Men held in solitary confinement at the Menard Correctional Center have declared a liquids strike, in addition to a nearly four-week-old hunger strike, escalating their resistance against open-ended isolation with the few means of protest they have left.
"It is an increasingly dire situation," said Staughton Lynd, who has been supporting the incarcerated men along with his wife Alice, both of whom are lawyers and long-time political activists. "Alice and I are really beside ourselves worrying whether someone has to die in order to make something happen in southern Illinois."
Tom Shaer, Illinois Department of Corrections Director of Communications, confirmed to Common Dreams that a no-liquid strike was declared on Friday by what he believes to be five men. The Lynds say the number of liquid and food strikers could be higher, and the numbers of those who are fasting but have not declared a strike even greater.
The strikers are being held under administrative detention in a high security area of the prison, where they have been placed in solitary confinement with no explanation or due process, said Brian Nelson, prisoner rights coordinator for the Uptown People's Law Center.
The men are putting their lives on the line for "moderate" demands, says Staughton Lynd. "They have said that if the administration will sit down with them one by one and explain to each person why he is in administrative detention, how long he can expect to be there, what he needs to do to get out, and how his privileges will increase as he nears end of time in administrative detention. Those don't seem like very forbidding demands."
"Our complaints are all pursuant to our constitutional rights & human dignity," wrote an anonymous incarcerated man upon announcing the hunger strike. "Such as 'implement uniform written policies that provide for constitutionally adequate ‘notice’ of why an inmate is being placed in Administrative Detention at the HSU, & reasonable, periodic review in the form of annual informal hearings that allow me to refute the alleged reasons why my placement in AD is being continued.'… No one here has been given ‘notice’ to why we’re here."
"You're putting your life on the line after three days. They are sacrificing self and health to make a statement, to say something is very wrong," said Nelson, who was formerly incarcerated at the now shuttered super-max Tamms prison in Illinois. "In that situation there aren't many ways you can speak out against injustices. They have to go to the extreme and do a hunger strike."
Shaer denied that prisoners are being kept in the dark about the reasons for their conditions of confinement. Yet, Alice Lynd told Common Dreams she has personally seen numerous formal grievances that verify the men's claims.
"The U.S. Supreme Court requires that before inmates are placed in high maximum security, they be provided notice, hearing, written reasons, a statement of what they can do to move to a lower security level, and the right to appeal," she said. "Whether the prison calls it high security with capital or lower case letters, the men want the due process that is their right."
The hunger strikers reported abusive conditions, including cold temperatures, rodent-infestations, filthy cells, inadequate blankets, no hot water, and poor access to health care, in numerous letters to the Lynds. The strikers also report retaliation from prison authorities, including intimidation and the storming of cells.
This includes reports of a brutal beating of hunger striker Armando Velasquez, which included 'slamming his face into the door,' as previously reported by Common Dreams.
While Shaer denied that Valasquez was hospitalized for his injuries, he did acknowledge that "there was an incident of significant physical contact between the inmate and the correctional officer. The officer was not only sent home but locked out of the prison and remains locked out of the prison."
A document sent to Common Dreams by Shaer, citing an anonymous "veteran medical professional with many years in prison health care," states that, while "most" men participating in the hunger strike are allegedly refusing to provide urine samples or be weighed, "The weigh-ins we do have showed an average weight loss of 4.3 lbs per week... One inmate did lose 13.8 lbs over two weeks." Yet, the document sought to downplay participation in the strike, with the "veteran medical professional" quoted as claiming that loss of 13.8 pounds in two weeks is "still not consistent with malnourishment, and he displayed no such symptoms."
Prisoners are concerned about force-feedings, say the Lynds. Shaer said, "We are not force-feeding and have no plans to force feed. But we will do it if it is medically necessary."
Force-feeding has been slammed as torture and a violation of international law by the United Nations human rights office.
While their hunger strike has so far brought small improvements, including increased cleaning of cells and once-a-week rounds of mental health staff, the men still remain completely in the dark about their fate, say the Lynds.
According to Nelson, who formerly spent time in solitary confinement, not knowing when one's isolation will end is often the hardest part. "They are in a state of limbo without understanding of how long this will go on and why they are there and how they can get out," he told Common Dreams. "They just want to know is there hope at the end of this tunnel or is this who I am forever. That is all these men are asking for. Is there hope for me ever holding a human being again, seeing my mom, shaking hands with another human being?"
The men, who have already been met with solidarity protests and even a solidarity fast, are calling for support on the outside. "Menard CC, which is in southern Illinois, is notorious for their spiteful retribution. 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," wrote the anonymous incarcerated man referenced previously. The men's support team is urging people on the outside to call prison authorities and demand they meet the men's demands.