Every day, Donnie Caldwell gets out of his Franklin County Jail cell briefly to grab his food and bring it back to his bunk — right next to his toilet — to eat.

On Saturday, April 4th, while standing in line in the jail’s cafeteria and waiting for his food tray, he saw two guards standing next to each other and pointed to them to get their attention.

“Where’s your mask?” Caldwell asked one of the guards. “You’re supposed to be wearing a mask.”

The officer was taken back by the question.

“You heard me. Where’s your mask?” Caldwell asked, again.

“I’m not six feet from you,” the guard replied.

Inmates in the chow line joined in the verbal sparring.

“The policy doesn’t state that you have to be six feet from just an inmate; the policy states that you have to be six feet from everybody,” another prisoner said back to the officer. “What about the officer next to you?”

The interaction lasted for only a few minutes. But inmates at the prison said the exchange in the cafeteria was another example of corrections officers’ disregard of inmates’ concerns about the coronavirus. After weeks of frustration and complaining about the need to be more vigilant in cleaning and protecting themselves, the prisoners on the F block, a maximum-security cell block, said they felt they had only one recourse: to engage in collective action.

The jail confirmed that there was a protest; however, representatives would not answer specifics about their response or respond to inmates’ version of events. Now, questions abound after the inmates describe the jail’s draconian handling of the strike: taking away access to commissary food, locked down in cells without access to hot water or showers, and placing at least two black Muslim inmates in solitary confinement for inciting a riot. One of them was first doubled up in a cell with a violent white supremacist, who had once before threatened to take another black Muslim hostage.

Prisons and jails are notoriously opaque about their policies, even in the best of times. And now, coronavirus-mitigation efforts have narrowed access even more, barring visits with family and volunteers. For this story, PA Post, Franklin County Free Press and Rolling Stone conducted close to two-dozen witness interviews, and went through hundreds of messages, email chains, grievance filings, and text threads to piece together the events during this protest.

Not everyone inside a jail can afford a radio. In Franklin County Jail — located just north of Maryland in a rural Pennsylvania county southwest of the state capital, Harrisburg — a digital AM-FM radio costs $22.11, according to its commissary menu. That’s a month’s worth of work in the jail, for some. For others, who don’t make any money, it’s simply unrealistic.

That means news spreads through the jail’s multiple informal communications systems: Prisoners talk to each other when they’re let out of their cells; they share what they learn by yelling to their next-door neighbors through the vents that connect cells; some send “kites,” or paper notes attached to a string, that they can pass down to the cell below.

Toward the middle of March, inmates began to hear about how the coronavirus was starting to spread inside county jails. At one point, two Franklin County inmates reported flu-like symptoms, causing a panic among some prisoners. The two ended up testing negative, according to a memo circulated to inmates and the jail’s staff. But the letter did little to calm the 64 men on F block.

On March 17th, the Franklin County Jail shut its doors to everyone but its staff. The jail also put the inmates on a “modified lockdown,” under which inmates are kept in their cells for as many as 23 hours a day, cutting in half the state-law minimum of two hours per day that prisoners be allowed outside of their cells.

In its protocols, written in 2009, PrimeCare Medical Inc. — the private medical company that provides service to Franklin County’s jail and oversees more than half of the state’s other county correctional facilities — stated that in the most extreme cases, lockdowns should be used to keep an influenza virus from spreading. But facility lockdowns don’t usually last very long — a few days, at most.

During the first few weeks of lockdown, the Franklin County Jail allowed inmates from four cells — eight people — out at a time, for one or two hours a day. During that time they could call their families, take showers, and clean their cells.

Those times fluctuated, though. It wasn’t uncommon for inmates to send messages to family and friends at 4 a.m., asking if they were awake to make a call, because it was the only time they’d be out of their cells.

But the breaking point was how guards treated the prisoners. The incarcerated men described corrections officers turning off the televisions during important newscasts. Four different inmates describe how a guard threatened to become infected with the coronavirus virus so he could spread it to the inmates on F block and kill them.

“We’re helpless in here,” Anthony Bernardo, another inmate, says. “You hear these gentlemen threatening to infect us with this virus that is killing people in America, and we have no control over who comes in and who comes on the block.”

William Bechtold, the jail’s warden, would later say he was unaware of the alleged threat made by the officer and that inmates should have filed a grievance. On April 8th, a representative for the jail told PA Post that the jail was “in the process of investigating the allegations.”

But records counter the warden’s claim. A grievance filed on March 12th shows that at least one inmate complained about the threat, three weeks before Bechtold denied knowledge of the incident.

And there doesn’t appear to be an investigation open against the officer who allegedly made the threat. The Pennsylvania State Police — the main authority to oversee grievances and claims at the jail — has no investigation in its records or releases that match the incident at the jail, and the union representing the jail’s corrections officers, AFSCME Local 89, said it was unaware of any investigation into the officer or the allegations.

By the end of March, two weeks after the guard allegedly made the threat to bring the virus in, inmates started to organize and talk to one another whenever they were let out of their cells. Andre Weeks, 35, eventually wrote out a list of the inmates’ demands, such as getting clean masks, soap, hand sanitizers, and other cleaning supplies.

“High-traffic areas such as use of telephones, inmates cell doors, railings, tables, chairs, showers, and kitchen area should be sanitized several times a day,” the inmates’ letter demanded. It also asked for access to hot water, face masks, and soap to clean their cells.

There was no mention of a strike or ultimatum, but Weeks said that the only way to get the attention of the warden, or people in charge, was to do something drastic.

“We’re gonna just not eat their food,” he remembers saying to other inmates during an unofficial meeting. “And we’re gonna help each other.”

hunger strike prisoners

“It wasn’t a hunger strike,” says one inmate. “This wasn’t us grabbing the trays and throwing them on the floor. We just weren’t going to eat their food.”

Illustration by Isabel Seliger

The plan was to refuse the jail’s meals for four days, Sunday through Wednesday. Instead, inmates would solely eat commissary items, such as dried ramen noodles and other prepackaged food.

“It wasn’t a hunger strike,” Weeks says. “This wasn’t us grabbing the trays and throwing them on the floor. We just weren’t going to eat their food.”

The food in correctional facilities is notoriously awful. A handful of Franklin County Jail inmates said they normally don’t eat what the jail serves. Instead, they live off of the canned soup and other items bought at the commissary.

Even if inmates don’t want to eat the food, they’re still required to take a tray. Inmates who don’t need the food often barter or trade bread, soup, or sweets for other items. Inmates with no access to funds must eat what the jail provides.

Tyler Patterson, 24, is one of them. He often saves his scraps — some pancakes, he says, or bread — from his meals to last throughout the day. When he does that, though, he takes a risk. Hoarding food is a violation and can result in a disciplinary write up.

The men described the trays consistently being grimy and dirty. They say it was common to find paint chips, hair, and food scraps still on them.

One inmate, Rex Stoops, 49, says he and other prisoners complained to staff after learning how the coronavirus lived on surfaces. He said they asked the staff that the food-service trays and equipment be cleaned properly.

“The way they were doing the food — the cart hasn’t been cleaned in months,” he says. “It is nasty. It is so filthy.”

When the guards would come around with their food trays, the inmates planned to simply refuse them. The idea was that their refusal would prompt a high-ranking jail official to meet with the inmates.

Over the course of a week, the men who had money for commissary purchases gathered and distributed food to those inmates who relied on the jail’s meals.

By April 3rd, 17 people signed the letter. Beside their signatures, they each put the name and phone number of an emergency contact. Everyone on F block verbally agreed to the demands, inmates say.

Devon Legrand, one of the inmates who helped orchestrate the protest, sent his fiancée, Jenn Boger, a copy of the letter and the list of participants’ names.

On Saturday, April 4th — the day of the chow-line altercation — the inmates gave their letter to the guards. The next day, they stopped eating any food provided by the jail.

For three days, Boger and other family members who were used to speaking to inmates daily say they were not getting phone calls or messages.

Della Silner, a state employee, wasn’t able to reach her fiancé, who was locked up in the jail on a marijuana charge. She waited for his phone calls and texted him through the prison’s online messaging system — but nothing came back. She started to worry about his health. He had a compromised immune system, and without his medication he was vulnerable. And the way COVID-19 affected those with prior health conditions made her gut churn.”

With visitors prohibited at the jail, Borger and other family members say they had no way of knowing what was happening inside unless inmates called or sent messages on the tablets the jail now provides. They were used to hearing from them almost daily.

“My fiancé is in Franklin County Jail with your family members,” Boger wrote, passing along details of the protest. Given the silence from their loved ones, mothers, fathers, and friends in the text thread began to fear that the jail had retaliated.

The first day of the protest, Sunday, April 5th, went smoothly. The inmates refused their food trays all that day.

“They came by with trays and we just said, ‘No, we ain’t eating them,’” said Legrand.

But on Monday, after the men refused their breakfast trays, their jailers took notice. The wardens assumed the inmates were on a hunger strike, and decided to take away the commissary food they had gathered.

Anthony Bernardo was in his cell on the second floor when he saw an army of guards flood the unit. Inmates estimate that at least 32 guards — one for each cell — lined up at the steel doors. In the middle of F block, a half-dozen more were dressed in riot gear, armed with shock shields. One inmate noted they were also carrying pepper-ball guns.

“You’re gonna go on a hunger strike?” inmates say a captain yelled at the cell block. “Then you’re not going to eat.”

One by one, the guards ordered the prisoners to hand over any food bought from the commissary. An inmate described one of the guards pointing to the officers in anti-riot gear and saying that if they refused, they could meet with one of them.

Bernardo says he did as he was told. He didn’t want to test what an electrified shield felt like. And he’d been hit with a pepper-ball gun in the past. “It’s not very fun,” he says. “It’s like getting shot with a paintball gun, but when you inhale, it’s pepper dust.”

A few cells away, Jamine Williams, who says he’s been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and depression, started panicking. High-anxiety situations, he says, can lead to outbursts or blackouts. His cellmate recognized what was happening — being locked up together for 23 hours a day, he knew when Williams started to spiral — and attempted to calm him down.

“They’re not coming to hurt you, they’re just coming to take our commissary,” Williams recalls his cellmate saying to him. “Just chill out.”

And while the inmates didn’t like the orders, most stuck to their plan of maintaining a peaceful protest and handed over their food. But Vernon Ealy, a 44-year-old inmate who also acts as the Imam for the other Muslim prisoners at the jail, protested.

“This is a lawsuit!” Ealy yelled at the officers. “This is wrong! You can’t do this!”

They took him and placed him in solitary confinement for 70 days for inciting a riot, according to his disciplinary hearing form.

Ealy wrote in a letter to FC Free Press that they released him 15 days later but did not drop the misconduct charge.

According to Julia Lehman, spokeswoman for the Franklin County Commissioner’s Office, the jail initiated their protocol to stop a hunger strike, and guards in anti-riot gear were dressed in appropriate uniforms for the situation. She said that taking the commissary items was so staff could keep track of the nutritional intake for each inmate. The jail’s warden wouldn’t comment on any of the accusations made by the inmates, but said there was no use of force during the confiscation.

By Tuesday afternoon, without their commissary provisions, some of the inmates gave up the protest and began eating the jail’s food.

“But I still didn’t eat,” says Legrand, who wanted to ensure the unit’s demands were met.

hunger strike prisoners

“They’re coming to take our commissary,” one inmate told his cellmate.

Illustration by Isabel Seliger

Hours later, though, guards stood outside his cell and told him to “cuff up.”

“For what?” he asked.

“We don’t know,” Legrand recalled the guards saying. “We were just sent over here.”

He was headed to solitary confinement and double-bunked with Andrew Little, a self-proclaimed white supremacist.

In a letter to FC Free Press, Little said he threatened to hold hostage another black Muslim cellmate. It’s what got him in the hole in the first place, Little said.

“The jail knew about my gang affiliations,” Little wrote in the letter. “And they know I don’t take non-whites as cellmates.”

Legrand, a black Muslim, and feared for his life.

When the guards opened the cell door, Little stood at the front of it and squared off with the guard: “You’re not putting this ni–er terrorist in here.”

By Wednesday, a few more inmates had given up the protest, but there was a faction of prisoners who continued to refuse the jail’s food until their demands were met. Since the lockdown began, the inmates had not been allowed to make calls or take showers. They would put up sheets as a barrier between their cellmates while they “bird-bathed” in their sinks, splashing cold water on their bodies.

Meanwhile, Boger, along with Della Silner, both started to needle the warden in emails and with calls to the jail. They phoned advocacy groups and contacted local and state news outlets that picked up on the story.

On the morning of April 8th, PA Post published a story about a possible hunger strike at the prison. Soon, it made its way into local papers and websites, which then spread into the county jail.

That afternoon, the county commissioners called the warden into a meeting. The inmates would get their demands met, and they would be allowed out of their cells. (At that point, it had been three days since any of them had showered.)

By Wednesday evening, the protest was over. Inmates reported that the guards on staff from then on were wearing masks along with gloves, and the jail started to give inmates tablets to make calls more often, and provided extra cleaning supplies to clean their cells. They also got masks for themselves.

And while the protest wound down, Legrand still stayed in his one-person cell for nine days with a man who he feared would threaten his life.

“I was there, not sure if I was going to get killed in my sleep. Anything could’ve happened,” Legrand says.

The jail would not comment on why it allowed guards to place the two men in the same cell, saying inmates’ custody status is not public information.

Through Facebook Messenger, John Flannery, chairman of the county prison board, said that he didn’t believe Little was a racist. “I can almost assure you with certainty that there are no issues with the security of inmates sharing a cell that have motives in regards to racism which could cause any type of violence,” he said.

The two shared the cell without conflict. Much of that, Little said, was because they were able to find common hatred for the guards who placed them together.

“I decided to put my beliefs and views aside for a moment to hear what he had to say,” Little said. “I strongly believe they put us together in a cell that the camera cannot see.”

Legrand has now been out of the solitary cell for several weeks, and also thinks the guards put him in the cell with Little to start a fight, or worse. He described the whole experience as a “nightmare.”

But beyond what he perceived as retaliation for starting the strike, there continues to be one thing that nags Legrand — and all the other cellmates interviewed on F block, for that matter — which is that it took a protest to simply get proper cleaning supplies.

Even still, COVID-19 still got in. Last week, the jail confirmed it had one case during intake and removed the inmate from the facility. But as recent history has shown, once the virus gets in, it’s only a matter of time before the jail is overrun.

PA Post is a nonprofit newsroom covering policy and government in Pennsylvania. For more, go to PaPost.org. The Franklin County Free Press is an independent news site based in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Find it online at fcfreepresspa.com.