During the Vanderburgh County Jail Blue Ribbon Committee meeting on April 2, various groups and individuals spoke out against increasing the jail's capacity and continuing to criminalize and incarcerate people in the county.
A member of Evansville Letters to Prisoners (ELTP) pointed out racial and class disparities between the members of the jail committee and those they are incarcerating. The speaker highlighted ways in which the committee members spoke about prisoners, including referring to prisoners covering fluorescent lights above their beds while they slept as "vandalism." The ELTP representative read an excerpt from a letter from a local inmate and mentioned conversations with locals about the fluorescent lights at the Vanderburgh County jail and their strategies for dimming them. "People talk about taking stickers off deodorant, taping books up to the lights, and things like that, and I think that's a sign of resilience and creativity and how strong humans are, rather than just a problem of vandalism or people not being compliant...I think it makes a lot of sense that inmates wouldn't want a fluorescent light above their bed while they are trying to sleep."
Rather than fixing "little things" in increasing the capacity of the jail, the ELTP representative said now is an opportune time "to look to abolitionist strategies." "Abolition," according to the group Critical Resistance, is "a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment."
This post is the third in a series investigating conditions in the Vanderburgh County Detention Center from the perspective of people incarcerated there. Posts are compiled here.
In early January, prisoner David Hooker of Evansville, IN, traveled under the captivity of the Indiana Department of Corrections from the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City to the Vanderburgh County Confinement Center, a trip which led to panic attacks, sleeplessness, and bouts of claustrophobia.
During the 300-mile trip, David reports cramped quarters, bouncing around against a steel interior while handcuffed without a seatbelt, and becoming dizzy and nauseous. At one point, another inmate started crying. David wrote, "I talked to him for a while to forget our physical and mental torture but after a while the pain became too unbearable to speak further. While he cried, I put my head down and begged God to ease or stop our suffering. After 4 ½ hours nonstop, it was finally over."
On April 3 at the Vanderburgh County Jail Blue Ribbon Committee meeting, Sheriff Dave Wedding said that 95 Vanderburgh County inmates were housed outside of the county's facility that day, and that he hoped to transfer 80 more by the end of the week, bringing the total to about 170 Vanderburgh County inmates housed in 9 or 10 jails throughout Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky. Each of these inmates will be transported at least twice--to and from the outside facility--but could also be transported at other times for court appearance or other reasons.
Although David Hooker is serving a sentence as a state prisoner under the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) rather than serving time as a Vanderburgh County inmate (he transferred briefly to Vanderburgh County for a court appearance), his story could give some insight into the abuse that is typical for inmates in Indiana who are transferred back and forth between facilities. Below is David Hooker's full account of his traumatic trip from a letter dated January 30, 2018.
My name is David Hooker and I was transported here in an ordinary appearing sheriff’s transport van. I was told by transport officer Deputy Riney that since trip is more than four hours there would be many stops to stretch, orientate and use restroom—esp. since I take blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetic medication which causes constant urination.
In a follow-up letter from March 28, 2018, David Hooker included this diagram of the van he and others were transported in. He explained, "At the back is a slant that prevents a prisoner from sitting up. You must stay bent forward. At every turn and stop you must brace yourself from being slammed into the walls," which are "mere inches away" from the inmates' heads.
This post is the first in a series investigating conditions in the Vanderburgh County Detention Center from the perspective of people incarcerated there. Posts will be compiled here.
In January, Vanderburgh County Detention Center inmate Jacqueline Neugebohrn wrote to a Where the River Frowns contributor about conditions in the county jail and her experience there. Jacqueline has been held in the jail for over a year--since January 11, 2017.
Her letter comes a few months after the Vanderburgh County Detention Center was cited for six violations of Indiana Code:
In November 2017, Shaka Shakur underwent a successful 12-day hunger strike at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility near Vincennes, Indiana, after which he was moved to a non-camera cell and most of his confiscated property was returned.
Starting the morning of November 3, Shaka Shakur, Cortez Wheeler, and another person who goes by Martins refused to eat and made demands of Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. According to Shakur, "Cortez's issues were addressed and resolved the next day so he started to eat," and due to medical conditions, Martins "was advised by medical that he should eat." Shaka decided to continue until his demands were met.
Recounting his demands, Shakur states, "I wanted to be placed in non-camera cell. I wanted to be moved out of the SHU where the August 31st alleged assault happened and where I was being subjected to retaliation. I wanted my trays to stop being tampered with, for incoming/outgoing mail to stop being tampered with, censored and/or disappeared." Explaining the demands regarding mail, he adds, "I just recently found out they threw away my daughter's school pics that came in the mail!"
IDOC Watch, Kite Line Radio, and other groups shared news of the strike and encouraged supporters to call in to Wabash Valley to ask about the hunger strike.
On Thursday, December 21, Evansville Letters to Prisoners (ELTP) hosted an event at Central Library where attendees read about common pathways to prison, explored and took home zines and other prisoner support materials, dropped off paperback book donations for the Vanderburgh County Detention Center, checked out library materials on mass incarceration and abolition, and listened as members of ELTP read aloud letters from prisoners. Some of the letters were written specifically to be shared at the event.
The event was part of a series developed by the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library called "A Million Voices in the River City, "which aims to ask the question, "is 'E' really for everyone?" Each month, a different group of people whose voices are often overlooked are invited to use the lobby of Central Library to share their stories.
The letters read aloud were written by Indiana prisoner, scholar, and playwright Anastazia Schmid; Indiana prisoner Shaka Shakur who recently underwent a successful hunger strike for better living conditions; Lamont Heard, a Michigan prisoner who was sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile; anarchist prisoner Sean Swain; black liberation fighter Kuwasi Balagoon; and Malcolm X.
Evansville Letters to Prisoners formed in October of 2015 as a way for people interested in supporting prisoners to work collaboratively. The group regularly holds letter writing events at which people can write to prisoners of their choosing or to the prisoners who are spotlighted that week, such as political prisoners with upcoming birthdays. Periodically, the group also holds fundraisers, movie nights, and other awareness-raising events. For updated information on the group, see facebook.com/evansvilleletterstoprisoners.
For the next five weeks, I'll be distributing food, water, medical supplies, and other necessities to people who are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and walking north through the southern Arizona desert with the hope of a better life in the U.S.
Although the U.S.-Mexico border may seem distant, border dynamics and immigration policy affect those of us in Southern Indiana, too. In Vanderburgh County, 4,800 residents are immigrants. Of those, an estimated 1,522 (31.7%) have no formal residency status, and about half of those without papers have been in the U.S. for thirteen years or more.
For immigrants (as well as their friends, family and community members), the risk for attacks, exploitation, and deportation are increasing along with fear and psychological stress that accompany these realities. In one week in February 2017, for instance, over 100 people in Indiana and Kentucky were arrested in a series of immigration raids. For those deported, getting back to Indiana and Kentucky might come with significant physical risk (including risk of death) and financial burden. Immigrants in Southern Indiana who manage to avoid raids like these might attempt to become more hidden or "well-behaved" and, in turn, more vulnerable to abuse from bosses, landlords and police. Meanwhile, the criminalization of immigration benefits private prisons by filling their cages, which increases the prisons' income from the federal government who pays the prisons to house inmates. These same prisons help to write the immigration legislation that criminalize immigration and keep the prison business lucrative.
"If a prison can take on so many variations in form (i.e. no walls, an executive chef, use of drugs and alcohol, family living with you, etc.) then what constitutes a prison? If it is the nature of the relationship of being subject to the control of another, regardless of the form of that control, then certainly a prison is the only future the state has for you in any form."
There was a benefit held Sunday, October 16th to raise money and awareness for Luke O'Donovan and the nationwide prison strike that is in its fifth week. Luke O'Donovan is a queer anarchist prisoner who just finished a two year prison sentence for defending himself against a homophobic attack in Atlanta. The night was themed around points Luke had initiated in an interview on It's Going Down Cast: his experience in prison, his banishment from Georgia as a term of probation, and his involvement in a network of communes.
The judge in Luke's case tried to punish his openness to the world by expelling him out into it. As a condition of probation Luke is only allowed in one county in Georgia. It is a county where he has no friends or connection. This condition was determined by a whim of the judge in order to further marginalize Luke's politics so that they would collapse without support. However Luke was receiving dozens of letters each week in prison, always had the highest allowable amount on his commissary, and had weekly visits from friends, family, and comrades. Luke attributes this to the interdependent lives that he and his friends and comrades have intentionally fostered for years. This life involves buying houses in the same neighborhood, opening a store together, committing to developing a rural land base, and no less marching in the streets together.
Luke's imprisonment continues to be a social relationship that tries to deny him from being drawn into the intimacy and trust that generated the courage and indignation for him to defend himself. He was first captured by the state and kept confined within walls. This did not wither the rhizomatous interconnections of his life. Now, secondly, the state pursues an opposite approach of ripping him out by the roots and transplanting him into the lonely deficiencies of what most of us have come to know as the normalcy of everyday life. However, the resilience of what is a radical alternative to prison is that our social ecologies are polycultural and heterogeneous. "We are everywhere," and everywhere is the front line of our war as we put this "everyday" of our lives in common.
You can also listen to Kite Line on WFHB Radio.
This week on Kite Line, we follow up on what’s happening nationally and internationally in regards to actions for the National Prison strike, both on the inside and outside. We talk to a supporter of Kara Wild, a US trans woman who is currently being held indefinitely in a French jail. We report on call-in requests from various prisoners who are asking for outside support, as well as hear about a “riot” in the jail near Evansville, Indiana. We read solidarity statements from Greece and Canada, and hear a bit about Henry Green, a 23 year old man in Columbus, Ohio, who was killed by the local police.
Kite Line is a radio program devoted to prison issues around the Midwest and beyond. Behind the prison walls, a message is called a kite: whispered words, a note passed hand to hand, or a request submitted to the guards for medical care. Illicit or not, sending a kite means trusting that other people will bear it farther along till it reaches its destination. On the show, we hope to pass along words across the prison walls.
In 1948 at the Bucyrus-Erie plant on the west side of Evansville the workers went on strike with the demands of higher wages, a closed shop, and increased agency in the functioning of the shop floor. The workers were going door to door in neighborhoods and discouraging scabs from working their jobs. With violence at the picket lines and support from other unions, B-E couldn’t get more than 30% of its shop running. Out of desperation, B-E tried to use prison labor to get the factory up and running, but workers with community support put a stop to it.
A banner in support of the upcoming national prison strike appeared over the Lloyd Expressway in Evansville on Monday morning.
Actions like this are currently happening all across the country to spread word of the strike as it approaches.