More than two dozen prisoners at the Menard Correctional Center in Illinois protested conditions in the prison’s high security unit (HSU) by staging a series of hunger strikes, most of them sustained for weeks.
The protests at the Menard facility, about 60 miles southeast of St. Louis, began on January 15, 2014 with 14 prisoners in administrative detention – comparable to solitary confinement – refusing to eat breakfast. As many as 25 prisoners joined the hunger strike at its peak. More than three weeks later, at least nine protesters remained on hunger strike, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), which said the prisoners were placed under medical observation in the infirmary.
Chief among the prisoners’ complaints was that Menard officials had refused to inform them why they’d been placed in the HSU, according to Stoughton Lynd, a prisoner advocate who had communicated with the hunger strikers through letters and a third party. Lynd said the HSU prisoners had not been afforded due process and felt the protest was their best recourse.
The prisoners also wrote letters to the Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) in Chicago, complaining that the HSU was “filthy,” infested with mice, freezing cold and lacked hot water.
“There are mice just running wild,” wrote prisoner Michael Williams. “They have 20 guys using one pair of fingernail clippers with no cleaning in between uses, there is absolutely no mental health screening or evaluation, nor do any mental health staff even make rounds.”
Joseph Hauschild, another HSU prisoner, told the UPLC that he had been put in solitary due to his work as a jailhouse lawyer. After he was released from an “extra-confinement” unit at another prison and transferred to Menard’s general population in August 2012, Hauschild said he was immediately harassed and faced retaliation for his prison activism before being placed in the Administrative Detention (AD) unit.
Not surprisingly, IDOC spokesman Tom Schaer said the allegations raised by Hauschild and the other HSU prisoners were false.
“These are inflammatory, unsubstantiated claims that are undermining the importance of rights of the prisoner,” Schaer stated, adding that the hunger strikers had all been told why they were placed in the HSU and given information to appeal the placement decision.
Schaer also said each of the prisoners in HSU had “broken a rule,” not limited to acts of violence. He refused to elaborate, however, saying he was unauthorized to cite the specific reasons prisoners had been put in segregation.
After the hunger strikers were placed under medical observation, Lynd said they offered a resolution.
“The hunger strikers made an offer that once informal face-to-face hearings begin as to when each prisoner can expect to be placed on a less restrictive privilege status,” Lynd wrote, “they will come off the hunger strike.”
IDOC officials declined their offer, and prisoners in the HSU continued to be locked up for 24 hours a day, six days a week without any information as to when they would be released back into the prison’s general population.
The main instigators behind the protest were allegedly transferred to out-of-state prisons, which marked an end to the month-long hunger strike, according to reports from HSU prisoners received by the Herald Tribune.
On September 23, 2015, HSU prisoners at Menard declared another hunger strike. Their demands included an end to long-term solitary confinement, minimum due process, meaningful AD review hearings, and more access to out-of-cell recreation and communication with the outside world.
While the Menard administration continued to show little sympathy, a group of roughly 30 freeworld protesters staged a “noise demonstration” outside the prison walls in support of the hunger strikers.
“The idea is to create as much racket and noise as possible to let the prisoners hear that there are people who support them and think they are worthy of being considered as people,” one of the protesters told the Herald Tribune.
In response to the loud commotion of yelling and banging on drums outside, and defying orders by guards to remain silent, the hunger strikers banged on their cell walls and joined the protesters’ calls for “freedom” and “no more AD.”
Menard took disciplinary action against the hunger strikers and moved two of them into an “escapee cell,” an even smaller steel room with no windows, for reportedly “trying to escape” with a jump rope they had made out of a bed sheet.
The renewed hunger strike ended on its sixth day. Warden Kim Butler conceded to most of the prisoners’ demands and promised to dismiss all disciplinary reports, provided the protest stopped immediately. She agreed to be part of future AD review hearings and ensure prisoners are afforded due process. The warden also pledged to improve HSU prisoners’ mail delivery, visitation rights and outside recreation, and agreed to review the strikers’ proposal related to educational programs and other services for those in solitary confinement.
While not all of their demands were met, the prisoners were optimistic.
“Although our main goal is to end solitary confinement, we hope that we could work with Ms. Butler. I think by us affirming our own humanity, she was forced to see us and acknowledge us,” wrote one of the HSU prisoners.
Separately, in May 2015 a settlement was reached between the IDOC and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois, forcing the department to significantly curb the use of solitary confinement of juvenile offenders.
A month later, the UPLC filed a class-action federal lawsuit against the IDOC on behalf of an estimated 2,500 prisoners – or roughly five percent of Illinois’ total prison population – held in solitary confinement. The suit accused the IDOC of “excessively and inappropriately” using solitary for extended periods of time, often for months or even years, to control prisoners absent proper notifications or hearings.
While the IDOC declined to comment on the litigation, spokeswoman Nicole Wilson announced that prison officials were reviewing current policies related to solitary confinement. The UPLC’s lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice by the federal district court in February 2016. See: Coleman v. Taylor, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:15-cv-05596.
Sources: The Riverfront Times, www.thesouthern.com, www.prisonbooks.info, www.truth-out.org, www.itsgoingdown.org, www.randolphcountyheraldtribune.com, www.sfbayview.com, www.progressillinois.com, www.chicagotribune.com
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Related legal case
Coleman v. Taylor
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:15-cv-05596|