PI Original Ellyn Fortino Friday February 14th, 2014, 6:08pm

Activists Stand In Support Of Menard Prison Hunger Strikers; IDOC Pushes Back Against 'False' Allegations

Progress Illinois takes a closer look at the prisoner hunger strike that is taking place at the Menard Correctional Center.

A small group of Chicago protestors demonstrated outside of the Thompson Center Thursday evening to call attention to the inmates at Menard Correctional Center, who they say are on a hunger strike for due process and humane conditions.

Approximately 14 inmates at Menard began a hunger strike on January 15 to protest their placement in “severe isolation” and what they say are “inhumane conditions” at the facility, organizers said. Some of the men escalated the hunger strike on February 7 and began refusing liquids.

Brian Nelson, prisoner rights coordinator with the Uptown People's Law Center, said at least three men at the southwestern Illinois prison remained on a hunger strike as of Monday. Another two inmates were still refusing liquids, he said.

But Tom Shaer, director of communications for the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), told Progress Illinois on Friday that there is only one current “so-called hunger striker.” Shaer pointed out that the protest by the prisoners was not technically a hunger strike.

“This was actually a reduced calorie-intake by the ‘strikers,’ who lost only an average of 4.3 lbs. per week and at no time (not a single ‘striker’) exhibited signs of malnutrition, dehydration or anything else consistent with hunger-striking,” Shaer said in an email.

“The so-called strikers received, very frequently, commissary food that was secretly provided by other inmates,” he continued. “The total of hunger strikers had dropped by an average of two per week for three weeks (six total dropped), when they were getting secret food. After last Friday, when IDOC started monitoring them mostly in the Health Care Unit, where such secret passing of food can’t be accomplished, they dropped by seven.”

Gregory Koger with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network argued that the inmates do not know why they are being held in "solitary confinement."

“They’ve received no notice as to why they’re held in administrative segregation, though several of them have reported that it was because of their activities as jailhouse lawyers and prison activists who have been challenging the horrendous conditions of the Illinois Department of Corrections,” Koger said.

Shaer stressed that the state’s prison system does not practice solitary confinement. Inmates in “administrative detention” do receive time out of their cells for visitations, exercise, phone calls and other opportunities, although they have less access to those amenities than other prisoners.

Moreover, administrative detention is never given without notice or a hearing by a committee, according to a fact sheet for members of the media that IDOC provided to Progress Illinois about the hunger strike. The only details not released about administrative detention, according to IDOC, are those that would compromise safety or security of the inmates and staff.

But Nelson, who was formerly incarcerated and spent 12 years in what he described as solitary confinement at the now shuttered Tamms Super Max prison in Illinois, stressed that the men were put into administrative detention without reason or ability to challenge their placement.

Nelson, who organized a hunger strike while he was incarcerated at Tamms, said he “understands the plight of these guys.”

“These men, they don’t want special food. They don’t want steak, lobster. They don’t want cable TV,” he said. “They want to know what they have to do to get out. What are the rules?”

IDOC, however, maintains that before being assigned to administrative detention, every inmate has “long since been interviewed” about the cause of the placement. There is also an "inmate grievance" process available to prisoners who want to challenge the administrative detention decision, according to IDOC.

Nonetheless, Koger maintains that the prisoners still have no idea why they are being held in solitary confinement — or when they will get out.

“They want to have a legal process to get out of it, which I think the United States Constitution might have something to say about that and in fact require that they have that due process,” he stressed.

The Menard prisoners have also reported poor conditions at the facility, including very cold temperatures, a lack of hot water and filthy, vermin-infested cells, activists said. The men also have inadequate access to health care, according to Koger.

Shaer disputed all of these claims, calling them “blatantly false.”

He specifically blasted the allegations about a lack of heat, noting that temperatures at the Menard facility are recorded every three hours. Temperatures have not dropped below 65 degrees in any unit at Menard, Shaer stressed.

“We have photographs of the administration detention unit windows that the inmates opened during one of the coldest days of the year,” he said. “It was definitely one of the coldest days of the year. There is major evidence to indicate that this was their attempt to purposely lower the temperatures in their cells to support false claims of 'no heat' or 'heat trouble.'”

Meanwhile, organizers also said that prison officers allegedly beat one hunger striker, Armando Valasquez, and reportedly slammed his face into a door. Nelson maintains that the incident happened the day the hunger strike was declared, and that Valasquez may still be in the infirmary.

But Shaer said no such “beating” ever occurred. He did acknowledge, however, there had been an incident of “significant physical contact between one correctional officer and an inmate.”

The officer in question has been locked out of the facility, according to IDOC, and is on suspension, “pending completion of a thorough investigation.”

“IDOC will pursue all appropriate action, including prosecution of any employee we believe used inappropriate physical force,” the fact sheet from IDOC reads. “The current suspension, per union contract, is with pay. If further action is pursued, the officer’s suspension becomes ‘unpaid, pending judicial verdict,’ as the legal process takes over.”

Shaer stressed that no hunger striker has been hospitalized due to a physical incident or any other reason. The inmate in question is now apparently in a non-health care housing unit.

Activists have been worried that prison guards may possibly force-feed the hunger strikers, a practice they likened to torture. U.N. human rights officials, they noted, have deemed the force-feeding of hunger strikers as a violation of international law.

Shaer told Progress Illinois that no "force-feeding or forced-liquid intake has been done at any time during this so-called hunger strike.”

He added that no forced weigh-ins or forced urine or blood sampling have been done either.

“In fact, when it became apparent to the inmates that IDOC was on to the fraudulent aspects of this ‘strike,’ the participating inmates stopped providing samples and stopped stepping on scales,” Shaer noted. “We forced nothing, but the results were clear. There was also never any threat of force-feeding or any legal action considered or pursued by IDOC for the purpose of accomplishing force-feeding of force-liquid [in]take.”

Overall, the organizers stand firm with the assertion that the prisoners are being held in what they consider to be solitary confinement.

And Megan Selby, with the Chicago chapter of Black and Pink, an advocacy group for LGBTQ prisoners, said the situation at Menard is part of a larger national problem. Across the nation, some 80,000 people are housed in solitary confinement, she explained.

Selby argued that solitary confinement actually leads to more violence in prisons.

“What we’ve seen in other states is if we decrease the use of solitary confinement, there’s not more violence, and actually conditions in the prisons for everyone, guards and prisoners, have improved,” she noted. “We want to see a similar move in Illinois, a decreased reliance on solitary confinement.”

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