President Obama isn’t the only one calling attention to troubling living conditions in America’s prisons.
Uptown People’s Law Center, Illinois Coalition Against Torture, United Voices for Prisoners and Black & Pink Chicago gathered with community members, former prisoners and their families to host a rally at the Thompson Center July 23 to protest the opening of the Thompson Correctional Center, which has 1,500 solitary cells.
The Uptown People’s Law Center and Winston & Strawn LLP filed a class action lawsuit last month against the Illinois Department of Corrections for its misuse and overuse of solitary confinement. The suit seeks the department’s compliance with the American Bar Association’s standards, according to a press release.
Black people are incarcerated five times more than white people are, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites, according to PrisonPolicy.org
“We wind up putting [people] in there for minor offenses. And once they’re there, they stay way too long,” said Allen Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center. “We’ve used the criminal justice system to—instead of solving society’s problems—hide them behind brick walls.”
Though the suit was only filed two weeks ago, Mills said he hoped that the judge will hear their case sooner than later, because many prisoners will continue to be at risk. He said drug enforcement laws disproportionately target young Blacks men, adding that he would like to see alternatives to solitary confinement such as jobs, programs and mental health treatment.
When inmates are released from prison, there’s a chance that they will need government assistance and mental health treatment for PTSD treatment for the rest of their lives, Mills said.
“Just as the criminal justice system as a whole targets young black men, the same is true of solitary,” Mills said. “Solitary in Illinois and everywhere else that I know in the country are full of black men…It’s not like black males that violate the rules more than anyone else while they’re in prison; we just decide to enforce it against them.”
In addition to the discriminatory use of solitary confinement for Blacks, members of the LGBTQ community are also disproportionately placed in solitary confinement than their straight counterparts, said Megan Selby of the Black & Pink Chicago Chapter.
“Authorities will oftentimes say that they’re placing trans people in [solitary] for their own protection… To protect someone by locking them up for 23 hours a day is not the protection that we want,” Selby said. “That’s not making someone safer that’s giving them mental health problems.”
Roosevelt Burrell, a participant in the rally and former inmate at Tamms Correctional Center, said he was placed in solitary confinement after allegedly committing offenses in prison even though a judge later ruled that those accusations were false. He said he witnessed the detrimental psychological effects of solitary confinement and the overall prison experience on other inmates.
“A supermax cell is going to exist in [a person’s] mind forever,” he said. “They have to return to their loved ones damaged.”