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.