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Orange Crush: The Rise of Tactical Teams in Prison

by Brian Dolinar, Truthout

Since Ferguson, there has been a public outcry over militarized police who shoot down African Americans on the streets of our cities, but less is known beyond prison walls about guards who regularly brutalize those incarcerated. In Illinois, there is a notorious band of guards called the “Orange Crush” who don orange jumpsuits, body armor and riot helmets to conceal their identities. They carry large clubs and canisters of pepper spray, which they use liberally. A recent lawsuit names a list of horrific abuses that includes strip searches, beatings and mass shakedowns of cells.

In the decades since the 1971 prison rebellion at Attica in New York, there has been a gradual build-up of these “tactical teams,” also known as “tac teams” or Special Operations Response Teams (SORTs). Today, they are routinely used for anything from fights to reports of contraband. Only within the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) have they earned the infamous name of “Orange Crush.” Anyone who has been incarcerated in the men’s state prison system has a story about these abusive guards.

I first heard of the Orange Crush in 2005 from my pen pal Gregory Koger, then held in isolation in Pontiac, Illinois, who described them in an article he wrote:

“The ‘tac team’ is a specially equipped team of approximately 6 officers wearing body armor, helmets, gas masks, with a shield and stick (they also wear orange jumpsuits under their body armor and hence carry the nickname ‘Orange Crush’). If for some reason you are asked to leave your cell and you refuse to comply, the ‘tac team’ will come to your cell, spray a cloud of pepper spray, and then rush in to subdue you, handcuff you, shackle you, and remove you from your cell.”

These teams can number from half a dozen to as many as 100 officers. They perform what are described by Koger as “cell extractions.” Once individuals are removed, they perform “shakedowns,” or searches of all personal belongings, often confiscating property.

“Nuts to Butts”

A lawsuit against the Orange Crush was filed jointly in 2015 by Uptown People’s Law Center and Loevy & Loevy, two Chicago-based firms that fight for the rights of the incarcerated. A judge recently approved the suit to move toward discovery. It is filed on behalf of Demetrius Ross, a man imprisoned at Illinois River Correctional Center, as well as others at Menard Correctional Center, Big Muddy River Correctional Center and Lawrence Correctional Center who describe similar abuses by the Orange Crush. All these prisons are located in downstate Illinois, far from Chicago where many of those incarcerated there are from. A total of 232 officers are named as defendants. The suit, based on Ross’s testimony, describes a mass shakedown in April 2014 at Illinois River where 2,000 men are kept.

Ross alleges that officers dressed in orange suits entered his wing yelling loudly, making “whooping” sounds, and hitting their batons on walls, tables and doors. Two guards stood in front of each cell screaming at those inside to “get asshole naked.” Once undressed, they had them exit the cell, turn around, bend over and spread their butt cheeks. The men were then asked to turn around and lift up their genitals for inspection. They used their fingers to open their mouths while guards looked for any contraband. According to Ross, some of the guards were women.

After the strip search, the men were allowed to get dressed, but told they could not put on underwear. Then they were lined up against a wall. The guards walked back and forth waving their sticks and chanting repeatedly “punish the inmate.” Anyone who looked at the guards had their face slammed against the wall and were told to “put [their] fucking heads down!” The suit claims this was to protect the identities of the Orange Crush guards.

The men were marched single file into the gym in a manner the guards called “nuts to butts.” They were made to walk close together while bent over at the waist in a 90-degree angle. The guards yelled that they didn’t want to see “any fucking daylight” between the men. The suit describes this line-up as humiliating and sexually abusive, “one man’s genitals were in direct contact with the buttocks of the man ahead of him in line.”

When Ross lifted his head, his face was slammed into the man in front of him so hard that his glasses fell off and were broken. At one point, Ross was pulled out of line, forced to the ground, choked and jabbed in the back with batons. The march to the gym was “long and painful.”

The men waited in the gym without water or bathroom breaks while the Orange Crush searched through their cells. They returned to find their rooms “tossed,” leaving their belongings scattered about. Some claimed their property, including legal documents, were stolen. When one person said they were going to tell Warden Greg Dossett, also named in the suit, they claimed to be told he “already knew all about what was happening at the facility.”

Similar shakedowns occurred at other prisons shortly after, the suit alleges. According to witnesses, in May 2014 the Orange Crush conducted one at Big Muddy, and a month later at Lawrence and Menard prisons. These actions were, the suit claims, part of a “policy or practice implemented, overseen, and encouraged by IDOC supervisors.”

After Attica

In an interview with Truthout, Brian Nelson, who spent 28 years in Illinois prisons and now works at the Uptown People’s Law Center, spoke about the Orange Crush, with which he was very familiar. These tactical teams, he said, were a response to the prison rebellion at the Attica prison in 1971, as well as similar uprisings at Pontiac, Illinois in 1978 and the New Mexico State Penitentiary in 1980. Since then, Nelson said, there has been an “explosion of tactical teams to maintain control and go into prisons immediately.”

Heather Ann Thompson, a University of Michigan professor and author of the new book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, also corresponded with Truthout. Before Attica, cell extractions happened, she wrote in an email: “They even happened the night before the rebellion which is why the men were so agitated.” But in those days, officers were few in number and they were not dressed in riot gear. “Excessive physical crackdown by guards,” she said, “on any perceived inmate infraction is definitely a post-Attica phenomenon.”

The attorney who helped write the suit against the Orange Crush, Alan Mills, of the Uptown People’s Law Center, confirmed this account. At the time of Attica when those like George Jackson and others were politicized, “prison officials relied on local police forces to put down prison rebellions.” After Attica, they saw a need to create their own tactical teams. Similar to the creation of SWAT teams, there was a militarization of law enforcement that happened “both inside and outside” of prisons.

Toussaint Losier, a professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, who has been researching the Pontiac rebellion, also agreed. At that time, the trend was to “bring in the state police to crack heads, as well as the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement to conduct any sort of investigation.” The Orange Crush, said Losier, “seems to be a prison-by-prison training team of those most committed within the ranks of correctional officers.”

One formerly incarcerated man, Charles Davidson, who resides in Urbana, Illinois, recalled this turn from his own experience of spending many years in prison. He remembers the Orange Crush conducting strip searches and shakedowns in the early 1990s at Jacksonville Correctional Center where he was locked up. He was also in Pontiac during the 1960s and recalls, “I didn’t see them there.”

Taking Prisons Back From the Gangs

According to Mills, today’s Orange Crush emerged out of the 1996 campaign to rid Illinois prisons of gangs like the Vice Lords and Latin Kings, which ran many illicit operations with the full cooperation of prison authorities. It followed the media story of Richard Speck, who was convicted of mass murder. While he was in Stateville Prison, a video was released that showed him performing sex acts and snorting large quantities of cocaine that had been smuggled into the prison. The video was shown on the floor of the Illinois legislature, prompting outrage. Prison authorities imposed a yearlong lockdown of maximum security prisons in the state. The plan was to “take prisons back from the gangs,” said Mills. Teams of prison guards were “unleashed” upon the prison population. The Orange Crush went in to assert total control.

Now, the new lawsuit is trying to expose the Orange Crush and those who ordered the raids at four separate facilities in Spring 2014. The suit has thus far overcome a motion to dismiss by the IDOC. U.S. District Court Judge Staci Yandle concluded that the defendants “purposely concealed their identities to evade responsibility for their actions.” Finding out those responsible was “impossible” without pretrial discovery. Although the suit moves forward, its claims of sexual abuse in violation of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) were dismissed.

Discovery documents show at least half a dozen men received medical attention, and another half dozen were sent to segregation as a result of the shakedown at Illinois River.

The reason why the Orange Crush conducted the sweeps is still unclear. The IDOC produced redacted copies of the operations’ orders revealing no information. There’s currently a legal battle over the purpose of the mass raids.

Mills said he disputes prison authorities who claim these are “necessary measures.” He believes the “pendulum has swung too far. Abusing people and treating [them] as less than human is never ‘necessary.’”

Brian Dolinar currently lives in Urbana, Illinois and works with the Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, a project of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. His articles have appeared in CounterPunch, Prison Legal News and Truthout. He is the author of The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation (University Press of Mississippi, 2012) and editor of The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers (University of Illinois Press, 2013).

This article was originally published by Truthout on January 2, 2017; it is reprinted with permission, with minor edits.

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