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Prisoners are conducting a hunger strike in Alexander County. Here's what we know.

An image of prison bars
Alex Van
Pixabay, Creative Commons

It’s always been very difficult to fully understand what goes on inside North Carolina’s prisons, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made that even more true.

That's the case right now atAlexander Correctional Institution. Numerous offenders claim they're being mistreated, leading some prisoners to hold a hunger strike.

The institution is a close custody, all men’s prison in Alexander County, located about an hour west of Winston-Salem. Aclose custody facility means offenders there present a high risk for violence based on their crimes, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS).

Four men at the facility and a few family members spoke to WUNC for this article. They allege prisoners don’t have adequate access to medical treatment and are not being allowed outside for recreational activity.

Prisoners are also worried about COVID-19. They assert they don't have cleaning supplies and that cells are not being properly cleaned.

"I wish I could take a picture of how the pod looks right now," said Cory Stanfield. He has been incarcerated at Alexander since October and spoke with WUNC on the phone. "It’s just a whole bunch of trash ... out there. [Staff] is not making any effort to clean it up."

Stanfield and other prisoners claim that when they try to file complaints, they face retaliation.

“I just told them earlier ... 'Let me get a grievance, so I can write about the dirty sheets,'" said Antwon Bowman, who's also been at Alexander since October. "We haven’t had clean linens in three weeks. [A guard] said 'Well you know what’s going to happen.' I said 'Yeah, I know if I write this grievance, y’all gonna put me [in solitary confinement].'"

According to interviews, a hunger strike started around the beginning of this month in the solitary confinement unit, but there's disagreement about how many offenders are involved.

DPS told WUNC in an email that two prisoners are on strike. Other offenders said it's many more. Prisoners in solitary confinement do not have access to phones.

Elizabeth Thomas is the executive director of theNorth Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, a non-profit law firm. She said her organization learned about the hunger strike from the family of one of the strikers.

"The family has shared that the strike is being staged due to the following: grievances are not being answered or are being delayed, sick calls are not being answered and prisoners aren’t seeing medical staff, mail is being delayed, prisoners are infrequently allowed showers, cells are not being properly cleaned and prisoners aren’t being given cleaning supplies, prisoners are being retaliated against for filing [grievances], and prisoners are not being let out of their cells for recreation," Thomas wrote in an email.

DPS denied WUNC's request for an interview.

"We will not participate in an interview," DPS spokesperson John Bull wrote in an email. "We do not wish to give positive reinforcement through publicity for this behavior or inadvertently encourage copycats."

Bull also said "there is not a coordinated, single-issue hunger strike by offenders at Alexander." Instead, he said that last week, two prisoners separately declared that they are on a hunger strike. "

Both offenders are being closely monitored by medical, mental health and security staff at the prison," Bull said.

Offenders and their families tell a different story, highlighting how difficult it is to truly understand what’s happening inside prisons.

Kristie Puckett-Williams, the manager for theCampaign For Smart Justice at the ACLU of North Carolina, said it’s hard to know how common hunger strikes are.

"How often they occur? I can’t say because they probably happen more often then what we hear about," said Puckett-Williams. "Because when a demonstration of any kind happens inside of a prison, prison officials decide to lock down that prison. That means there’s very little information going in, and very little information coming out."

From her perspective, the pandemic has only made it harder to get information, and made living conditions inside prisons worse.

"COVID has really given prison officials the cover that they needed to treat people inhumanly and to keep them in torturous conditions without fear of retribution," said Puckett-Williams. "Because they can claim that it's due to COVID [and] that this needs to happen as a safety precaution."

Ultimately, Pucket-Williams said any kind of demonstration from prisoners is meant to draw attention to the issues and conditions that they're facing.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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