Illinois Prisoners on Hunger Strike Against 'Inhumanity, Repression'

Approx. 15 Inmates enter fourth week of withholding food despite prison retaliation, beatings, threat of force-feedings
by Sarah Lazare, CommonDreams staff writer

In the cells of a segregated "High Security Unit" at a southern Illinois prison, inmates have taken the step of going without food to protest their their isolation and inhumane treatment at the hands of "corrections" authorities.

An estimated 15 people who are incarcerated at the the Menard Correctional Center are taking part in the hunger strike, which is stretching into its fourth week, amid reports of prison retaliation against the peaceful protest. This includes the beating of hunger striker Armando Velasquez, according to historian, lawyer, and life-long radical organizer Staughton Lynd, who has been actively supporting the prisoners since they contacted him seeking help.

"The conditions here are inhumane & repressive," wrote an anonymous inmate quoted in Solitary Watch, in a letter announcing the hunger strike before its January 15th start date. "So much that we are forced to make a stand as men in righteous indignation."

The strikers are being held under administrative detention in the HSU of the prison, where they are segregated from the general inmate population in conditions of "severe isolation," according to a report sent to Common Dreams by Staughton and wife Alice Lynd.

Staughton Lynd told Common Dreams that he is not sure if the inmates are being held in solitary confinement or in double cells, but said either way, the segregated conditions are "extremely burdensome." He explained, "Their cells may be 6 feet by 12 feet. The so-called bed is usually a slab of concrete with a thin mattress. You have to imagine men cooped up in those conditions for 23 or 24 hours a day."

Inmates have complained of abusive conditions, including filthy, rodent-infested cells, cold temperatures, inadequate blankets, lack of hot water, and poor access to mental health care. Some of those being held in HSU were transferred from the notoriously inhumane super-max Tamms prison in Illinois that was shuttered last year.

Inmates face long-term segregation in HSU without explanation. "Prisoners who were transferred [to HSU] without so much as a ticket are being forced to complete a nine month three phase program (originally Tamms’ stepdown program) to earn back privileges they did nothing to lose," reads a report from the Lynds, which was emailed to Common Dreams. No one has been released for nine months, and no reason for the continued confinement has been provided, according to the report.

Inmates are demanding due process and a halt to abusive conditions.

"We are all staying on hunger strike until something is done about our conditions," an anonymous inmate is quoted as saying in a report compiled by the Lynds dated January 25th.

Staughton Lynd told Common Dreams that the striking inmates, who have called for support from the outside, have already been met with solidarity protests. "On January 27th, these guys heard some noise, and they are able to open their windows and look outside," said Lynd. "They saw a couple dozen people with signs saying 'we support the hunger strike.' The guys inside started shouting their own slogans."

"On Wednesday, a couple dozen people began a hunger strike in support of what's going on in Menard," he continued. "These things are very important in keeping up moral of people going without food."

The striking inmates say they have already won some gains, including increased cleaning of cells and more access to mental health care. Yet, authorities still have not provided explanations for why inmates are being held in HSU. Furthermore, Staughton Lynd said authorities have threatened strikers with force-feedings — a practice that was employed against hunger striking inmates in California and Guantanamo Bay, and has been slammed as "torture" by United Nations officials. Inmates report a host of other retaliatory actions, including threats, intimidation, and the storming of cells. Staughton Lynd says he has heard several reports of "racism against African American and Hispanic prisoners."

And the beating of Velasquez looms large. “Upon bringing him back to his cell, they slammed him face first into the door and yanked his arms up behind his head," said an anonymous inmate quoted in the Lynds' January 25th report. "Then they threw him in his cell, stripped out of all property and removed the cuffs. Everyone on the wing began hollering and banging because... Armando was in desperate need of medical attention.”

Julie from the Menard Correctional Center Warden's office, who declined to provide a last name, refused to answer questions from Common Dreams about allegations of mistreatment and abuse, but she did acknowledge that a hunger strike was taking place.

Recent years have seen waves of protests in U.S. prisons, including a series of hunger strikes in California prisons in 2011 and 2013 in which tens of thousands of inmates withheld food to protest solitary confinement.

"What we are seeing is continued prisoner resistance to use of solitary confinement and use of torture inside prisons, in protest of their egregious conditions," said Isaac Ontiveros, organizer with prison abolition organization Critical Resistance and the California Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, in an interview with Common Dreams. "We are also seeing a high level of prison organizing. It is a sign of the times and the egregious violence state and federal prison systems are using. It's a sign of what prisoners are willing to do to change their conditions. It's a call for us to take action."

"Over 80,000 prisoners in the United States' world-leading system of mass incarceration are held in solitary confinement — conditions that amount to torture under international law," said Gregory Koger, a former prisoner who spent many years in solitary confinement and now organizes with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, in an interview with Common Dreams. "No society should permit these practices of torture and systematic dehumanization. We must support the courageous hunger strikers in Menard and ensure that they are treated humanely and face no retaliation."

The Menard inmates on strike are asking supporters on the outside to contact prison authorities and urge them to meet the demands of the peaceful protests.

"Our conditions are inextricably linked to the social mobilization across the nation against the injustice of mass incarceration," writes the anonymous inmate quoted previously in Solitary Watch. He added, "Public awareness is our only shield from unjust abuse of authority, which is why we ask for your support of our peaceful protest against our conditions of confinement."

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Prison Hunger Strike Escalates As Men Refuse Liquids

'Lives on the Line': Prison Hunger Strike Escalates As Men Refuse Liquids

The men say they are protesting detention in solitary confinement with no due process

- Sarah Lazare, CommonDreams staff writer

Men held in solitary confinement at the Menard Correctional Center have declared a liquids strike, in addition to a nearly four-week-old hunger strike, escalating their resistance against open-ended isolation with the few means of protest they have left.

"It is an increasingly dire situation," said Staughton Lynd, who has been supporting the incarcerated men along with his wife Alice, both of whom are lawyers and long-time political activists. "Alice and I are really beside ourselves worrying whether someone has to die in order to make something happen in southern Illinois."

Tom Shaer, Illinois Department of Corrections Director of Communications, confirmed to Common Dreams that a no-liquid strike was declared on Friday by what he believes to be five men. The Lynds say the number of liquid and food strikers could be higher, and the numbers of those who are fasting but have not declared a strike even greater.

The strikers are being held under administrative detention in a high security area of the prison, where they have been placed in solitary confinement with no explanation or due process, said Brian Nelson, prisoner rights coordinator for the Uptown People's Law Center.

The men are putting their lives on the line for "moderate" demands, says Staughton Lynd. "They have said that if the administration will sit down with them one by one and explain to each person why he is in administrative detention, how long he can expect to be there, what he needs to do to get out, and how his privileges will increase as he nears end of time in administrative detention. Those don't seem like very forbidding demands."

"You're putting your life on the line after three days. They are sacrificing self and health to make a statement, to say something is very wrong," said Nelson, who was formerly incarcerated at the now shuttered super-max Tamms prison in Illinois. "In that situation there aren't many ways you can speak out against injustices. They have to go to the extreme and do a hunger strike."

Shaer denied that prisoners are being kept in the dark about the reasons for their conditions of confinement. Yet, Alice Lynd told Common Dreams she has personally seen numerous formal grievances that verify the men's claims.

"The U.S. Supreme Court says that before you can put someone in super-max, you have to give a hearing, written warnings, and reasons why they are being put in super-max," she said. "Whether the prison calls it high security with capital or lower case letters, the men want the due process that is their right."

The hunger strikers reported abusive conditions, including cold temperatures, rodent-infestations, filthy cells, inadequate blankets, no hot water, and poor access to health care, in numerous letters to the Lynds. The strikers also report retaliation from prison authorities, including intimidation and the storming of cells.

This includes reports of a brutal beating of hunger striker Armando Velasquez, which included 'slamming his face into the door,' as previously reported by Common Dreams.

While Shaer denied that Valasquez was hospitalized for his injuries, he did acknowledge that "there was an incident of significant physical contact between the inmate and the correctional officer. The officer was not only sent home but locked out of the prison and remains locked out of the prison."

A document sent to Common Dreams by Shaer, citing an anonymous "veteran medical professional with many years in prison health care," states that, while "most" men participating in the hunger strike are allegedly refusing to provide urine samples or be weighed, "The weigh-ins we do have showed an average weight loss of 4.3 lbs per week... One inmate did lose 13.8 lbs over two weeks." Yet, the document sought to downplay participation in the strike, with the "veteran medical professional" quoted as claiming that loss of 13.8 pounds in two weeks is "still not consistent with malnourishment, and he displayed no such symptoms."

Prisoners are concerned about force-feedings, say the Lynds. Shaer said, "We are not force-feeding and have no plans to force feed. But we will do it if it is medically necessary."

Force-feeding has been slammed as torture and a violation of international law by the United Nations human rights office.

While their hunger strike has so far brought small improvements, including increased cleaning of cells and once-a-week rounds of mental health staff, the men still remain completely in the dark about their fate, say the Lynds.

According to Nelson, who formerly spent time in solitary confinement, not knowing when one's isolation will end is often the hardest part. "They are in a state of limbo without understanding of how long this will go on and why they are there and how they can get out," he told Common Dreams. "They just want to know is there hope at the end of this tunnel or is this who I am forever. That is all these men are asking for. Is there hope for me ever holding a human being again, seeing my mom, shaking hands with another human being?"

The men, who have already been met with solidarity protests and even a solidarity fast, are calling for support on the outside. "Public awareness is our only shield from unjust abuse of authority, which is why we ask for your support of our peaceful protest against our conditions of confinement," wrote an anonymous incarcerated man upon announcing the hunger strike. The men's support team is urging people on the outside to call prison authorities and demand they meet the men's demands.



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