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In Illinois Prison, a Hunger Strike Against 'Inhumanity'

About a dozen men enter fourth week of withholding food despite prison retaliation, beatings, threat of force-feedings

- Sarah Lazare, staff writer

Menard Correctional Center (Photo: David Ramsey)In the cells of a segregated "high security unit" at a southern Illinois prison, men have taken the step of going without food to protest their isolation and inhumane treatment at the hands of "corrections" authorities.

About a dozen people who are incarcerated at the the state-run Menard Correctional Center are taking part in the hunger strike, which is stretching into its fourth week, amid reports of prison retaliation against the peaceful protest. This includes the beating of hunger striker Armando Velasquez, according to Staughton and Alice Lynd, who have been actively supporting the hunger strike since they were contacted by the incarcerated men.

"The conditions here are inhumane & repressive," wrote an anonymous incarcerated person quoted in Solitary Watch, in a letter announcing the hunger strike before its January 15th start date. "So much that we are forced to make a stand as men in righteous indignation."

The strikers are being held under administrative detention in the high security unit of the prison, where they are segregated from the general prison population in conditions of "severe isolation," according to a report sent to Common Dreams by the Lynds — who are both historians and radical organizers, with Staughton also being a lawyer.

Staughton Lynd told Common Dreams that he is not sure if the men are being held in solitary confinement or in double cells, but said either way, the segregated conditions are "extremely burdensome." He explained, "Their cells may be 6 feet by 12 feet. The so-called bed is usually a slab of concrete with a thin mattress. You have to imagine men cooped up in those conditions for 23 or 24 hours a day."

The men have complained of abusive conditions, including filthy, rodent-infested cells, cold temperatures, inadequate blankets, lack of hot water, and poor access to mental health care. Some of those being held in the high security unit were transferred from the notoriously inhumane super-max Tamms prison in Illinois that was shuttered last year.

The men face long-term segregation in the high security unit without explanation. "Prisoners who were transferred [to the high security unit] without so much as a ticket are being forced to complete a nine month three phase program (originally Tamms’ stepdown program) to earn back privileges they did nothing to lose," reads a report from the Lynds, which was emailed to Common Dreams. No one has been released for nine months, and no reason for the continued confinement has been provided, according to the report.

The incarcerated men are demanding due process and a halt to abusive conditions.

"We are all staying on hunger strike until something is done about our conditions," an anonymous man is quoted as saying in a report compiled by the Lynds dated January 25th.

Staughton Lynd told Common Dreams that the striking men, who have called for support from the outside, have already been met with solidarity protests. "On January 27th, these guys heard some noise, and they are able to open their windows and look outside," said Lynd. "They saw a couple dozen people with signs saying 'we support the hunger strike.' The guys inside started shouting their own slogans."

"On Wednesday, a couple dozen supporters in Chicago began a fast in support of what's going on in Menard," he continued. "These things are very important in keeping up morale of people going without food."

The striking men say they have already won some gains, including increased cleaning of cells. Mental health staff are also now making rounds once a week. Yet, authorities still have not provided explanations for why the men are being held in the high security unit. Furthermore, Staughton Lynd said authorities have threatened strikers with force-feedings — a practice that has been slammed as "torture" by United Nations officials yet has been threatened and levied to break hunger strikes in prisons from California to Guantanamo Bay. The incarcerated men report a host of other retaliatory actions, including threats, intimidation, and the storming of cells. Staughton Lynd says he has heard several reports of "racism against African American and Hispanic prisoners."

And the beating of Velasquez looms large. “Upon bringing him back to his cell, they slammed him face first into the door and yanked his arms up behind his head," said an anonymous man quoted in the Lynds' January 25th report. "Then they threw him in his cell, stripped out of all property and removed the cuffs. Everyone on the wing began hollering and banging because... Armando was in desperate need of medical attention.”

Julie from the Menard Correctional Center Warden's office, who declined to provide a last name, refused to answer questions from Common Dreams about allegations of mistreatment and abuse, but she did acknowledge that a hunger strike was taking place.

Recent years have seen waves of protests in U.S. prisons, including a series of hunger strikes in California prisons in 2011 and 2013 in which tens of thousands of incarcerated people withheld food to protest solitary confinement.

"What we are seeing is continued prisoner resistance to use of solitary confinement and use of torture inside prisons, in protest of their egregious conditions," said Isaac Ontiveros, organizer with prison abolition organization Critical Resistance and the California Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, in an interview with Common Dreams. "We are also seeing a high level of prison organizing. It is a sign of the times and the egregious violence state and federal prison systems are using. It's a sign of what prisoners are willing to do to change their conditions. It's a call for us to take action."

"Over 80,000 prisoners in the United States' world-leading system of mass incarceration are held in solitary confinement — conditions that amount to torture under international law," said Gregory Koger, who was formerly incarcerated, including years in solitary confinement, and now organizes with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, in an interview with Common Dreams. "No society should permit these practices of torture and systematic dehumanization. We must support the courageous hunger strikers in Menard and ensure that they are treated humanely and face no retaliation."

The Menard men on hunger strike are asking supporters on the outside to contact prison authorities and urge them to meet the demands of the peaceful protests.

"Our conditions are inextricably linked to the social mobilization across the nation against the injustice of mass incarceration," writes the anonymous incarcerated man quoted previously in Solitary Watch. He added, "Public awareness is our only shield from unjust abuse of authority, which is why we ask for your support of our peaceful protest against our conditions of confinement."

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