CRANSTON — Supporters and loved ones of people serving time at the Adult Correctional Institutions rallied Friday in protest of what they describe as toxic and torturous conditions and lockdowns amid the COVID pandemic that amount to 23-plus hours a day behind bars.
Organized by Direct Action for Rights and Equality’s Behind the Walls Committee, the Prisoners Family Union and Black and Pink Providence, the protesters called for increased recreation time outside cells, resumed access to educational programs and good time, the installation of more phones, and renovations and improvements to the facilities, in addition to increased medical care and personal protective gear against COVID-19.
COVID cases have spiked at the ACI over the last several weeks, in keeping with spread throughout the greater community.
As of Thursday, there were 199 active COVID infections among the people incarcerated at the ACI, and 36 active cases among the staff working within the prisons, according to the Department of Corrections.
The coalition of advocates demonstrated against what they called the “inhumane and hazardous” conditions with a car rally on the ACI campus.
The protestors drew on accounts from inside the maximum-security unit provided by Zackary Alvarado.
“[The] cells are in deplorable conditions. Caked-on rust stains the walls, most cells have mold growing on the ceiling and in the corners of the walls. There’s plumbing issues with the toilets and it constantly stinks 24/7. The DOC was supposed to renovate these cells years ago after inmates were complaining, however, all they do is paint over the stains,” Alvarado, 26, wrote.
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Advocates cited a 1977 ruling, in which U.S. District Court Judge Raymond J. Pettine declared the Adult Correctional Institutions “unfit for human habitation” and ordered the state to correct “shocking” inadequacies.
The Department of Corrections acknowledged through its spokesman that maintenance of a facility that is 140 years old, such as maximum security, which is in operation every day, year-round, presents a challenge.
“The RIDOC has met that challenge, and that is why our facilities are among the cleanest and safest in the country, and that includes maximum security. We take very seriously our obligation to provide those in our custody with safe and healthy living conditions. Any claim to the contrary is simply not true,” JR Ventura said in an email.
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He continued: “While we believe that every death is one too many, the results of our COVID-19 health safety protocols clearly prove our sanitation procedures work, as we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the country during this pandemic: two correctional officers and two inmates total. We respect everyone’s constitutional right to peacefully assemble and air their grievances, but the facts speak for themselves.”
According to DARE, a nonprofit organization that organizes people affected by the prison system, similarly unsanitary conditions have been reported at the Intake Service Center and in the medium-security unit. The complaints include toxic mold in the cells and mattresses, sewage dripping from ceilings, including in the dining area, and inadequate ventilation. Power outages and loss of heat at the intake center and in medium security were reported over the past month as temperatures dipped into the single digits and teens, the group said.
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Other people behind bars also report they are regularly experiencing racist abuse by corrections officers and being placed in solitary confinement for weeks on end as punishment for reporting grievances or showing any resistance to abuse, the group said.
Richard Ferruccio, president of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, said that any lockdowns or restrictions were due to the pandemic and staff shortages. In the two weeks following Dec. 28, 499 corrections officers were frozen in, meaning they were forced to work another shift.
“They were told ‘you can’t go home,'” Ferruccio said.
“The corrections officers have gone above and beyond to meet the needs of the inmates. Shame on them,” he said of the complaints.
Still, the protesters stood by their complaints, arguing that the COVID surge that swept through the prison in late 2020 was due to officer “misconduct and longer term issues of neglect in the building, including a non-existent ventilation system.”
“They closed down a school in Warren for a little bit of mold. Incarcerated people are living with this every day, 24/7. They don’t give a damn about incarcerated people’s lives,” organizer Juan Turbidez said in a statement.