Militant Journalism

Inmates declare hunger strike in Rhode Island’s maximum security prison

More than 30 cars circled Cranston, Rhode Island’s Department of Corrections’ Anthony P. Travisono Intake Service Center on August 22 for a car rally in support of prisoners currently on hunger strike in the maximum security prison. The campus holds all seven of Rhode Island’s prisons, including the juvenile and women’s facilities.

Inmates in the maximum security prison — known locally as “Max” — went on hunger strike on August 21, and asked contacts on the outside in the Behind the Walls Committee to organize a solidarity rally. The Behind the Walls Committee was formed over two decades ago by DARE — Direct Action for Rights and Equality. The committee is made up of individuals impacted by incarceration and their allies. Some have records, some have loved ones behind bars, while others simply want to be in the struggle against the prison industrial complex.

The prisoners on hunger strike are demanding:

  • 8.5 hours of recreation time per day
  • fans for each incarcerated person
  • expanded vocational programming
  • expanded access to the educational building
  • increased wages 
  • firing of Captain Walter Duffy
  • a disciplinary process that will allow incarcerated people to present evidence and call witnesses 

Recent heat wave sends prisoners to hospital, sparks strike

During the heat wave the week of August 9, prisoners in Max passed out from heat stroke because of the extreme temperatures and inadequate ventilation in the building, which is one of the oldest facilities in all of Rhode Island.

Two participants in the hunger strike who are members of the Prisoner’s Family Union spoke with Liberation News. One reported, “Ten or 15 of us went to the hospital,” and described laying on the floor facing the front of the cell to get fresh air because the heat and dust were aggravating his asthma.

Behind the Walls Committee and supporters at the Aug. 22 car protest. Photo courtesy of Behind the Walls Committee. Used with permission.

He asked a lieutenant about getting electric fans for every cell, and the lieutenant responded, “There’s no chance in hell you’re getting them fans.” The PFU member said, “Every CO’s office, every lieutenants office, every captain’s office has a fan.”

While this heat wave was a catalyst for the strike, PFU members and organizers of the protest stressed that these problems are much older than this summer’s rash of heat stroke hospitalizations. 

Fire Captain Walter Duffy!

Captain Walter Duffy is notorious for abusing his power at Max. Another member of the PFU said, “There needs to be a serious oversight hearing to review these documents,” adding, “You’ve got two, three, four hundred guys in this building saying one guy was abusing his power.”

He went on to say, “Guys used the proper channels” when filing grievances against the prison or correctional officers, but that correctional officers “always figure out a way to get around it and deny the grievance,” even going so far as to book inmates for “abusing the grievance system.”

Wages, recreational time and vocational training

The wages of incarcerated workers in Rhode Island top out at merely $3 per day for their paid jobs inside. National inflation is at 9%, and that affects the prices of goods sold in the commissary at all facilities just as much as it affects the price of groceries outside of prison.

Photo courtesy of Behind the Walls Committee. Used with permission.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, inmates have had as little as an hour of recreation or “rec” time with the majority seeing one to two hours of rec time a day and 22 to 23 hours a day in their cells. In the hour or two of rec time they have, prisoners must choose between waiting in line to make a phone call or getting a shower.

There are currently only two vocational programs offered in the maximum security prison. Rhode Island law states that the Adult Correctional Institutions should create a rehabilitative program for every inmate. One PFU member on strike told Liberation News, “How it is right now, there’s no chance” for rehabilitation or success finding work and security upon leaving the prison and re-entering society. “You just sit here in this warehouse and that’s it.” Incarceration, he said, “is not a corrective procedure, it’s a punitive [procedure].” He added, “When we come here, they should give us the tools we need to succeed.”

Response from the Rhode Island Department of Corrections

Incarcerated people in the same prison went on hunger strike in September 2021. The prison has denied that neither the 2022 strike nor the 2021 strike actually took place. The FPU members expressed that they and other members of the strike understand that the Department of Corrections will retaliate. “They’re gonna snatch us up and take us to high security [Rhode Island’s Super-Maximum Security Prison] like they did after the last hunger strike.”

Part of the protest last fall was against correctional officers taking their families on tour of the prison during CO appreciation week. PFU members said that when politicians or outside evaluators, such as the Department of Health, come to inspect conditions at the prison, they talk to the correctional officers but “they need to speak to us and not let DOC control the narrative.”

Unlivable conditions in Rhode Island’s prisons

These conditions aren’t specific to Max. The Behind the Walls Committee has been protesting deaths of incarcerated people and inadequate COVID responses in various facilities of the Adult Correctional Institutions, but conditions at Max are the most egregious. Speaking about the maximum security building committee, member Miranda Grundy said, “We get letters from people inside every week, and it was hard to ignore the number of letters we got from people in maximum security talking about mold on the mattresses, rats and leaking water.”

“MAX: Unfit for human habitation for over 45 years.” Photo courtesy of Behind the Walls Committee. Used with permission.

Behind The Walls Committee member Leonard Jefferson cited the 1977 writing of Judge Pettine that says that the “antiquated” ventilation system in the Maximum facility “lowers resistance to disease.” A member of the PFU said “the walls are clouded with dust” and “there’s rats and roaches.” The Rhode Island Department of Health visited because several inmates wrote to them about the unsanitary conditions. Another member added that “the water’s terrible in here. The water’s contaminated.” Both members agreed that they hadn’t seen Patricia Coyne Fague, the director of the Rhode Island Prisons, “since COVID hit.”

One PFU member said “you wouldn’t put a dog in them cells.”

Our readers can make phone calls to support the prisoners on hunger strike at Rhode Island’s Maximum Security Prison. Find a script for phone calls on DARE’s Instagram page here.

Warden Lynne Correy: (401) 462-2034
Director of the RIDOC Patricia Coyne-Fague: (401) 462-2611
Governor Dan McKee: (401) 222-8096

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