“I am running for them for that reason so that they have a voice,” said Kevin Cook, a former inmate and current member of Ex-incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO). “Because they just like everybody on the face of this planet who is still breathing in the person, is a soul, is a living soul and they deserve to be treated as such.“
Since Monday,, two formerly incarcerated men and community leaders, Ramiah Whiteside and Kevin Cook, have been participating in EXPO’s “Running for Their Lives” by running from Milwaukee to Madison to raise awareness about the devastation COVID-19 has had upon one of Wisconsin’s most vulnerable communities: prisoners.
Both Cook and Whiteside are members of EXPO, an organization led by those directly affected by the prison system to help those returning home from incarceration access the various resources.
Through his work over the past year, Whiteside has been in contact with several incarcerated people, working with them through some of EXPO’s democratic engagement learning programs.
But once the pandemic hit, Whiteside became acutely aware of just how much COVID-19 was devastating those he worked with.
“[Inmates] started relaying to us and expressing to us their fears and worries about basically being trapped in the system, waiting for basically their number to be called to get sick,” Whiteside said. “And from doing that, for being under the gauntlet just like them for over 20 years myself, I know what that feels like to be in a position where there’s absolutely nothing you can do but just sit there and wait for yourself to get sick. There’s nowhere for you to run. It’s just impossible to adequately socially distance yourself.
“I started thinking about some type of awareness campaign to say, ‘hey, the men and women who are returning to society need to be protected and they need to know that us out here, still care about them,’” Whiteside added. “So this project came about and I asked all my supervisors and whatnot to say, ‘well, this is what Kevin and I want to do.’ After realizing we were 100 percent serious, we got the ball rolling, and started doing logistics.”
Cook, who until only recently was incarcerated, asserted the government and the Wisconsin DOC “[does] not care” about those currently living in prisons and jails.
Until his release at the end of 2020, Cook watched as his fellow inmates including his roommate contracted COVID-19. Cook requested that he be tested in light of his roommate’s condition, but because both he and his roommate had previously tested negative, his request was denied.
During his incarceration, he and 85 out of the 150 incarcerated people tested positive for COVID-19, paralleling the state’s own prison population percentage.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC), nearly 50 percent of Wisconsin’s incarcerated population has contracted the virus and 25 have died, not including correctional staff.
“All of that could have been avoided, had they all the way back in March, just looked at the bigger picture,” Cook said.
“That was that’s the gist of why I’m running. I want for every individual who I left behind because I did 20 plus years myself, I want for them to know that, ‘yes, I was directly impacted, directly affected, and I am standing up for you, raising my voice for you’ because inside you can scream as loud as you want to but nobody hears your cries,” Cook continued. “So I am yelling, I am speaking for them.”
Both Milwaukee natives, Cook and Whiteside both expressed their frustration with Wisconsin’s prison system.
Cook said both he and Whiteside come from the 53206 ZIP code, the mostly-Black neighborhood known as one of the most heavily incarcerated neighborhoods in the US.
“We came from that same area code. And that entire area is so impoverished. That entire area is just overlooked,” he said. “And we want for the men and women who come from that area, who we grew up with, who we have known, and those who knew of us, we are letting them know that we’re concerned. We’re mainly concerned that we won’t be able to come back home.”
“We all have scarlet letters that we won’t be able to bear,” Whiteside continued. “Because we all have bad days, we all make some poor decisions. And that’s not to minimize or kind of say that we all would make some of the poor choices Kevin and I made, what we’re saying is when you make poor choices, but then you go through a redemptive process, and you paid your dues, you should be allowed access, access to either government and to your community.
Although Wisconsin does not have a death penalty, Whitesinoted that the way the virus is being handled in correctional facilities is similar to a death sentence.
“Officially, informally, at least 25 people have died that were not given a death sentence. Of those 25 people I personally know eight,” Whiteside explained. “We are literally running for their lives. So now you have some people who say, ‘well, they’re all going to get vaccinated eventually, or herd, herd immunity is going to cover it.’ Okay, people are still dying, people are still getting sick. And then one more thing, you have long term effects and impacts once you test positive for COVID.”
“People are dying unnecessarily,” he added.
The pair have been running approximately four to five hours and covering about 20 miles each day. They plan to arrive at the State Capitol early Friday followed by a press conference starting between 10 and 11:30 am.
“There seems to be a disconnect from our electives from what happens on the ground and our neighborhoods and the legislation that gets passed, historically in Madison,” Whiteside said. “It seems like they just don’t hear as loud enough from our demographics, or our neighborhoods or our old neighborhoods, they’re just not hearing or they’re not listening … We’re going to deliver our message by foot. capital that way, nothing gets lost in translation, nothing gets lost on the way being bought directly from us, no middleman.”