Stop The Violence

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I recently attended the 7th annual Cook County Jail Town Hall Meeting at Operation PUSH headquarters, 930 E. 50 St. The purpose of the meeting was to have police, jail guards and ex-offenders meet face to face to discuss the conditions in the jails and the inhuman treatment inmates often have to endure.

The former inmates spoke of beatings and rapes. The place was packed when I arrived. There were people on the walls, both sides and the back, too. I was given a seat on the aisle about the fifth row back. I found it to be a spot where I could see everything.

The speaker began to introduce the dignitaries that sat up front: Gale Smith, representing incarcerated mothers; Chip Cobrin, for prison reform; Bill Ryan, who works for the probation office and works to abolish the death penalty; and Leroy Owens as well as a Rev. Harris, from the prison task force. The newly appointed John Walsh started the dialogue saying, “If we treat people like human beingsā€¦in most cases they will act like it.”

At that moment, one young man interrupted and said that PUSH founder Jesse L. Jackson Sr. wasn’t concerned with their issues, that all he had been doing is “pimping the system.” “These meetings have been going on for seven years and the beatings have been going on for over 40 years and Jesse Jackson has done nothing,” the young man said.

He went on to say that members of the same task force represented at the meeting are among those who are beating the inmates and not taking them to the hospital right away. One officer stood up and began to holler that if the ex-offenders would wait their turn and “act like humans,” they would talk to them in like manner. In the commotion, the officer began to shout to be heard.

He got excited and had to be restrained. Then a woman police officer got up shouting.

When she became emotional, other officers took her outside. The speaker asked everyone to exercise some self-control and called them “heathens.” Then one ex-offender spoke out from across the room and told them he had no intention of screaming and getting too loud as he started to walk toward the front of the room.

He then explained that regardless of to whom they send ex-offenders for jobs, even when they become employed, it only lasts for a short while. His name was Omar Thomas.

Thomas was near tears as he explained that he only wanted to feed his kids. Thomas explained that he was from Kublai Khan Mohammad Toure’s group, Amer-I-Can.

The promises that were made concerning help on the outside had been lies, Thomas maintained. At times, I couldn’t hear anyone because of the deafening noise audience members were making when they clapped. I soon found out where the police were sitting.

To drown out the speakers they didn’t want to hear, they would take a cue from a large dark man in the corner who would start to clap and they all would follow his lead, the same way they do it in television studios when the audience needs a little help. Then the ex-cons came out with a mega-phone. They told Jesse Jackson that he didn’t have the right to talk because he was a “liar.”

Everyone shut up when the sister of Nathan Fields told how her brother had died in the Menard penitentiary and had his organs removed before he was shipped home to his mother. The family wasn’t notified right away. When they asked what had happened, they were told he died of natural causes. When the mother requested the organs be returned to her, they were told that they had been melted down.

Fields’ sister made a plea for the families of the inmates to take time to see about them.

I have had the chance to see the officers from the inmates’ side of the fence. My three brothers were in and out of jails for different reasons. My oldest is dead, while the youngest in still in a mental hospital from the shock treatments he suffered in the Menard institution.

The head of the jail system tried to talk but the ex-cons wouldn’t let her speak.

They all began to talk at the same time, until the officers in the front all quietly tipped out of the back door. The meeting was over.

Women in Prison
The total number of woman in jail in Illinois has increased 246 percent in the past decade, according to Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM). The incarceration of women affects 25,000 children each year. Many women who are incarcerated are the sole caretakers of their children. When mom is removed from the home, the children are the ones who suffer most.

In prison, the pregnant women only keep their babies for a day or two before they are taken away from them. Just like poverty, prison seems to be the place for women of color. Ninety percent of the women are charged with non-violent crimes. Thirty-seven percent of the women are sentenced for property crimes and 44.6 percent are sentenced for drug offenses.

Some of the women who have served time in prison are telling of the injustices they experienced and the pain they feel through artwork. Beyondmedia has given them a chance to tell their stories and show their creative talents to the world. The group offers education services and media empowerment workshops as well as media services to community organizations, schools and agencies that offer services for women and girls.

Beyondmedia and Northeastern Illinois University, along with CLAIM, recently took their show on the road. They started at the DePaul University Cultural Center and went on to the Carter G. Woodson Library, Center for Inner City Studies, Bethel Cultural Arts Center and finally to the Chase Espresso and Juice Bar between Oct. 30 and Dec. 1.

Beyondmedia is putting together a book of the women ex-offenders’ stories. It is called “Women in Prison: A Toolkit for Resistance.” In 2000, Visible Voices, a support group run by and for the women who were in jail, worked with Beyondmedia Education to create a video, “What we leave behind.”

This is part of a larger project to raise awareness of the issues that face imprisoned women. Some features of the exhibit include an artistic recreation of a prison cell filled with women’s things, and women telling stories about the conditions in jail and the statistics surrounding them.

I had an interview with Kim Allen when she was released from Dwight prison. She said that the women are treated harshly. Women do not have to worry about being raped by the other inmates, Allen said, because all inmates know they will have to serve more time if they are caught.

But this is not the same with the prison guards, Allen said. Allen went to prison on drug-related charges. While she was incarcerated, her oldest son was allowed to live with his father. The rest of her children, three girls and one boy, were adopted by her sister.

She was not allowed to see them when she got out. Last time I talked to Allen, I found that she was allowed to see her children for Christmas. She said she has to be happy with the way things are and take care of her problems one day at a time.

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