Out of Control: Chapter 22–The Road to Hell
(or, Paved with Good Intentions) 1993
Racist Prisons We Say No
The Illinois Task Force Has Got To Go!
For most of 1993 members of the Marion Committee fought against the construction of an Illinois control unit prison referred to as a “Supermax” by the media. Mariel and Erica, as well as a number of newer CEML members—Joey, Seth, and Leila—threw themselves into the work. Several were Oberlin College students who joined the Committee upon graduation from that Ohio school. Our flyer “Illinois Supermax—Not A Solution” (2 page PDF) asked, “Isn’t it time to fund human needs, not prison?”
The Illinois Task Force on Crime and Corrections was created in February of 1992 ostensibly to develop “creative, long range solutions to the problems of prison overcrowding.” Illinois prisons, designed to hold 20,000 prisoners, by 1992 housed 31,500, with predictions of 40,000 by 1996. One of the primary tasks was reportedly to “study alternatives to incarceration that offer cost-effective means of protecting public safety and penalizing offenders.” The Task Force reported that “building prisons is not a cost-effective solution to the overcrowding problem.” Ah, yes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
But were there really even good intentions? The Task Force consisted primarily of white males from law enforcement backgrounds. It seemed to us they served merely as a rubber stamp for whatever the governor wanted. Although the meetings were open to spectators, speakers had to be invited by Task Force members. All the proposals were drafted by the chair, Judge Anton Valukas, with the help of the governor’s aide and the director of the Department of Corrections (both non-voting members).
The true nature of the Task Force was most obvious with regard to a control unit prison. The members claimed they had no knowledge about the history of human rights violations and the repressive function of control units, and they did not bother to educate themselves. When we learned the Task Force was considering a control unit prison, we requested to speak to the Task Force and present evidence regarding the danger and harm of the nature and function of such prisons. The Task Force refused to allow us the opportunity or to open up their process to receive information in opposition. Nonetheless, we provided them with a plethora of information. One packet (19 page PDF) included: an “op-ed” piece by Nat Hentoff on the evils of control unit prisons; the first chapter from Jonathan Kozol’s award-winning book, Savage Inequalities, about poverty and life in East St Louis, the virtually all-Black city where the Task Force was planning to turn a school into a prison; and the Fall, 1992 issue of the newsletter of the ACLU National Prison Project, an issue devoted to the horrors of control unit prisons. They chose to ignore it all. In fact, Valukas refused to have any open discussion or debate on the issue of a supermax, and he would not allow the few Task Force members opposed to the control unit to register or document their opposition.
Denied real participation in the process, we tried to confront them in the media. In January, the All Chicago City News (1 page PDF) reported:
The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML) charges that in addition to being ineffective in modifying the behavior of so called troublesome prisoners, Super-Max prisons generally degrade prisoners and violate their constitutional rights.
A Super-Max would be an expensive remedy for crime for Illinois residents. The CEML says that although the Governor’s Task Force estimates the cost of such an institute at $50 million dollars, the CEML places the cost closer to $100 million. This includes the cost of litigation, which Erica Thompson of CEML says is guaranteed to ensue. Ms. Thompson also says that not enough attention is being paid to alternative measures.
Not surprisingly, the Task Force recommended $60 million for the building of an Illinois supermax. We then took our message to the streets and held a protest outside the Task Force’s meeting and distributed our formal response to the Task Force’s recommendations. We argued, using data from past such efforts, that the building of a control unit and additional prison cells would not decrease crime in the public or prison population. Such construction would only serve to create human rights abuses, primarily against people of color, and expend precious resources better spent on schools and social programs throughout the state that would actually prevent crime.
The mass media supported the Task Force’s budgeted $60 million for the supermax. The March 29th Chicago Sun Times (1 page PDF) ran an editorial in support of the funding request.
They did allow a few dissenting voices in their pages. Under the headline “Maybe We Should Bar Failed Prison Policies” (1 page PDF), they printed a letter by Michael Mahoney of the John Howard Association and one by me, which said, in part:
The State of Illinois can’t afford to help pay the education of Chicago’s youth, but is considering throwing the $60 million into a torture chamber that has not proved effective in making our streets any safer. In fact, many prisoners have testified that these hellholes only engender more rage, anger and bitterness. What will these people be like when they are released back into society? Shouldn’t there be a massive public debate on the merits of such a product, both because of the enormous costs as well as the moral and political implications? (Chicago Sun Times, April 8, 1993, p. 34)
A week later the Sun-Times printed a commentary by someone named James Gierach of Oak Lawn. He argued that prison construction does not deter violent crime, and that longer sentences have only imposed staggering costs upon the State of Illinois. What’s more, he observed that “From a human rights perspective, ‘supermax’ is the Tower of London reborn, a 20th century upgrade from water torture, red ants, the rack and thumbscrew.”
In March people who had written to the Governor questioning the need for a supermax prison began to receive letters of response from the Governor’s office (2 page PDF). The letters repeated the usual platitudes about the necessity to isolate the “incorrigible” few in order for the “reform” program to be successful. Toward the end of March Steve distributed informal “notes” (2 page PDF) to members of the committee, attempting to analyze the Task Force recommendations and Governor Edgar’s budget. Joey Mogul and other members of the Committee had been arguing that the Task Force was a “set up” from the very beginning, their “recommendations” were a foregone conclusion, and the group was established to rubber stamp and legitimize what the Governor was requesting. Steve concluded that since the Task Force recommendations weren’t issued until six months after the presentation of the budget yet were totally consistent with it, he viewed it as “the smoking gun” that supported Joey’s theory.
Nonetheless, we organized hard. We produced t-shirts and sold them for a contribution. The front said “NO SUPERMAX PRISON” and the back was loaded with facts and figures, way too much for any reasonable t-shirt! Our advertising flyer had a picture of me and CEML member Susan McNish donning our t-shirts. It said “Strike a pose. Abolish all control units.”
Whenever an article appeared in the media, we were right there with our alternative reality. In May the Courier, of Lincolnwood, Illinois, ran a long article, “‘Super max’ prison has its foes” (1 page PDF), in which People’s Law Office lawyer and key CEML activist Erica Thompson explained our opposition to the supermax. She described the “Marionization” of the prison system and referred to Indiana’s Westville and California’s Pelican Bay as examples: “There’s not one of these institutions [supporters] can point to that’s had a success.” The Chicago Tribune ran an article that month as well, “Supermaximum prison peril warned” (1 page PDF), in which CEML’s Kent Steiner argued that the prison would be too expensive, actually cause more prison violence, breed racism and violate inmates’ human rights.
In May we held a program at DePaul University—MONEY FOR HUMAN NEEDS, NOT PRISONS (2 page PDF). We linked the issue of prisons to other issues in the community. The speakers were Rev. Jorge Morales, a pastor at First Congregational Church and founder of the Center for Community and Leadership Development; Toni Moore of the Chicago Conference of Black Lawyers; school reform activist Bernie Noven, president of the board of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE); and CEML’s own Joey Mogul, leader of the working group to oppose Gov. Edgar’s Task Force.
As the movement to expand control units widened, so did the opposition, on a national and international level as well. By now Pelican Bay, the new supermax in California, had been named in a lawsuit arguing the prison violated the 8th Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. John Devereux, the Australian Labor Party Senator for Tasmania, wrote to BOP Chief Quinlan (1 page PDF) condemning control unit prisons.
By September, more than 30 local groups had signed on to our extensive page formal response to the Governor’s Task Force (17 page PDF) plans, including ADAPT, AFSC, Parent’s United for Responsible Education, Public Welfare Coalition, and the Methodist Federation for Social Action.
Most of us in the Marion Committee were also involved in the movement to stop U.S. intervention in Central America, with mutual benefits from that involvement. For instance, Jean and Joe Gump were active in that peace movement. After raising 12 children, they had become Plowshares activists. Both served time in prison for their participation in attempting to physically disarm Minuteman II nuclear weapons silos. (For more on the Gumps see page 178 of Can’t Jail the Spirit, tan version, 2 page PDF). When Jean was sentenced to six years in prison, their family became very familiar with the nature of incarceration in the U.S. Through our acquaintance with the Gumps, we met their son, Joe Gump, Jr., who was the Vice President of AFSCME Local 3315. He proposed to the Executive Board of that Union a resolution in opposition to the construction of the new Illinois supermax. It was unanimously adopted and therefore became their official position. The AFSCME resolution was particularly significant because that union represented correctional officers and guards.
On the other hand, by the end of March, it was clear from the suburban Chicago Southtown Economist (2 page PDF) that the leadership of AFSCME was decisively on the side of the new supermax. Facilitated by Joe, Steve visited with Henry Bayer, the deputy state AFSCME director for Illinois, in an attempt to convince him to oppose the supermax. Bayer, with a large photograph of Martin Luther King behind him, almost came to blows with Steve. By May 19th, the Decatur newspaper (1 page PDF) reported that Bayer and 200 prison guards were in Springfield calling for the building of the supermax. Bayer was quoted as publicly regurgitating the same old argument—lock up the bad apples so the rest of the prison system will be better. He went so far as to predict a drop of thousands in the prison population. Bayer shamelessly presented his argument as for the benefit of the prisoners when, in fact, he was fighting a narrow trade union struggle for more jobs and higher pay.
The Chicago Tribune article (“Supermaximum prison peril warned,” May 19, 1993, Section 2, Page 6, 2 page PDF) quoted CEML’s Kent Steiner as saying that such a facility would actually cause more prison violence and be an enormous financial expenditure. We printed stickers saying EDGAR THE “EDUCATION GOVERNOR, with EDUCATION crossed out and PRISON written over it.
There were drawings of schools, housing, health, libraries, drug treatment, homeless shelters, parks, arts and culture—all closed. Yet the prison door was open. Underneath the graphic, it said ACT AGAINST THE SUPER MAX PRISON.
When it looked like Chicago schools would not open in the fall for financial reasons, we wrote flyers (2 page PDF) about education and imprisonment and distributed them at education forums and teachers’ demonstrations.
In September 1993, we held a press conference (3 page PDF) outside the State of Illinois building demanding that the $60 million earmarked for the supermax be diverted immediately to resolve the fiscal crisis in the schools.
Economically depressed small towns all over downstate Illinois were now engaged in a bidding war for the supermax prison. Articles (4 page PDF) appeared in local papers in towns around the state. We waged an intensive lobbying effort, sending packets of materials to each bidding community, with detailed information that they had never seen about the dangers and harms of control unit prisons, urging them to withdraw their bids. Joey’s letter to the Director of Marketing (7 page PDF) in Decatur, Illinois was one such attempt.
The Knox-Galesburg Economic Development Council withdrew its bid after two opposition groups formed. We were encouraged. When it looked like the small southern Illinois town of Tamms might be the site of the new control unit prison, Erica, Leila, and Joey traveled to Tamms to speak with members of the community regarding the nefarious nature of these control units. They distributed literature debunking the notion that the prison would provide locals with an economic shot in the arm. But the wheels of the supermax ground on.
In October the Chicago Tribune (2 page PDF) reported that indeed the Illinois supermax would be built in Tamms: “Finally, things are looking up here at the southern tip of Illinois.” Tamms was a down-and-out town that vied hard in the bidding war for the prison, offering a free 80-acre site, free sewer and water for two years, and $1 million in low-interest home loans to prison employees, with the financial assistance of neighboring counties. Not only that, but there would be a $1.5 million dollar federal grant to assist in the construction of the new supermax.
When the announcement came, the “town went wild with disbelief and delight.” We had predicted that the prison would be built in an all-white, rural, economically depressed community where the prospects of desperately needed jobs would deaden any potential protest or criticism.
About a year later, on October 31, 1994, the Tamms newspaper, The Monday’s Pub, formatted along the lines of the New York Times, would run huge ¼-page ads from many local business welcoming the new prison: “Massac Materials Corp, Happy to be a Part of the Economic Growth & The Super Max Prison Project”; Cain Farms & Grassy Lake Hunting Club; Anna Quarries, Inc.; Shawnee Community College; Southern Engineering Corporation, Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative; L8L Heating & Air Conditioning etc. All “happy to be a part of the development of the super max prison project.”
In late October 1993, some of us traveled to Colorado to join the demonstration opposing Florence. “The World In Four Walls” (2 page PDF), a multimedia traveling art show organized by the National Committee, set out on an ambitious schedule. Opening first at the Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago, the exhibit of Marion prisoners’ art went on to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, Columbia, Missouri, Kansas City, Missouri, and finally Florence, Colorado.
Earlier in October, we commemorated 10 years of the lockdown at Marion with a program (2 page PDF) that featured Rafael Cancel Miranda and Safiya Bukhari-Alston. Once again we put together a booklet of prisoners’ reflections (28 page PDF). Rafael wrote a piece entitled Drifting Memories From Marion Prison (4 page PDF) This time it was the tenth (!) year of the lockdown. Time kept marching on—control unit prisons were proliferating and the control unit policy becoming set in stone.
In the face of this depressing prospect, our events were becoming pep rallies to shore up our spirits for the new year’s work. Christmas greetings from the prisoners helped us stay committed to continuing to fight for change: “Bro & Sis: Just wanted you all to know, all of your efforts are appreciated by all of us here in Hell! Thank you for your friendship, goodwill and loyalty. May the happiness and good cheer of the Holiday Season be yours throughout the New Year.” And another, “Thank you for standing tall, for ‘being there,’ especially now in the midst of all the understandably misfocused outrage. We do appreciate you! A joy-filled and laughter-rich season to you all!”