This Saturday morning marked the twelfth meal that Stevie Wilson had skipped. It was his fifth day in the “hole” at the maximum security State Correctional Institution at Fayette, located in a rural county about an hour southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

Described by Wilson as “a prison inside of a prison,” the hole is a restrictive housing unit—a separate part of the correctional facility where incarcerated people are often placed in solitary confinement after being written up for misconduct. The same way incarcerated people are often kept unaware of what’s happening outside prison walls, those confined to the hole are often kept from knowing what’s occurring in other sections of their own facilities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, that means they’re also denied even the meager protections that those in the general population have against the spread of the virus.

“There are things happening in the hole that I had no clue about because I was in the other part of the prison,” said Wilson in a phone interview. “I’m back here now and I see how the people in the hole are being treated worse than the general population. People in the hole have no ability to clean their cells, antibacterial soap has not been given to them, they are actually being trapped on blocks with people who are suspected of having COVID-19, they’re in quarantine cells but you’ve got them on the same block, eating off the same trays as [people who aren’t infected]. They’re upset and they’re afraid.”

Officials at SCI Fayette declined multiple requests to speak with Prism for this story.

A self-identified incarcerated penal abolitionist, Wilson has been organizing inside for three years. He has led widely attended study groups that cover topics like restorative and transformative justice. He runs Dreaming Freedom, Practicing Abolition, a blog that serves as a hub for his own writings, as well as excerpts from abolitionist and feminist texts. He’s written for prison zines on issues such as redefining public safety and he has penned articles for national publications like The Marshall Project, where he discussed how he experiences prison as a Black, queer man.

When news broke that incarcerated people at Rikers Island and Essex County Jail were hunger striking in protest of the conditions they were living under during the pandemic, Wilson openly supported them via his blog. In the past, Wilson’s advocacy has made him a target for surveillance, but since the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections does not prohibit hunger striking he did not expect any backlash for standing in solidarity with incarcerated strikers at other facilities.

Last month, Wilson emailed the text for a post in support of the hunger strikers in New York and New Jersey to an ally outside the prison who manages his blog. The blog’s primary audience consists of outside allies who hope to learn more about Wilson and stay informed about prison conditions; incarcerated people do not have access to it.

On April 1, Wilson was written up and given a misconduct report for “engaging in prohibited activity” and “abusing the email system by encouraging prohibited activity.” Wilson says that at the disciplinary hearing, he was accused of using his email to encourage other incarcerated people to strike as well, an accusation that he says is false because the primary audience for the website are outside allies. Further, the post only encouraged readers to amplify the strikers’ demands.

Wilson was ordered to the hole for 30 days and began his own hunger strike in protest of this retaliation.

“It was really amazing to me that they were that bold to write this up because legally it has no grounding,” said Wilson. “But understand that behind these walls, these staff members and these officers feel that they can do whatever they want to do to us. We are subhuman and no one cares about us—that’s their mentality and they have complete power. So they do these things quite often to people. I’ve seen people written up for more ridiculous things than this but I know this was to silence me. It was actually to silence me because I talked about COVID-19, the response of Pennsylvania, what was happening behind the walls, and they didn’t want anyone to do that because they didn’t want people to know what was happening behind these walls.”

Barriers to organizing

While there has been extensive reporting by journalists, public health experts, and advocates on the unique and significant threats that COVID-19 poses to correctional facilities, the public can only truly understand the conditions that incarcerated people are living in through the stories and advocacy of those inside, like Wilson. That story-sharing is often difficult, costly, and dangerous given the roadblocks that hinder open communication between those inside and their allies.

Prison and jail phone fees vary dramatically from region to region, with jail phone fees often being significantly higher than those in prisons, but they are almost always financial burdens for incarcerated people and those seeking to maintain contact with them. The cost of a 15-minute call can range anywhere from 50 cents to $20. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many facilities have offered more calls to those inside, such as in Pennsylvania where incarcerated people now have five free 15-minute phone calls and five free emails per week. Prior to the pandemic, neither calls nor emails were offered for free. But the news about increased access to free emails and calls has taken weeks to reach those in the hole, said Wilson, and because calls are always subject to recording and monitoring by facility staff, their utility for organizing remains limited.

Organizing inside is also hindered by lack of access to the kinds of communication and news-sharing platforms that are often most used in the free world, like social media.

“While lots of information is available online, prisoners cannot access it,” wrote Wilson in an article for The Belly, an abolitionist journal produced by and for incarcerated people. “We cannot participate in social media like those outside the walls. We need print publications to stay informed and connected to those outside. We need print publications to participate in conversations about prisons, policing, incarceration and strategies that actually produce safety and justice.”

When incarcerated people do use social media to share their conditions, often by obtaining and using contraband cell phones, the news they share can spark necessary conversations and provide incredible insight into prison conditions.

On April 3, a Facebook Live video posted by Aaron Campbell, a man incarcerated in an Ohio federal prison, went viral as he shared chilling details of how the facility was failing to both treat those who were infected by COVID-19 and protect those who were still uninfected. In the video, which ran just over 20 minutes, Campbell repeatedly said, “they’re literally leaving us in here to die.” The video quickly made its way across social platforms and heightened existing fears about how federal prisons were responding to the COVID-19 threat.

While Campbell asked for the video to be spread in hopes that it would alert the public to the conditions at his facility, his actions didn’t come without a cost. In an interview with Vice, his brother, Adrian Campbell, said that he had been placed in the “hole” as punishment just two days after posting it.

This commitment to punishing incarcerated activists and whistleblowers after speaking out about prison conditions often persists even in the face of public outcry. Last week, organizers coordinated a “phone zap” on behalf of Wilson, encouraging people from across the country to call SCI Fayette and demand that he be released from the hole. One of the organizers, who asked to be referred to as “Dean” to protect his identity, shared that the volume of calls ultimately led the facility to draft a polite, though fruitless, scripted reply. This more bureaucratic response only came after days of more troubling conversations that callers shared with facility staff.

“We started phone zaps on Tuesday afternoon, and at first there were kind of dismissals,” said Dean. “I think Tuesday there was a lot of laughing when they picked up the phone and then Wednesday it turned to some really ugly stuff, [with them] saying⁠—which is totally normal⁠—‘he’s gonna die in the hole, you’re making it worse on him,’ like threatening retaliation for the phone calls.”

Wilson said the backlash comes from a desire for the Department of Corrections to preserve a narrative that would be shattered if the public knew the truth about prison conditions both during the COVID-19 pandemic and in normal times.

“Just like they don’t want us to know what’s happening outside there, they don’t want people to know what’s happening behind here,” said Wilson. “When prisoners begin to communicate with the outside world, it’s scary to them and it feels like they’re losing control. They lose control of the narrative and they get really upset about it.”

Reaching beyond the walls

For many incarcerated organizers, the willingness to compromise their safety by speaking up about life under COVID-19 arises from their understanding of themselves as powerful agents for change. As those who are closest to the problem, they are also closest to understanding what the solutions need to look like. For outside activists interested in abolition or criminal justice reform, creating alliances with those inside is perhaps the most crucial step forward.

For Dean, that meant communicating with Wilson to learn what the most pressing needs were as the virus took hold. With that information, Dean and other organizers were able to raise money via social media that could be placed on people’s commissary books. Those funds have been used to purchase soap, sanitizer, cleaning supplies, and sealed food, as Wilson and others were concerned that guards were still preparing meals without wearing masks or gloves.

“These are people that we had worked with and knew so they’re able to buy up a bunch of different supplies, and then distribute them to the block,” said Dean. “We kind of tried to spread to as many blocks as we could to distribute this mutual aid.”

That work, he says, wouldn’t have been made possible without ongoing relationship building.

For people without immediate connections with those inside, Dean says pen pal programs through groups like Black & Pink can help facilitate those relationships. Being in conversation with people across the wall is also crucial regardless of what type of advocacy organizers are engaging in, even those who are primarily doing fundraising work.

“We don’t just like to drop the money and then disappear,” said Dean. “It’s hard because it’s work to maintain those points of contact but we really try to make ourselves available so that they have someone that they can report to if something fucked up happens, or if they really need something if they’re suddenly sick. The commissary and that material support also comes with communication, and it’s one of the really important parts of that work too. It is also kind of opening up a channel for mutual political education.”

That mutual benefit is clear as outside allies gain a deeper understanding of the conditions they’re advocating to change, and those inside reap necessary support and sustenance as they shoulder the greatest risks of retaliation.

“It’s because of the fact that I know I have people out there that love me, support me and care about me that I can stay strong,” said Wilson. “That’s the only reason why. Because if I didn’t have it, I would have folded a while ago because they try to throw so many things at me. To be able to sit in and study with people and build with other people and be able to stand up to this oppression you have to have outside support because they will try to bury you. They will definitely try to bury you and this is the time right here, I tell [people]: they tried to bury us but they didn’t know we were seeds, huh?”

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.