On Sept. 9, excited party-goers mingled inside the CIC Providence Building at a private event hosted by Providence Mayor Brett Smiley, ringing in the start of the City’s annual art festival. Then the coffins arrived.
Over 60 individuals marched to the building, carrying seven wooden coffins and demanding that the state stand accountable for what the protestors asserted to be unlivable conditions in Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institutions.
Brandon Robinson, community organizer for STOP Torture RI Coalition, said the goal of the protest was to get the attention of Gov. Dan McKee and demand both internal and external investigations into the deaths of seven individuals at the ACI this year. McKee was not in attendance at the event.
According to Olivia Darocha, press secretary for the governor, McKee and his senior policy advisor have met with a “group of advocates” regarding concerns around the ACI. “Our policy team is looking into the issues raised and have plans to circle back with the individuals in that meeting,” Darocha wrote in an email to The Herald.
Smiley did not answer repeated asks from protestors of whether he would support an external investigation into the seven deaths, but said that “any death at the ACI deserves to be investigated.”
The seven individuals who died at ACI this year include 64-year-old Carol Pona, who died of liver cancer following a three-month detention period for allegedly violating her probation; Derek Ashworth, who died Aug. 2; and 27-year-old Brian Rodenas, who died in solitary confinement on May 22.
Robinson alleged professional negligence or malpractice was involved in many of the cases.
He claimed that Ashworth was denied medicine despite correctional officers knowing he was seizure-prone, and added that Ashworth was placed in a top bunk despite being medically required to be on a bottom bunk. Andira Alves, an organizer for the Party for Socialism and Liberation, echoed the claim that Ashworth was denied medication.
“He had a seizure in the middle of the night and fell off his bunk onto the floor, and his roommate (along with other incarcerated individuals) kicked the door for 20 minutes to wake the (correctional officer) up,” Robinson said. “When the (correctional officer) finally got the door open, he did not perform life-saving measures.”
In Rodenas’s case, Robinson alleged that Rodenas had told correctional officers he couldn’t take solitary confinement any longer and pleaded with them for help. Robinson claimed these pleas were ignored. The National Commission of Correctional Health Care recommends that “non-acutely suicidal inmates are monitored by facility staff at unpredictable intervals with no more than 15 minutes between checks.”
Robinson said officers failed to follow necessary protocol, leading to Rodenas’s suicide.
In an email to The Herald, J.R. Ventura, chief of information and public relations officer for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, wrote that “all deaths that occur inside our facilities are investigated internally by our Special Investigations Unit as well as externally by the R.I. State Police.”
The Rhode Island State Police is independent of RIDOC, instead falling under the jurisdiction of the state’s Department of Public Safety.
RIDOC is unable to comment on specific cases under investigation, Ventura added.
According to Robinson, the protest was meant to bring members of the government and community face-to-face with the reality of the deaths in Rhode Island’s prisons. “We wanted to send them a clear visual message with seven clear caskets,” Robinson said. “That’s seven bodies, seven human beings.”
The number of deaths this year is not atypical. From 2017 through 2022, there have been an average of just over five deaths per year in the ACI, according to Ventura.
But Robinson said ACI conditions weren’t always so drastic. Since 1972, Rhode Island has had a set of rules known as the “Morris Rules” which govern how prisons may discipline people who are incarcerated. These rules include provisions about the use of solitary confinement, which the Morris Rules originally limited to 30 days.
But in 2005, the Department of Corrections changed the Morris Rules, allowing people who are incarcerated to be kept in solitary confinement for up to a year.
Robinson, who spent 15 years in the ACI and 90 days in isolation, said that the extended solitary confinement would cause people to hallucinate and engage in behaviors that pointed towards a decline in their mental well-being.
According to Ventura, individuals who exhibit self-isolation behaviors receive a clinical evaluation to determine if treatment is needed and what treatment is most appropriate.
“None of this happens in a vacuum,” Alves said, pointing to a social culture that permits conditions in prisons that would be “totally unacceptable” in workplaces, schools or neighborhoods.
Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, said the ACLU has been involved for decades in dealing with conditions at ACI facilities, including a major class-action suit originating in the 1970s that lasted over three decades. The suit challenged the physical conditions at the ACI and the policies in place at the facilities.
Steven Brown added that the lawsuit led to improvements in ACI conditions, but there is still work to be done. The ACLU remains highly involved in ongoing litigation attempting to improve the use of solitary confinement in Rhode Island prisons and recently saw a preliminary victory: On July 31st, amendments were made to the state solitary confinement policies that restored the prior 30-day limit.
Nonetheless, activists say that government officials have been continuously unwilling to discuss prison reforms.
According to Robinson, RIDOC has historically been unwilling to meet with STOP Torture R.I. to talk about their demands for solitary confinement reforms. But Interim RIDOC Director Wayne Salisbury recently met with the coalition, and Robinson is hopeful that further compromises can be reached.
Yael is a senior staff writer covering city and state politics. She is junior, and hails from the Bay Area.