Families, friends, and former inmates traveled hours, from North Carolina to Tennessee, to demand better conditions for the women inside Federal Prison Camp (FPC) Alderson.
The protesters set up on the Monroe County side of downtown Alderson with signs and a willingness to speak out on Wednesday, January 5.
Anita Remme, a protestor from Tennesse who’s daughter is incarcerated at PFC Alderson, explained the protesters’ and inmates’ concerns.
“[If inmates are exposed to COVID-19, staff does] put them in different wards, but there’s so many people that are sick that everyone’s exposed,” said Remme. “They’re just not getting proper health care with commissary clothes, they’re not getting feminine napkins and things that they need. … They’re not getting their meals, they’re not getting the laundry. They’re just not getting the basic needs that they need.”
When The West Virginia Daily News arrived on scene, six protesters remained. In 30 minutes, four or five vehicles stopped to express support for their cause, approximately half of the total vehicles to pass through downtown. Remme pointed to a social media page whose goal is to be “where families and friends of people in Camp Alderson can talk and catch up on how everyone is doing while away from their family.”
“There’s been a lot of families that have commented on there, but these women are from everywhere,” Remme said. “They’re federal inmates. Several of them have been from New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and they can’t come down to help support this. So they’re here in spirit.”
In the spirit of their community, the six protestors stood in freezing downtown Alderson to ask for help for the women with no where else to go.
“We want to bring awareness,” Remme said. “We don’t want to cause trouble. We’re not here to cause any issues. We just want people to know, so that hopefully things will get corrected up there, and they’ll get the care that they deserve. … They’re prisoners, but they’re low level prisoners. There’s not fences around it there. They could walk off. … It shouldn’t be a death sentence, because you’re in there.”
|The protestors, each having driven several hours to get to downtown Alderson on Wednesday, January 5.|
According to Alderson Mayor Travis Copenhaver, the U.S. Marshals, Alderson police, and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department heard about the protest before it took place. As a result, officers were stationed in town during the protest.
As of the day of the protest, the bureau of Prisons reported 72 inmates and three staff members were positive COVID-19 cases. Remme said her daughter is one of these cases.
“My daughter’s on oxygen,” said Remme. “If they ever take them to the hospital, they give them the bare necessities and send them back. They’re not getting their commissary, they have to buy their own Tylenol … to get over it. … It’s very scary, because they don’t have any way to really to fight it. They’re not getting the needs that they need to find it, the medical attention. It’s not only with COVID, it’s, it’s all of their medical attention. There’s people up there with abscessed teeth that aren’t getting dental care. There’s one lady up there that’s on insulin, she’s a diabetic, and they’re out of syringes to give her medicine. Things like that are life threatening. It’s the whole health system – even though they’re incarcerated, they have rights and should be treated humanely.”
Patricia Haynes, a protestor from West Virginia, laid her mother’s death at the feet of FPC Alderson.
“My mom was about gone because of them,” said Haynes. “She got COVID and they took her back to the hospital after she got COVID. Then they took her back to prison after she got diagnosed with pneumonia. I got hold of a reporter, [that] got her oxygen. … They wouldn’t let me speak to the doctor at all.”
According to Haynes, this isn’t her first experience with her mother and COVID. She explained her mother has contracted COVID-19 twice, with extreme symptoms both times, because she was unable to be vaccinated.
“She got COVID a year ago,” Haynes explained. “She filed to be released [to home confinement] then, the warden turned her down. The first time, they put her in a hospital and she stayed there two days. She died then, but they brought her back. … The reason she did not have her shot is because she’s allergic to … penicillin, she’s allergic to flu shots, and that’s what she thought that was, she was scared to take it.”
Velma Bowens of North Carolina stated she contracted COVID while in a halfway house after being released. Although her experience with COVID is not the same as the inmates with family members at the protest, Bowens highlighted what the disease can do to a recovered person’s body.
“I ended up with COVID pneumonia,” Bowens said. “A lot of times when you end up getting sick like that, you’re damaged. My body is not the same. … I know a lot of people who died from COVID. But we will never know because they didn’t allow her to be out. We will never know if she would have survived if she had been treated the right way.”
The protesters cited a recent Forbes article titled “The Women’s Federal Prison Camp At Alderson In Middle Of COVID-19 Outbreak” and a recently filed lawsuit against the prison in federal court.
“They’re not feeding them properly to get over the COVID,” Remme said. “They’re not getting any of the care they need. There’s people that are passing out that are sick, can’t get out of bed, and they don’t want to get medical care. If they do, they run them up [to the hospital] and then just bring them back and let them lay there.”
Remme also expressed concern with the commissary, where the incarcerated women can purchase things inside FPC Alderson.
“Commissary is closed because they don’t have the girls to run the commissary,” Remme said. “All of the prison pretty much is run by the inmates, because they’re low security and they do [the] jobs, whether it’s laundry, cleaning, the showers, commentary, cooking, or whatever. They’re all pretty much on lock-down because either they’re sick or they’ve been exposed. … They’re not getting their commissary, they have to buy their own Tylenol … to get over it.”
In addition, the 2019 criminal conviction of former FPC Alderson Captain Jerrod Grimes for sexually assaulting multiple women in his custody was pointed to as a recent example of things happening to the inmates under the staff’s watch. According to Forbes, four investigations into sexual incidents at Alderson have taken place in the last 12 months, with two “unsubstantiated claims of sexual abuse” and two “cases currently pending review.”
At the end of the Forbes article, Copenhaver was referenced as a local official that might be able to help the women inside the prison get relief. When asked for comment, Copenhaver noted that he did not have any power to influence what happens inside, saying “the mayor, nor the governor, nor any local official, has any jurisdiction over the Federal Bureau of Prisons.”
Bowens emphasized this same point, saying “the people we have to get in touch with for these prisons are not state or local. It’s got to be a congressman or congresswoman or senators. The [representatives] for up here, where it is, and the representatives in our districts.”
In Copenhaver’s assessment, FPC Alderson faces a similar problem to the rest of the world at this moment.
“That controlled population has the same problem we have on the outside,” Copenhaver said. “People don’t realize how bad it is. I’m sick of being told ‘you all overreacted’ or ‘it’s a fake virus.’ The truth of the matter right now is that our hospitals are taxed to the hilt. Two weeks from now, when the holiday strain hits from when everybody was together for New Years and Christmas, [it won’t be] good. [There are] young people, my age and younger, who’ve died as a result of COVID.”
Bowens, while not specifically addressing Copenhaver’s statement, disagreed with this perspective.
“They aren’t having any visits,” Bowens said. “The only way COVID is getting in there is from the staff and from the people they keep bringing to prison. They are supposed to be putting them [in] quarantine for a while, but this is what they do. … they bring them in and they have been quarantined for 14 days, but then they bring in some more [new inmates into the quarantine]. People have been in quarantine for over a month, two months, because they keep bringing people in on top of them, on top of them. It’s taking forever for them to get out.”
Copenhaver also noted he had previously spoken with Warden Gretchen Rylp on conditions inside shortly after she took the position.
“I have faith in the Bureau of Prisons and I have faith in the staff at FPC Alderson,” Copenhaver said. “The warden and I have talked several times about COVID. I’ve asked her multiple times, even before [the protest] ‘what are you guys doing? … FPC is an open dorm. The ranges are open. The girls aren’t in separate rooms. You’ve got four bunks in some places. It’s an open cinder-block pod, so what they have to work with, they’ve done, honest to God, the best they could. … I believe the warden, and I’ve asked other staff members that I truly have no doubt that they would not lie to me.”
Bowens, however, pointed to two different solutions.
“First and foremost, by the time you get to a camp, you shouldn’t be in prison anymore,” Bowens said. “… Let these people go home on home confinement. Stop bringing people into prison for nonviolent offenses. … Secondly, I don’t think any prison guard should be a prison guard without the proper education. You should not be 18 years old, coming out of high school, and working at a prison without the proper type of training. … They don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to de-escalate anything.”
Protesters emphasized their need for more communication from Warden Rylp and the staff of the prison about conditions or what their friends or family need inside.
“Several people have tried to get a hold of the warden, find out what’s going on, what their plan is, and how they’re taking care of it,” Remme said. “They won’t talk. Why won’t they answer questions, talk, and tell us what’s going on in there and why these needs aren’t being met? … I know they keep talking about [how] they’re out of money for their budget. … I would hate to think that it’s intentional. I know they’ve had changeovers of wardens and different things because they’ve had a history of issues up there. … I don’t know, but my thought is [that] this is a federal prison. Right? Our federal government should have the needs met of their inmates, just the basic needs.”