LGBTQ Prison Testimonies: Dakota Rose in California

July 2020
Dakota Rose Austin
Kern Valley State Prison, California

Ms. Dakota Rose, a trans woman incarcerated in California, asks for help to stop the violence against LGBTQ people housed in the Sensitive Needs Yard, a place intended to keep them safe from homophobic and transphobic attacks. Various populations at risk of harm are placed there, not just LGBTQ people. For more information, see this resource written by currently and formerly incarcerated trans activists.

“My Cup of Tea”

To all of my incarcerated trans-sisters/brothers and non-binary identifying individuals, what’s Gucci! I am Dakota Rose, an incarcerated trans-woman, African Am. who was privileged to read my sis-in-solidarity, Fatima M. Shabazz’ submitted article regarding “transgender housing in prison.” Instinctively, I felt a sense of pride, compelled to interject my perspective and push for out (LGBTQ) advocacy, activism and overdue civil recourse.

Currently I am housed at Kern Valley State Prison, a max security level IV (180 design) SNY/NDO (sensitive needs yard/non-designated) in which a vast majority of the population are identified by CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] administration as STGs (security threat group/gang members). CDCR administrators, such as Sec. Scott Kernan in conjunction with C. Pfeiffer, K.V.S.P. warden, have knowingly condoned a perilous homophobic and transphobic culture, which has subsequently led to various hate crime acts of violence, discrimination, sexual harassment and assaults upon the LGBTQ population.

Continue reading “LGBTQ Prison Testimonies: Dakota Rose in California”

Survivors of SCI Fayette’s Toxic Water and Coal Ash Speak Out

Prison Health News is honored to share these testimonies from inside State Correctional Institution (SCI) Fayette, one of Pennsylvania’s 24 prisons. While many prisons force people to live in environmentally toxic and unsafe conditions, the case of SCI Fayette is shockingly severe. We hope these testimonies encourage everyone reading this to get involved in the fight to shut down SCI Fayette. For more info, please check out Abolitionist Law Center’s report, No Escape: Exposure to Toxic Coal Waste at SCI Fayette. To get involved in the fight to finally shut this prison down, reach out to the Human Rights Coalition at salenacoca (at) gmail (dot) com or write to Human Rights Coalition, Attention: Toxic Prisons Committee, PO Box 34580, Philadelphia, PA 19101. Continue reading “Survivors of SCI Fayette’s Toxic Water and Coal Ash Speak Out”

Louisiana Activists Launch National Coalition to Demand Controlled Evacuations of Prisons During the Pandemic

By Suzy Subways

A national coalition led by the Working Group Against COVID-19 Death Chambers is forming to fight for controlled evacuations of incarcerated people—and it needs you. 

For the past year, loved ones of incarcerated people and other activists have pressured states to release large numbers of people from prisons in order to prevent massive loss of life. But very few people have been released, and as a result of prison conditions, one in five incarcerated people have gotten COVID-19. According to the UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, at least 2,368 incarcerated people have died in the U.S. from the virus so far. 

Continue reading “Louisiana Activists Launch National Coalition to Demand Controlled Evacuations of Prisons During the Pandemic”

Aging Black Liberation Political Prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz, Bedridden with COVID-19 and Cancer, Shows Us Why PA Must #FreeEmAll

by Suzy Subways

As COVID-19 surges through the state and tears through its prisons, loved ones of incarcerated people are driving to Harrisburg today, calling for Gov. Tom Wolf to use his reprieve power to immediately release all elderly and medically vulnerable people in prison. Loved ones are also asking the Department of Corrections to require prison staff to wear face masks and be tested for COVID-19. As part of a national caravan for health and social justice, the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign worked with local anti-prison groups like the Human Rights Coalition and the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) to center the survival of people in prison on this day. The car caravan will circle the state capitol and proceed to the governor’s mansion.

Amid the horror that is the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections right now, Black liberation movement political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz may be one of the best examples of how that horror is playing out for elderly prisoners and their families. Maroon is 77 years old and has been fighting stage 4 colon cancer for over a year. After testing positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 11, Maroon was held in a gymnasium with 29 other men—and only one toilet to share between them. Meanwhile, he has had blood in his stool, and his urgent surgery for the cancer is now being denied. 

Continue reading “Aging Black Liberation Political Prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz, Bedridden with COVID-19 and Cancer, Shows Us Why PA Must #FreeEmAll”

We Keep Us Safe: Mutual Aid Across the Walls

By Olivia Pandolfi

From PHN Issue 42, Spring 2020

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world are mobilizing to demand the release of incarcerated people. The prison system poses a legitimate public health threat because it is difficult to practice social distancing while incarcerated. As a result, the virus spreads quickly, usually after being introduced by a guard or other workers.

People with loved ones in prison and who want to abolish prisons have mounted phone zapping, letter-writing, tweet storming, and other campaigns to pressure officials to decrease the population of prisons and jails. These demands to release people often center aging, immune-compromised, and other vulnerable populations, but can extend to everyone. In many cities, car caravans or “drive-ins” have been organized to disrupt traffic and show support for decarceration measures while keeping participants safely distanced from one another in their cars. In these protests, people deck out their cars with signs and slogans such as FreeThemAll4PublicHealth and #FreeOurPeople, naming local officials to demand action.

Another kind of action is the movement of money and resources. The Inside/Outside Soap Brigade and Survived and Punished NY are helping organizations around the country send soap and other essential supplies to incarcerated people, and other mutual aid networks are mobilizing in similar ways. Hundreds of bail funds in the National Bail Fund Network have posted bail for people to get out of jail, with New York City’s Emergency Release Fund focusing specifically on transgender, gender nonconforming, or intersex folks.

An online map of COVID-19 cases behind bars created by activist journalists tracks confirmed cases as well as potential cases reported by people inside. The map is on the internet at COVID19BehindBars.com. The creators of this map are also planning to print and mail a newsletter for people in prison, with information on where COVID-19 outbreaks are happening in prisons, tips on protecting yourself from COVID-19, and hotlines to call if someone is sick in your facility. To request the newsletter, or to report possible cases of COVID-19 at your facility, write to Corcione Media LLC, P.O. Box 40062, Philadelphia, PA 19106.

People are taking important action from inside of prisons and immigrant detention centers, too. By mid-April, incarcerated people in at least eight states had begun hunger strikes to demand urgent action from the facilities where they’re held for cleaner conditions, better health care, and release. An estimated 3,000 incarcerated people across the country have participated in more than 75 protests, according to Perilous Chronicle, a digital media project. The majority of the hunger strikes have been in immigration detention centers, but inmates in Cook County Jail have also been refusing meals. Incarcerated people have also participated in protests, vigils, and actions held outside facilities’ doors by holding up signs to windows, making noise in concert with honking horns and shouting protesters outside, and recording phone messages about their experiences and stories that are played over speakers at mass actions.

Due to this pressure, people have been released from prisons, jails, and detention centers all over the country. As of mid-April, in at least 16 states, county jails have reduced their populations, some by as much as 30%.

When There’s a Pandemic and Your Loved One Is in Prison

Ideas for support and advocacy during the COVID-19 crisis 

By Evelyne Kane and Suzy Subways

It’s challenging enough for loved ones of people in prison: paying for expensive phone calls, trying to advocate for your loved one’s health, keeping your head up through it all. And now we have to deal with this new virus. Here are what we hope will be some helpful ideas and suggestions, which we’ve gathered from people in prison, their loved ones on the outside, and other activists:

Coronavirus Info to Share with Your Loved One in Prison:

COVID-19 is the name for the new disease spread by the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 is very easy to spread from person to person, and transmission can happen in a number of ways, including:

  • From close contact with another person who has the virus (being within 6 feet of them)
  • Through contaminated surfaces or objects (the virus can live on many surfaces for hours or even days)
  • Through contaminated particles in the air (for instance, when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes)

Continue reading “When There’s a Pandemic and Your Loved One Is in Prison”

Transgender Housing in Prison

By Fatima Malika Shabazz

From PHN Issue 41, Winter 2020

Hello everyone: Since it’s been so long since I’ve written an article for Prison Health News, it makes sense that I introduce myself. My name is Fatima Malika Shabazz. I am a formerly incarcerated Afican American Transwoman. The last time I wrote anything for Prison Health News, it was due to a civil action I filed against the California Department of Corrections. Since that time, I have been released on parole; I have also been heavily involved in advocacy and activism surrounding either reforming or eliminating bad department of corrections policies related to the trans population.

Currently I am a part of a cohort here in California working on changing the policies regarding housing transgender inmates. Under the current policies, individuals housed in any of the 35 California prisons are done so based on their gender assigned at birth. This has proven problematic for many transgender inmates who identify either as trans-male or female regardless of their physical presentation, as well as those who present as non-binary. As a result, there have (over the years) been many incidents of violence against trans inmates, including murders by homophobic and transphobic cell mates, incidents that we believe could have been avoided had the department had policies such as California Senate Bill 132 in place.

If activists are successful in getting our vision of the bill passed, Senate Bill 132 would allow trans people to choose the type of facility (male or female) they want to be housed in based on their gender identity, as opposed to gender identified at birth. This bill (should it pass), comes at a timely moment, as there has been an increase in violence against incarcerated trans women. The violence has escalated especially since former Department of Corrections Secretary Scott Kernan negotiated away the safety of LGBTQ inmates by eliminating Sensitive Needs Yards. These were housing units in California prisons that traditionally held people who were in danger of facing violence in general population. Examples included informants (“snitches”), LGBT people, and people who were at risk of sexual assault.

The vision for this (at least from my perspective) is that trans people would be able to live in safer, more inclusive spaces that correlate more accurately to their personal gender identities. It must be noted, however, that this is not intended to be a hard and fast written in stone type policy—it is, in fact, meant to provide an option. Point of fact is that some trans women might rather be housed in men’s facilities, due to their personal dating preferences. It should also be noted that as a matter of policy, romantic relationships between inmates and/or staff are illegal, as is sex, consensual or otherwise. However, if trans women want to continue to be housed in men’s prisons as a matter of preference, they would continue to have that option, as would trans men.

The long-term goal is to ensure that trans people would know that the option exists for them to utilize at any point while serving their sentences, and secondly that a safer option is at their disposal, because it is an actionable policy. It is the desire of those working on the language of the bill that having this policy in place and ensuring that it is actionable would reduce the possibility of violence being committed against them, including the high possibility of being housed against their will with someone with a history of homophobic or transphobic violence. The bill would reduce the possibility of transgender people being murdered in prison simply for being trans.

As a trans woman, I am acutely aware of these elements of violence. I personally, however, cannot attest to what situation exists for trans men who may desire utilizing this option in the same way. It may very well be plausible that trans men would feel safer remaining in women’s facilities, which would be their prerogative. It is the concern of the cohort that no incarcerated trans person be placed in a situation that would make them feel less safe. With these concerns in mind, we are working very carefully to make sure the language of this bill reflects the concerns of all parties impacted by this bill.

Please be aware that this is still a monumental work in progress, but as we progress, I will duly keep everyone informed. And if you are considering doing something like this in your state, I’m of the opinion that you should. All trans people are entitled to live with respect and dignity, and if this will provide a modicum of that, why not pursue making it happen?

“My Heart Is Broken in Pieces”: Family Grieves Son Lost to Excessive Force from Corrections Officers

By Evelyne Kane

Online exclusive for Prison Health News

A few days before Christmas, Shaleda and Ervin Busbee sit together in their cozy and well-kept rowhouse in West Philadelphia. From the living room, a lighted Christmas tree ringed with gifts glows softly. Despite the festivity of the season, the Busbees’ spirits are heavy this year as they grieve the loss of their son, Tyrone Briggs, who was killed on November 11, 2019 while incarcerated at Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution-Mahanoy. His family and legal team allege that his death was caused by excessive use of pepper spray by Mahanoy staff.

Continue reading ““My Heart Is Broken in Pieces”: Family Grieves Son Lost to Excessive Force from Corrections Officers”

Legal Advocates Support Philadelphia Family Seeking Justice for Son Allegedly Killed by Prison Guards

By Evelyne Kane

Online exclusive for Prison Health News

On November 11, 2019, Tyrone Briggs died at the age of 29 while incarcerated at State Correctional Institution Mahanoy, a 1,000-cell, all-male, medium-security correctional facility located in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Shortly after, 13 of Mahanoy’s medical and security staff were suspended, pending the outcome of an investigation into Briggs’ death. In a press release, Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary John Wetzel promised that “whatever the outcome of this case, we are going to be as transparent as possible, and the DOC will take whatever remedial measures deemed to be necessary.” Despite this promise, additional details about the cause of Briggs’ death have been slow to follow. Reports from other individuals incarcerated at Mahanoy, including a prisonradio.org podcast from Mumia Abu-Jamal, have attributed Briggs’ death to the excessive use of oleoresin capsicum (OC), or “pepper spray.” In accounts from witnesses inside Mahanoy, it is believed that guards responded to an altercation between Briggs and another inmate by spraying the two men with OC. They subsequently tackled Briggs to the ground, held him down, and continued to OC-spray him. Briggs was heard to say, “I can’t breathe,” several times during the incident, and it is believed that these were his last words. Continue reading “Legal Advocates Support Philadelphia Family Seeking Justice for Son Allegedly Killed by Prison Guards”

“There’s People Like Myself and Others Out Here Fighting for You”

An interview with activist and longtime Prison Health News editor Teresa Sullivan

By Suzy Subways

From PHN Issue 40, Summer/Fall 2019

Teresa Sullivan, who has been a vital part of keeping Prison Health News going for the past ten years, is leaving the editorial collective. We are overwhelmed with gratitude for her wisdom and guidance over the years, and we are so excited to support her amazing work in the world moving forward. From teaching classes at Philadelphia FIGHT to her leadership role in the Positive Women’s Network, a social justice organization of women living with HI V , T eresa helps so many people grow stronger and smarter . In this interview, we asked Teresa to tell us more about her work and vision. Continue reading ““There’s People Like Myself and Others Out Here Fighting for You””