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PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, WIS. — Nicasio Cuevas Quiles III, a 46-year-old prisoner at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution (PDCI) two hours west of Madison, calls In These Times in October 2019 to discuss a civil rights complaint against the facility’s administrators. During the call, Cuevas Quiles rhetorically asks why prisoners are rationed toilet paper and no longer issued bars of soap, when the annual budget of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections exceeds $1 billion.
“If it’s falling on the taxpayers of this billion-dollar juggernaut called the Wisconsin DOC to maintain it running, then — ”
He’s cut off by a robot voice: “All calls other than properly placed attorney calls may be monitored and recorded.”
Cuevas Quiles doesn’t miss a beat, waits for the pre-recorded message, then continues: “ — why are we dealing with things such as two rolls of toilet paper and no bars of soap?”
The automated disclaimers repeatedly interrupt the paid call from PDCI as if to threaten, We’re listening. But Cuevas Quiles is unshaken.
He is one of 10 incarcerated co-plaintiffs who filed suit in federal court in July 2019, accusing PDCI of “continuous exposure to asbestos and asbestos-related materials, lead, lead filings, radium, gross alpha and rust particles in the drinking water and water supply, the arbitrary denial of acceptable standards of sanitary living conditions, the arbitrary denial of access to sanitary cleaning supplies to prevent the spread of disease and bacteria,” and other violations at the 70-year-old facility, according to a copy of the complaint.
PDCI, a medium-security prison, houses more than 400 adult male prisoners. “The issues here at Prairie du Chien are not unique,” Cuevas Quiles says. “I had originally pursued this case to bring to light the issues that are pretty much prevalent throughout the entire Wisconsin Department of Corrections.”
The suit also charges that plaintiffs face “the denial of proper medical care and attention to the medical issue by staff,” increasing their risk of “cancer and blindness,” and that unqualified correctional officers are handling medications, in violation of their rights. “The rendering of medical services by unqualified personnel is deliberate indifference,” the suit alleges.
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections failed to respond to multiple interview requests from In These Times.
“Currently, the co-plaintiffs and I are unrepresented by counsel,” Cuevas Quiles says — the civil rights complaint was filed with the courts directly. “That’s because not too many attorneys want to take on the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.”
One of the few sources of outside support that Cuevas Quiles and his co-plaintiffs have is the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), an international labor union for prisoners. IWOC’s local in Milwaukee connected with Cuevas Quiles in February 2019 through an email newsletter it sends to more than 3,000 prisoners across 31 facilities in Wisconsin. (Corrlinks, a for-profit company, is contracted by prisons to provide prisoners with email access, for a fee.) While Cuevas Quiles found his co-plaintiffs himself, IWOC Milwaukee has helped connect him with other supporters on the inside, as prisoners are not able to email each other.
“We’ve been using this newsletter to help connect people across institutional boundaries by collecting reports on conditions and updates at various institutions, then organizing, editorializing and sending the messages back out to the whole list,” explains Ethan Simonoff, an organizer with IWOC Milwaukee.
With the help of IWOC Milwaukee and other prisoner organizing groups, like Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing and WISDOM, Cuevas Quiles was also able to connect with local media, drawing the ire of prison administrators. Cuevas Quiles says that, following a radio story, he was forced out of his work assignment in the laundry department, and two of the three computers prisoners use to file legal documents were confiscated. He also says fellow prisoners have been forced to address hazardous conditions without proper training or equipment. IWOC Milwaukee corroborates Cuevas Quiles’ charges with similar claims by other prisoners at PDCI.
Prison administrators are “telling offenders, ‘If you don’t perform these duties, we’re going to throw you in [solitary confinement],’ ” Cuevas Quiles says.
Despite the alleged retaliation, Cuevas Quiles describes his co-plaintiffs and the general prison population as hopeful — pending amendments, he expects the civil rights complaint to move forward. IWOC Milwaukee came to their aid in September 2019 with a call-in campaign to PDCI, asking administrators to cease retaliation.
Back on the call, in the middle of describing how the plaintiffs have been building strong supportive bonds together, the robot interrupts Cuevas Quiles with, “One minute remaining.”
Undeterred: “If the minute goes up, I’ll call you right back.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist whose work has appeared in Newsweek and Vice.