Cleaning supplies, sanitary toenail clippers, radios, fresh air and heat.
These were among the initial demands of a group of prisoners on hunger strike at Pontiac Correctional Center. At its peak, 47 inmates were on hunger strike when the protest began Feb. 4, according to the Uptown People’s Law Center. Two days later, 25 prisoners were still not eating.
As of Wednesday, 16 days after it began, five prisoners remain on hunger strike. All of those prisoners were previously housed at Tamms Correctional Center, which was closed in January.
News about the hunger strike continues to trickle out through letters and phone calls from prisoners. Brian Nelson, prison rights coordinator at the Uptown People’s Law Center, said that since the hunger strike started, prisoners have been given blankets, though there is still no heating in their cells, and some limited cleaning supplies.
Stacy Solano, spokeswoman with the Illinois Department of Corrections, told The Chicago Reporter Wednesday that only one prisoner remained from the original group of prisoners who went on strike. The other four joined after the strike began.
She also contested the prisoner’s claims that cleaning supplies were not available at Pontiac. However, “inmates have the right to be on hunger strike, and our staff continues to meet with inmates to discuss any concerns that they have,” said Solano.
Pontiac took in more than 130 former inmates from Tamms when Gov. Pat Quinn closed the super-maximum security unit to help assuage the state’s budget crisis.
Some of the inmates went into administrative detention, the general population at Pontiac, and others into disciplinary segregation. That is for prisoners who have committed offenses while locked up. It’s the prisoners from disciplinary segregation who are waging the hunger strike.
“The prisoners on hunger strike filed numerous grievances, first to counselors and then to the warden,” said Nelson. “But their concerns were not addressed. None of the stuff they are asking for is unreasonable.”
Nelson said inmates in disciplinary segregation were also in segregation in Tamms. When Tamms was still operational, prisoner rights advocates were concerned that mentally ill inmates were placed in solitary confinement because of disciplinary issues which were related to mental illness. Confinement then exacerbated problems of behavior, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
A 2010 lawsuit found the confinement at Tamms violated prisoners’ constitutional rights, and many prisoners had been unfairly put into solitary without proper procedural hearings.
Nelson said that because of these findings, inmates from Tamms did not expect to be put into the strictest unit at Pontiac.
“They don’t understand why they are being treated like they were treated at Tamms,” he said.
Inmates in disciplinary segregation at Pontiac live in cells with plexi-glass barriers, which they say allow little ventilation and no heat. It is also continued segregation, which the prisoners argue is bad for their mental health, said Nelson.
The Tamms Ten-Point Plan, formulated in 2009, began moving prisoners to Pontiac and other facilities years before the prison was closed.
A 2011 report by the John Howard Association, a nonprofit focused on monitoring and reforming prison conditions, interviewed inmates who had been moved from Tamms as part of the governor’s program.
They had many of the same complaints in 2011 as the inmates now on hunger strike.
The report found:
Inmates who came from Tamms told John Howard Association staff and volunteers that they had received more privileges at their former prison than at Pontiac.
For example, they said they received more yard time and that Tamms was a quieter environment. Several complained there was no program to reintroduce them to the company of other people after years of solitary confinement at Tamms. Some felt they were being punished after good behavior at Tamms.
Laurie Jo Reynolds, an organizer with Tamms Year Ten, a campaign started in 2008 to push for the closure of Tamms, said it’s important that mental health issues of prisoners returning from Tamms are addressed.
“A large number of these men suffer from conditions resembling PTSD and they need transitional support,” said Reynolds. “Others have serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and require intensive mental health treatment, including individual and group therapy as well as medication.”
“But as long as these men are kept behind plexiglass shields in virtual isolation, no effective treatment is possible,” said Reynolds. "It is like returning patients with severe burns back to work in a blast furnace. In fact, the placement of men with serious mental illness in isolation, whether at Tamms, Pontiac or anywhere else, is unconscionable and must be ended in Illinois.”
The John Howard Association report also found that “like many Illinois prisons, Pontiac has a gaping hole in its medical health care staff” and inmates in Pontiac had a higher rate of psychiatric problems than inmates in other facilities.
However, the ex-Tamms prisoners no longer in solitary confinement say they are greatly relieved at being transferred.
“The men in administrative detention have reported that emerging from the concrete tomb at Tamms has been difficult, and the conditions at Pontiac are still brutal, but they are grateful to have gained access to a few of the things that define them as people,” said Reynolds. “They may look at the face and shake the hand of another person, smell the outdoors, and even taste a piece of fruit.”
Photo credit: TJC Photographic
Tags: Brian Nelson, budget crisis, Chicago Muckrakers, Chicago Reporter, constitutional rights, grievance, hunger strike, Illinois Department of Corrections, inmates, maximum security, Pontiac, Pontiac Correctional Center, prisoner, segregation, solitary confinement, Stacy Solano, super maximum security, Tamms, Tamms Correctional Center, Tamms Year Ten, torture, Uptown People's Law Center, Yana Kunichoff