Starving for a Voice

What’s in a name? Administrative Detention; Segregated Housing; Intensive Management. All of these terms – which sound institutional and not particularly nefarious—mean one thing: solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is the practice of fully isolating prisoners in minuscule cells for 22-24 hours a day, devoid of human contact and mental stimulus, for a matter of days or decades.  The unyielding conditions of isolation offer no opportunities for prisoners to engage in reality testing. The lines between external and internal, real and unreal, start to blur. The psychological consequences are devastating – tantamount to torture.

Today, a hunger strike at Menard Correctional Center in Menard, Illinois will enter its 21st day. For prisoners, stripped entirely of their autonomy, fasting is one of their only feasible forms of dissent. The vulnerability of imprisonment is heightened ten-fold when confined to total isolation, where refusal to eat becomes the only means of exercising any modicum of control.

The Menard inmates are striking to protest the use of “administrative detention” at the facility. Though Menard is not a supermax facility – where all prisoners are held in solitary 22-24 hours a day – inmates at the facility are being indefinitely held in the segregation units, limited to five hours of exercise per week, one phone call per month, no-contact visits, and no communal dining. The strikers maintain that prison officials have failed to give any justification for placing inmates in administrative detention and won’t tell them what they need to do to be released back into the general population.  This isn’t the first time that the Illinois prison system has come under fire for indiscriminate use of solitary confinement.

The now-defunct Tamms Correctional Center sits in the midst of the rolling farmland of southern Illinois. Erected in 1998, Tamms was to serve as the state’s only supermax prison, housing only individuals deemed “too dangerous” to exist in a maximum security prison.  The initial plan was to temporarily house inmates in the brutal environment for a year of “shock-treatment,” designed to increase compliancy and reduce violence. The conditions were ruthless, and purposefully so.

Tamms was built with no common areas – no mess hall, no classrooms , no yard. It is a hive of 7-by-12 foot cells, where the prisoners sat in complete isolation for 23 hours a day, leaving only to take a shower (escorted by guards, shackled) or to “exercise” in a small concrete pen, alone. Meals were shoved through a slot in the cells’ metal doors, and if they were lucky enough to be granted visitation rights with loved ones, they would be subjected to a strip-search before being chained to a stool and separated from their visitors by thick plexiglass. One ex-Tamms prisoner told the Chicago Tribune that he went for 11 years without shaking another person’s hand.

Bolstered by the tough-on-crime policies of the 90’s and a powerful prison guard union, Tamms was initially met with support. The message of the prisoners’ inhumanity was drilled into the public over and over: they were “the worst of the worst”; “the State’s most dangerous”; “monsters.”  Their torture was justified. The men who had the dubious distinction of being Tamms’ first inhabitants were supposed to leave after a year, yet many of them were still at Tamms –in complete isolation – over a decade later.

The horrors of Tamms could only be downplayed for so long. In 2008, the “Tamms 10-Year Project” was started by a group of activists and inmates’ family members. Designed to raise awareness about the abuses occuring at Tamms as well as hold the Illinois Department of Corrections and then-Governor Blagojevich responsible, the 10-Year Project was incredibly successful. Six years after it began, in January of 2013, Governor Quinn decided to close Tamms and transfer the prisoners back to maximum security prisons.  The closure was an enormous victory for a number of reasons, but the official acknowledgement of the abhorrent psychological consequences of prolonged solitary was especially significant.

When Tamms closed, its prisoners were distributed to a handful of facilities around Illinois, among them the Menard Correctional Center. Four of the hunger strikers at Menard were Tamms transfers (out of the frying pan, into the fire.) Of the 11 prisoners on strike at Menard, 4 are in Administrative Detention. The other 7 are in “segregation.”

The striking won’t stop until prisons implement alternatives to solitary confinement. The benefits – both fiscally and psychologically—of providing inmates with easy access to psychiatrists and substance abuse counselors would be enormous. All correctional officers should be trained in de-escalating psychiatric crises in prisoners. A time limit – two weeks at maximum—must be put into practice if we insist on continuing to use solitary as a punitive measure.

Solitary confinement drove the massive hunger strikes in California prisons last year, which some 30,000 inmates took part in at the onset.  Two years prior, after a handful of other fasts in California’s prisons, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez stated that being confined in isolation for longer than fifteen days constituted torture, and should be banned.

Why isn’t the US listening?

***

Below is the list of the hunger strikers’ demands. Outside support is vital for these forms of protest; if you’re interested in helping these prisoners facilitate a resolution please contact Warden Rick Harrington (618) 826-5071 or Illinois Department of Corrections Director Salvador Godinez, (217) 558-2200, ext. 2008.

  1. A hearing upon arrival and rationale for placement, as well as the written rules and regulations regarding their classification;
  2. Quarterly meaningful reviews of continued placement;
  3. Timely written responses to grievances in compliance with the departmental directives;
  4. The ability to have reasonable access to cleaning supplies for their personal cells;
  5. The common areas to be cleaned and sanitized (i.e., showers) and the vermin and rodent infestation eliminated;
  6. Adequate heat and hot water in cells and common areas;
  7. The ability to purchase basic commissary items (i.e., thermal clothing, shoes etc.), pursuant to departmental regulations;
  8. Access to individual razors and nail clippers held by departmental staff;
  9. Timely addressed medical treatment (i.e., physical, mental and dental ailments); and
  10. Adequate access to legal property boxes and the law library.”
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