray. She just – you know, they just evaded and they come up with these pretexts for not taking care of the issue.
Sophia: So know we have heard a little bit about conditions in the kitchen with mice with food being served at cold, not heated up so being susceptible to bacteria, we’ve heard about the ways kitchen staff treat folks and the serious issues with that. Now we are going to talk about healthcare and access to healthcare. And you’ll hear some of the same themes of neglect and people within the power structures or administrations of these prisons ignoring issues — sweeping them under the rug — and not taking people’s concerns seriously. In Minnesota healthcare is privatized in Minnesota’s prisons. So it’s a private contract that the state contracts with. That contract changed in 2013, initially it was a company called Corizon and there were multiple people inside who died because of medical neglect and because of that company doing the best it can to make as much money as possible at prisoners’ expense. But it was shifted to another company in 2013 called Centurion and while there’s been a little bit of an increase in funds for healthcare, you’ll hear about the same issues of neglect, the same issues of inadequate care, the same issues of a culture among the nurses and among doctors of not treating prisoners like humans, and not making sure that people are given the care that they deserve.
Testimony 1: If you get sick you sign up for sick call, and that takes a couple days, and then they’ll bring you down there, charge you five dollars to see the nurse, they don’t do nothing, they give you a doctor’s appointment and then that takes a couple more days. If you’re really sick, they’ll just lock you in and leave you sit there til the doctor can see you. When you see the doctor, usually they don’t give you nothing because think everybody’s trying to eat pills to get high, you know, to do whatever. So it’s real hard to get anything around here.
Joanna: If you don’t have the money to pay for a doctor, can you you still see a doctor?
Testimony 1 (continued): Yeah, they just put you in debt. You just owe them.
Testimony 2: There’s people I’ve personally known that have died in here because of nurses being incompetent, doctors being incompetent. Seeing people, their conditions worsen because of the health services. For example, there was a guy…I think this was an appeal in too, he got like $200,000 because they had an issue with his back and the nurse would come and see him and say he was faking it so two days he couldn’t even move, he had bowel movements and urinated on himself and then once they got him out of his cell and finally looked at him, he had a cyst or something on his spine. So he ended up having to get surgery. But the nurse that did it was the director at the time and all they did was demote her to a nurse. She still works here right now to this day. And that right there is unbelievable. So that kinda gives you an idea of how a lot of the issues are dealt with. You know I don’t have problems because I write outside resources like the Nursing Board of Health, you know, the people that give nurses licenses and check in on that stuff. A lot of these guys don’t have that information. There’s another guy I met — he left, he went home. He had appendicitis I believe it was and his appendix burst while he was in his cell. He complained about it but what saved his life was he had recently gotten a tattoo and it got infected and they were giving him antibiotics so that’s what saved his life. He ended up going to the hospital and they had to cut his stomach open. I mean it looked like he was a gunshot victim, from what I saw, I was like wow. I think right now he has a lawsuit in from what he’s telling me. But it’s situations like that. Minor things that they just overlook.
Testimony 3: There’s a lady that works in health service right, there’s this dude, he was passed out on the floor in the middle of the night and like he pissed and shit himself and the lady’s like “oh he’s faking, he’s just trying to get pills to get high” and that’s what she wrote in her report. The next day he was still like that so they brought him to the emergency room and he had a blood clot in his neck or something and it was real bad and they had surgery and he filed some stuff and the head nurse, Sara Hard, were told to give her all the evidence that she wrote but the other nurse took it to the newspaper and turned it in — they didn’t even fire that girl, she still works here. They got a big lawsuit, the dude got like $180,000 and then he’s still suing but yea they didn’t fire her. That’s the kind of people they have working here.
Testimony 4: There’s a lot of guys with health issues in here but the healthcare program it’s kinda tight, it really, once you get a good doctor in here that doctor pretty much disappears within a month or two so it makes a lot of issue for us, we can’t get the adequate care that we actually do need. Like I know back in 2011 we had a sport medicine doctor in here and this guy – I experienced back pains since ‘03 and he comes in and checks it out and within five minutes he figured out what it was and he fixed it with one shot and I haven’t had a problem in that lower part of my back since 2011. I mean the guy was phenomenal and like I said, he lasted about two months and he was gone. Every time somebody comes in and tries to help everybody out, get them where they should be, they get pushed away. It’s not the DOC, it’s the health service provider that pushes them. Because they’re given a certain amount of money per year to take care of us and as long as they don’t spend over that, that’s profit for them. So the less they do for us, the more it is for them.
Irina: The prisons don’t see an issue with having to giving them this water that could be poisoning them — that is poisoning them, food that is inadequate, healthcare that’s not really taking care of them because they’re really not worried about the community reaching out and demanding that they are treated respectfully. Because we’ve been taught to look at prisoners a certain way, to forget about prisoners, to even have this illusion of how they’re being treated or even you know, mentioned by a prisoner before, that they do have these memos everywhere and this alleged testing even though what the memos are saying isn’t matching up with the water they see in the morning, and the water they are brushing their teeth with, and the water they’re drinking. So again it is just about how they’re treating prisoners as disposable and how that’s not going to end in the prison system because of how we live and the systems that are in play.
Joanna: Yeah and really because the prison system is a result of white supremacy and capitalism and what I mean by that is you know a system that is really been built off of the exploitation of non-white people and also working class people, poor people and so the prison system really is intended to lock up those people that do not comply with that system or who in some way are getting in the way of that system. And so we see the prison system connected also to how our communities are policed and to how our communities are exploited inside of the workplace also, right? And one thing that we have pointed out and why we see our union really supporting this work is because what’s happening to prisoners inside and the use of their labor to create profits for corporations ends up impacting workers outside too and the state. And so workers outside are also impacted by what happens in there and we are all connected in that way. We can also become disposable as people if we fall out of line for what the expectation is for us under the systems that currently exist. So that’s why we see not only this as is our struggle but really as a possibility for many of us if we are part of these marginalized communities or communities that are exploited.
Sophia: And I think thinking about Minnesota’s prison system we have one of the lowest prison populations in the country. While at the same time we have the greatest racial disparities while also all of these things are true, half of Minnesota’s prisoners are poor white folks. And so all of these things can co-exist alongside each other. In our union there is a slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” We take that really seriously and we take prison struggle and having a working class orientation as being really fundamental to the larger work that we do. I think that when we say working class it’s not just people who are working or are workers — it’s also people that are locked up, it’s also people who are on welfare, it’s also disabled people, it’s also…
Joanna: It’s homeless people, it’s women, it’s trans folks, it’s queer folks, again all those folks who don’t fit within the systems that are dominant in our society. Our main work like what Sophia said really, is to prop up the voices of those inside and make sure that the work that they are doing is really honored and also supported. In this case there are several prisoners that are organizing whether it’s trying to contact officials or even going through the legal system by suing the system but also what we have seen is increasing amount of repression of prisoners and we really think that is in part because of how organized and coordinated people have been across the county in the past years. And so, even internally within Stillwater there’s been difficulties in getting communication, whether that is getting letters from people or other forms of communication from folks, and that’s why doing this podcast, for example, is extremely important in making sure that people hear about the conditions inside and so we’d not only like to invite people to continue listening but also to find ways to share the testimonies of prisoners, if they are connected to prisoners inside, with us so that we can give space for those voices to be heard.
Joanna: We’re part of the Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, we meet on a weekly basis and you can get more information about our meetings and our work on our Facebook page.
Irina: We really are excited — we need people, right? It’s people power that makes change. So come organize with us.
Sophia: We need you.