Infested with Vermin, Refused Coats: Inmates Go On Hunger Strike in Illinois

Menard Correctional Center in Illinois hosts almost 4,000 inmates to approximately 850 staff members. Many live in cramped, crowded conditions, but some of the worst environs in the prison are found in the Administrative Detention Unit, where prisoners live in solitary confinement for more than 22 hours each day, only being allowed out for brief periods of exercise. Like other prisons, Menard uses solitary confinement as a tool for managing its prison population, claiming it’s necessary for health and safety — inmates and advocates feel differently, with some arguing that it constitutes a form of torture.

It’s not just the solitary confinement that’s the problem, though. Prisoners report that they have no hot water, haven’t been permitted extra blankets and coats (even in bitter winter weather), lack access to cleaning supplies so they can maintain basic hygiene, and are overrun with vermin. Recently, a group of prisoners in the ADU went on a hunger strike, which has passed its 30th day. Their goal: to fight for better conditions in the prison.

They started with grievances, filing detailed requests with the prison. Many of these documents were ignored, say inmates, although the prison claims it has fulfilled some of them (including loaner coats for going outside). Their nonviolent protest is the next step in trying to obtain leverage with prison officials — high security prisoners have very few options for gaining the upper hand in negotiations, but hunger strikes appear to be spreading as a negotiation tactic across the United States, thanks to successes in states like California and Ohio.

Prison officials contend that they’ve met basic requests and are evaluating others to determine if they can be accommodated, but claim it takes time. Prisoners say they can’t afford to wait, and protesters have taken up the cause in solidarity with them outside the prison (such protests can be valuable for morale, say hunger strikers and prison rights organizers). Meanwhile, at least one prisoner has been taken into the infirmary for treatment after a physical altercation with a guard. More are likely to follow as prisoners become ill thanks to their nutrient deprivation.

Menard is a troubled institution; after the closure of the notorious Tamms Supermax, several prisoners and staffers transferred into the facility, and it attracted headlines for violence and other problems in early 2013, including three inmate deaths that occurred within a very short period of each other. The incidents suggested that prison officials were dealing with an overcrowded environment and conditions that were not optimal for prisoner health and safety — leading to more transfers to the ADU.

Prisoners say there’s no clear rubric used to determine when, how and why a prisoner should go into the ADU, and that the process for getting out is equally byzantine. This constitutes unfair treatment, they argue, demanding due process to determine whether they should be in the ADU at all, and if solitary confinement should even be used at the prison. Prison officials state that there is a mechanism for determining how prisoners are assigned and removed from solitary confinement, but haven’t shared the specifics with news agencies, making it difficult to fairly compare their claim against those made by prisoners.

One thing is certain: if the prison cannot reform itself and resolve the grievances soon, it could be looking at an escalation of the protest, and serious complications among prisoners on hunger strike.

Photo credit: Justin Goh.

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Tricia Hamilton
Tricia Hamilton1 years ago

This is one example when people say we write about animals and not humans. This is why you people are white trash, Take care of humans & animals!!

Trina Hawkins
Trina Hawkins1 years ago

Not Everyone in the Prison System is Guilty of a Crime ! To show No compassion for anyone who is Suffering with Inhumane practices ,makes me Wonder,what have We as a Society become ? I understand that there are BAD people in Prison,Murderers,Rapists,Child Molesters,they Belong there ! But they are still Human,and Deserve the Basic nessesities,such as Soap,Food,Clean Clothes,Shoes without Holes,Coats,Blankets,Deoderant,Tooth Brush and Tooth Paste! As a VICTIM of Abuse when I was a Child and Young Woman,YES,I had HATE for the MEN who HURT Me ! But I had to LET that HATE Goooooooo,as it was Controling me ! I know when they DIE,they will Pay for their Crimes Again ! But those who are Locked Up for BS ,shouldn't have to Suffer the Indignities of this treatment ! COMPASSION Works WONDERS !

Rose Becke1 years ago

Wrong on every level

Gloria picchetti
Gloria picchetti1 years ago

I have contacted Governor Pat Quinn to ask that the prisoners be given hot water, soap, coats, blankets, and that they can have cleaning products to get rid of the vermin.

I also contacted my state senator and state congresswoman. I am a Chicagoan.

Colin Hope
Colin Hope1 years ago

What a mess!!

Emma Stone
Emma Stone1 years ago

I'd say 'fine' but I know that many of those inmates are either innocent or there for petty crimes and DO NOT deserve this sort of treatment. This treatment is good for murderers, child sex offenders, and the like.

Nick Andrews
Nico Smart1 years ago

A word to would-be criminals, don't be a scumbag. Prison is supposed to be miserable. Robbers, rapists and murderers are not people and have no rights.

Heather G.
Heather G.1 years ago

Julia, what a kind, caring person you are...NOT!!! GO AWAY, EVIL WENCH!!!

Julia Hustad
Julia Hustad1 years ago

Let them starve. Problem solved.

Kat K.
Kat K.1 years ago

Yes, Teresa W, perhaps they do, but a lot of prisoners make them, too, and as I said before, if you disagree~~too bad. You have your opinion and I have mine, so just let it go at that, because your'e not going to change mine, and I don't care to change yours, either. To each his own.