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Solitary Confinement Is Torture, Protesters Say In Loop Rally

By aaroncynic in News on Jul 24, 2015 8:30PM

About 100 demonstrators marched from the Thompson Center to Federal Plaza in the Loop last night to call on both the State of Illinois and President Barack Obama to end the practice of solitary confinement in United States prisons.

Chanting “momma momma can’t you see, what IDOC has done to me” and singing a Ting Ting’s inspired song about various alternative names used for solitary confinement, ("That's not my name...") protesters hoped both state lawmakers and the president would hear their message that solitary confinement amounts to torture.

“It is the law that’s breaking the law,” said Latonya Walker, whose brother is in solitary confinement at Statesville Prison, located near Joliet. Walker said that prison staff ignored a medical condition her brother had until they were forced to take him to a Chicago hospital for treatment.

“The warden kept writing off every grievance he filed. They would corner him off, talk about him and degrade him,” she said. After her brother was finally rushed to surgery, he was immediately sent back to solitary confinement the same day of his surgery.

She also said her brother reported via letter cockroaches and other insects in the food and the cell. “He lives with ants day and night, mice running in and out,” said Walker. “It is the law that’s violating the civil rights of these people. These are human beings.”

The demonstration was organized by the Uptown People’s Law Center, which recently filed a lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Corrections over the use of solitary confinement, and Black and Pink, an activist group that works to support LGBTQ prisoners.

“Punishment needs to be proportionate to the crime,” said Alan Mills, Executive Director of the UPLC. “If you have to punish somebody, fine, but don’t torture them for decades.” Many times, prisoners can end up doing long stretches in solitary confinement—think weeks, months, even years at a time—Studies show that after just 15 days in segregation, significant mental damage can occur. Inmates often receive solitary sentences for small and arbitrary infractions, such as taking an extra cookie during a meal or rolling their eyes at a guard.

According to Mills, because Illinois uses “progressive discipline,” the time prisoners spend in solitary can stack to inexcusable numbers.

“If you go in with 30 days and violate a rule, you get 60 days, then you get 90 days, then you get 100 days,” said Mills. “We visited someone in Pontiac last week who has 90 years to do in solitary. He’s spent over a decade there already and if something doesn’t change, he’s going to die there.”

Many times, inmates in segregation are put inside cells with another person, meaning that two people share a space 4.5 by 10 feet, which can become extremely dangerous. To illustrate this point, demonstrators built a full-sized mock cell.

Conditions for women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons can be even worse. Amy, a member of Black and Pink who did not give her full name, read a letter from a person in Menard prison, whose cell served as the model for the mock cell was, detailing some of these conditions:

“LGBTQ people face the fact that they sometimes don’t get to pick their cellmate, and they may get put in a cell with someone who’s bigger than them and will take advantage of them in the form of rapes, stolen food or commissary items, and the officers don’t care. At Menard we’re behind steel doors and it’s almost impossible to hear someone scream for help…officers have told inmates who’ve been in these situations to ‘fight or fuck.'"

Often, by the time prisoners are released, life-long lasting psychological damage has already happened, advocates say, and adjusting to the outside world can be extremely difficult. Brian Nelson, who works for the UPLC, spent 12 years inside Tamms supermax prison. Prior to his time in Tamms, he said, he was in a minimum security prison, and had no idea why he was sent there.

“I was out for maybe 10 minutes before someone got too close to me and I almost started losing it, because someone was in my space,” said Nelson. “I was so used to this grey box being my home, my space.” Nelson said that before Tamms, he had never taken psychotropic medication, and by the time he was out, he was on five different medications just to help him sleep.

“Where does it stop,” he asked. “What more do you want out of us? We did something wrong, we paid our debt. When does it end?”