Hunger Strike, Ceiling Collapse, Lawsuit Spotlight Deteriorating Conditions at Women’s Prison in Illinois
by Brian Dolinar and Panagioti Tsolkas
"I’ve been incarcerated since the age of 18, I grew up in the penal system,” shares Mishunda Davis. “I went from the Cook County jail, to Dwight prison, to Lincoln, and I have never seen as many condemned buildings as I’ve seen since arriving here at Logan. I know because I’ve lived behind these prison walls for 20+ years. Logan is by far in the worst shape.”
“Years of living like this was the spark,” says Davis. “I chose to starve for a change.”
The worsening conditions at Logan Correctional Center, the main prison for women incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), recently grabbed headlines when three women organized a hunger strike. They wanted to expose the toxic and dangerous environment for all women there.
The Chicago Tribune reported in June 2021 news of the hunger strike. Women had been made to stand in raw sewage for days. There were 49 women who were moved to fix what IDOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess called “plumbing issues.” The women were housed in an old unit which had been previously shut down due to its crumbling infrastructure.
Conditions were so bad for three of the women that on June 7, 2021 they started their strike. They ended the strike after three days with a promise from authorities to make the proper repairs.
According to IDOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess, who released an email statement, the strike was a protest of the “lack of video conference kiosks and weak Wi-Fi connection in the temporary space.”
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) told the Tribune she believes the hunger strike drew attention to the ongoing issues at Logan prison. She continued, “the stories that you hear from the inmates and the stories that you hear from the facility administrators are wildly different, and the only way to know is to actually go there.”
Cassidy asked IDOC to allow her a meeting with the women affected by the sewage leak, but to date her request has not been answered. In Illinois, elected officials have no legal right to tour prison facilities.
House of Shit
Located 160 miles from Chicago in Lincoln, Illinois, Logan houses more than 1,000 women prisoners. It was opened in 1978, originally as an all-male facility. Dwight Correctional Center used to be the primary facility for women, but when it was closed in 2013, they were transferred to Logan. Advocates for several years have called for closing the aging prison.
Prison Legal News has communicated with all three of the hunger strikers—Jamille Brown, Sharonda Miller, and Mishunda Davis—who say that since their action none of the “plumbing issues” have been fixed, and other problems persist.
Jamille Brown wrote in a GTL message to PLN that on May 28, she woke up to “feces and sewage water in the dayroom of my living unit.” The area she was moved to suffered even more “severely poor conditions” and in the shower there were maggots. After trying to speak with someone she was “overlooked and unheard.”
According to Sharonda Miller, her housing unit has been dubbed the “House of Sh*#” for the smell and treatment, “or lack thereof.” The repairs have been “minimal,” she said. The authorities have only been “band-aiding the problem, which creates other problems.”
“There are still toilets leaking, sinks dripping, ceilings caving in, mold growing,” Miller described, “and not once has anyone said, okay let’s shut it down for repairs. This has been ongoing for decades, and now it’s worse and we are fed up.”
As the Human Rights Defense Center’s Prison Ecology Project has argued, prisons are an environmental hazard, most often impacting poor people, and people of color. The backed-up sewage is not only harmful to the women at Logan, but to the larger community. The sewage can end up in the groundwater, impacting impact fishing, wildlife, and drinking water. These violations have resulted in successful environmental litigation, as in Alabama where a judgement was entered against the state prison system’s waste management operation for over $243,000. [See Black Warrior Riverkeeper Inc. v. Thomas, Civil Action Number 2:13-cv-00410-AKK (N.D. Ala. Apr. 12, 2013); PLN June 2015, p. 36. For a sample of additional water quality articles see also PLNs June 2008, p. 24; Aug 2015, p. 1; Sept. 2015, p. 12; Mar. 2016, p. 22; Dec. 2017, p 1; Nov. 2018, p. 38; June 2018, p. 16].
In mid-July, a ceiling at Logan collapsed after heavy rains. Mishunda Davis wrote to PLN, “Well, the ceiling finally fell in with water, along with the smoke detector and exit sign. Thank God no one was hurt or electrocuted. Two long red thick wires were hanging down out of the ceiling.”
“Rainwater was coming in through the ceiling of the dayroom,” Brown told PLN. Brown and Davis were part of the cleaning crew. They picked up five big bags of ceiling debris.
This Is About Everyone
Davis is concerned for all the women suffering at Logan: “This is about everyone, not just one person.” She highlighted the story of a friend that has since been released named Tina Howard who nearly died after contracting MRSA and meningitis due to the filthy conditions at Logan. “She used to be full of life,” Davis remembered, “now she’s only a shell of herself.”
A lawsuit was filed in 2020 by Howard against Logan’s warden, Glen Austin, Wexford, the health care provider, and other administrators [See: Howard v. Austin et al., USDC, CD IL, Case No. 1:20-cv-01171-SLD-JEH]. Attorneys Melinda Power and Elizabeth Mazur filed the suit, claiming that the “deplorably dirty conditions” exposed Howard to an unreasonable risk of contracting MRSA. The suit claims the shower area was “full of mold.” Shortly before falling ill, Howard began to work in the laundry area which was “unsanitary.”
On May 2, 2018, Howard complained to a nurse about leg pain and a rash. By May 6, she was in a wheelchair, writhing from pain, and begging to go to the hospital. At the outside hospital, she was diagnosed with a systemic MRSA infection that spread all the way to her cerebrospinal fluid, causing meningitis and requiring her to undergo urgent brain surgery. After nearly 6 weeks in the hospital, Howard was returned to Logan, “where she was bed ridden, incontinent and needed total care.” A year later she finished her sentence and was sent home.
The sight of Howard’s rapid decline left an indelible imprint on the memory of Davis and other women at Logan. “What happened to her could happen to me or any of us,” Davis reflected, “especially living in these conditions for many years.”
A Dangerous Situation
Jennifer Vollen Katz, Executive Director of the John Howard Association (JHA), an independent monitor of prisons in Illinois, spoke to PLN in an interview. JHA toured Logan in July for the first time since the pandemic. They had heard about the hunger strike reported in the media. After talking to the women inside, they “heard a lot of frustration.” The roof had caved in, pests were a problem, medical equipment was broken, and the food was bad. The plumbing issues—broken toilets, and standing water—had “impacted the greatest number of people.” Logan is an aging facility, “with a lot of deferred maintenance.” Conditions there, she said, “appear to be devolving, not improving.”
“What we have is a dangerous situation,” warned Vollen Katz, “it is only a matter of time before someone gets hurt. There are enormous safety risks.”
Alexis Mansfield, senior adviser at the Women’s Justice Institute, told PLN that the state should close Logan prison rather than spend millions to fix it: “We have seen a significant reduction in the prison population in recent years. We hope that the women’s prison population will continue to decrease as IDOC implements the recently passed Safe-T Act. We can move women away from these large, old, deteriorating facilities into smaller, community-based centers, where women and families can be together. We look forward to working with IDOC to make this happen.”
Additional sources: Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader