The call to end solitary confinement in Illinois prisons has sparked a prison civil rights movement headed by Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. and Bishop Tavis Grant, Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s field director, who said it is time to end this “inhumane” treatment of incarcerated men and women.
On June 21, Reverend Jackson met with Anthony Gay, who spent 22 years in solitary confinement in several Illinois prisons. Also, in the meeting were two of Gay’s lawyers, Nicolette Ward, associate attorney with the Romanucci & Blandin law firm, and Attorney Maggie Filler, along with volunteer Annika O’Melia, activist Karen Hicks, Reverend Janette Wilson, Reverend Jackson’s senior advisor, and John Mitchell, Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s chief of staff.
After an emotional description —complete with pictures of his self-mutilation—Gay asked Reverend Jackson to endorse his non-profit program, “The Section 1983 Initiative.” He is teaching people about their Fourth Amendment rights, in hopes of building more just communities.
Hicks, who heads A Few Good Women, and O’Melia, want Governor J.B. Pritzker to use his executive powers to end solitary confinement and end the three strikes law that imposes lengthy prison sentences, including mandatory life. They also want all 100 C-number prisoners to be released because they are old.
As of 1978, prisoners who are serving indeterminate sentences in Illinois are called C-numbers. Attorney Jennifer Soble from the Illinois Prison Project, who helped to get Gay out of prison, states there are about 100 C-number prisoners languishing in the Illinois prison system. Appearing on WVON’s “On the Case,” hosted by this writer, Soble said the time is ripe for prison reform.
Based on state law, if a person is sentenced for the third conviction for a qualifying crime, he or she can get life in prison, including getting rid of the three strikes law, which imposes lengthy sentences and solitary confinement.
During Gay’s 22-year prison confinement, he self-mutilated to get out of his cell and interact with others. He is suing the Illinois Department of Corrections for the “torture” he said he endured.
Reverend Jackson said solitary confinement is “cruel and inhumane” and should be abolished. He said it is time to reform the prison system, and supports Gay’s efforts to have the Illinois Senate pass a bill named after him that would restrict the use of solitary confinement. Reverend Jackson and Reverend Wilson agree a federal bill needs to be drafted to address this issue.
Referring to Gay, Reverend Jackson said, “He has been abused and misused, but he has a tremendous spirit.”
Attorney Ward said meeting with Reverend Jackson “was an incredible inspiration for myself and for Mr. Gay. Reverend Jackson has stayed on the absolute frontlines of this march towards justice for everyone.
“My hope for this is for Reverend Jackson to continue to use his very loud, very prominent voice for good, and we hope that Reverend Jackson continues to look towards the horrible torture of solitary confinement and make efforts to end it.”
She believes Governor Pritzker not only can use his executive power to end solitary confinement, but also has “an obligation to do so.” She said the legislatures in the past have not addressed this issue. “As a result, hundreds of thousands” have suffered.
Hicks said Gay “tried to kill himself to live, and that is not fair. We can’t see another man or woman go through this again.” She called on people to rally behind the move to end solitary confinement.
Calling the practice of solitary confinement “unconscionable,” Bishop Grant stated, “that these types of practices are allowed, and there is little or no oversight from the institutions. Anthony was starved. He and others should not be mistreated, abused and terrorized. Anthony Gay is the perfect of example of abuse and malfeasance.”
State Representative LaShawn K. Ford (D-Chicago) said the bill he sponsored, The Anthony Gay Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, passed the House several months ago and has not been assigned to a committee. He said it is just sitting in the assignment committee “where no action is taking place, and that is not good.” Efforts to reach Illinois State Senator Robert Peters, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, failed.
When told that lawyers and activists are in favor of abolishing solitary confinement, Representative Ford said supports that position. He went on to say that under the Senate version, there needs to be rules that spell out when and how long an inmate is in solitary confinement.
In expanding the call for prison reform, Representative Ford is also upset that state prisoners cannot vote, but those languishing in the Cook County Jail can. The difference is those in jail who can vote have yet to be convicted. “It’s unfair,” Ford said.
He has introduced an amendment to SB828 calling for the voter rights of persons convicted of a felony and others sentenced in a correctional institution to be granted. “Inmates statewide and nationally, should have the right to vote,” Ford said. Currently, those on probation or parole cannot vote. “That, too, is unfair,” he said.
Asked whether C-number prisoners should be released, Representative Ford said he is convening a commission to study this issue. “We need to know who they are and if they should stay in or be released. The governor should have the parole board look into the C-numbers to see if they can be examined for release.”
Agreeing, Bishop Grant said Reverend Jackson has spent a great part of his life in fighting for the right to vote including those serving time. “They should play some part in democracy as they are seeking restitution.”
Saying prisoners should have the right to vote, Bishop Grant added, “We should not practice any form of constitutional disfranchising of anyone, including those who are incarcerated.”
East Hazel Crest Village Trustee Maureen Forte said Gay’s solitary confinement was “mental torture and a serious violation of a person’s civil rights. For him to self-mutilate himself to get person-to-person time or health services, I can see why this state or any state prison is sued.
“How many more people are in solitary confinement?” she asked. Forte gave another example of Larry Hoover. who she says is in solitary confinement. She challenged elected officials to “look at this situation. It is a shame before God that this happened to this young man,” she said referring to Gay.
“It’s time to end the solitary confinement,” Forte said. “There should be some type of rehabilitation not a mental torture chamber to break them down.” Forte said when they are released “they’ll be right back in prison.”
Forte also called for end of three strikes law and said it, too, should be eliminated. She gave as an example of Markham Mayor Roger Agpawa, who is an ex-felon, but who was re-elected. He was supposed to be sworn in for another term, but his legal battles continue.
In 1999, Agpawa was convicted of mail fraud. “These laws are not written in stone. They need to be relooked at because in Illinois, an ex-felon can run for state representative, senate and governor, but not on the municipal level. Mayor Agpawa is showing you it can be done if you fight the fight,” Forte said.
Thanks to the generosity of funding provided by The Field Foundation of Illinois, Inc. in producing this article.