Illinois's Unsettling Legacies

Cover of "Committee to defend the Marion Brothers" which details Marion-USP's control unit conditions. 1976. Courtesy of: The Freedom Archives

Story in The Southern Illinoisan about glass separating inmates and visitors at Marion-USP. 1985 Courtesy of: Southern Archives

Three of "Ford Heights 4," framed for rape/double-murder. They were exonerated following 18-years of incarceration. Courtesy of: People's Law Office

Torture survivors and People’s Law Office clients: Darrell Cannon, Anthony Holmes, Gregory Banks, David Bates. Courtesy of: People's Law Office

People’s-Law-Office attorneys, torture survivors, and families, after City Council approves reparations Courtesy of: People's Law Office

News clipping featuring founders of People's Law Office in Carbondale, IL, 1971. Courtesy of: Freedom Archives, People's Law Office

Declassified FBI file, featured in the People's Law Office 20-year anniversary celebration program in 1989. Courtesy of: Freedom Archives, People's Law Office

Meredith Bennett-Swanson, Raquel Boton, Megan Deppen, Alexandra Garcia, Amy Hildebrand, Austin Kiesewetter, Joseph Magnelli, Jacquelyn Ross, Meghan Salvon, Carly Schanock, Jill Walker, Scott Zwierzchowski

Legacies of Control, Racism, Wrongful Convictions, Torture,…and Justice

A Legacy of Control

Marion United States Penitentiary (USP), opened in 1963, became the nation’s highest security prison by 1978. The timespan was marked by the introduction of oppressive and targeted internal authority. In 1972, as historian Alan Eladio Gomez has noted, in response “to the brutal beating of a Chicano inmate by a guard” activist prisoners “(re)organized as the Political Prisoners Liberation Front (PPLF) — and as a result were gassed and beaten, their legal materials confiscated, and their hygiene and exposure to chemical riot control techniques ignored for three days.” [1]

Furthermore, punishment devised for the activists led directly to the installation of twenty-three-hour isolation cells called “Control Units.” Even within conditions of solitary confinement activist prisoners compiled records of abuse in the prison, presented their research to the United Nations, and—with the legal aid of the People’s Law Office (see below)—they launched a class action law suit against the prison alleging “cruel and unusual punishment, the denial of access to courts, the denial of procedural standard for prisoners placed in solitary confinement,and the denial of constitutional rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech in the mails.” [2]

In 1983, after Marion went into permanent lock-down, the prison transitioned to become the first level-six (the highest security level) federal “supermax” prison. [3] The “mean little house” was a place of total, permanent isolation, a system for complete control of both the bodies and minds of inmates. Across the country, other prisons adopted the “supermax” model first developed at Marion. [4]

Today, across the United States, more than 80,000 people are held in isolation cells, and at least 25,000 are held in long-term solitary confinement in prisons with supermax facilities. [5]

A Legacy of Racism and Wrongful Convictions

In 1978, four black men—Kenneth Adams, Willie Rainge, Dennis Williams, and Verneal Jimerson—were arrested for the rape and murder of a newly-engaged white couple from outside of Chicago. The men pleaded not guilty, each claiming mistaken identity. The prosecutors, however, manipulated the jury selection process, resulting in an unsympathetic, all-white jury. Williams and Jimerson were sentenced to death, and Adams and Rainge received sentences equal to a life in prison. [6]

In 1996, new evidence surfaced, including a witness recantation and a confession, which identified four different offenders from the “Ford Heights Four” who were convicted; DNA evidence confirmed this. The four original defendants were freed and $36 million distributed among them. [7] Although the case famously awarded the largest civil rights payment in United States history, Illinois’s legacy is tainted by the revelations of Adams et. al. v. Venick.

A Legacy of Torture

From 1972 to 1991, Commander Jon Burge and Chicago Police from Area 2 Police Headquarters on the city’s south side tortured at least 120 black men to solicit confessions. [8] These men suffered electrocution, (including to their genitals), sexual assault, beatings, and mock executions, among other atrocities. [9] Victim Gregory Banks testified that an officer put a handgun into his mouth, beat him, and suffocated him with a plastic bag to force him to falsely confess to a crime. [10]

Commander Jon Burge and his “Midnight Crew” operated with impunity until Burge’s suspension in 1991. [11] Burge was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2010, receiving a sentence of four and a half years. [12] The statute of limitations prevented the offending officers from being charged with torture. [13] In 2015, under mounting criticism from activists, the City of Chicago awarded a total of $5.5 million in reparations to be distributed among many of the victims and their families. [14]

Despite these reparations, the legacy of racially-motivated, off-the-books abuses persist. As recently as 2015, Chicagoans have alleged coercion, torture, sexual abuse, and other violations of their constitutional and human rights at Homan Square, a Chicago Police ‘black site’ on the west side.[15]

A Legacy of Justice: The People’s Law Office

In 1968, a group of young Chicago lawyers who sought to preserve civil rights and provide legal aid to victims of injustice banded together to form the People’s Law Office. This unconventional law firm first provided representation to those who had been harassed and arrested during the social and political movements of the 1960s, including members of the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, and the Students for a Democratic Society. [16] The team also worked to end the “cruel and unusual punishment” of incarcerated individuals who endured extended periods (even
years) of solitary confinement, including those at Marion USP. [17]

Recent investigations have uncovered police torture, brutality, and wrongful convictions beginning as early as the 1970s. The People’s Law Office’s tireless efforts have resulted in reparations for victims and exonerations of the innocent; they successfully represented the victims of Adams et. al. v. Venick, and of Chicago PD’s torture ring. [18]

[1] Alan Eladio Gomez, "Resisting Living Death at Marion Federal Penitentiary, 1972," RadicalHistory Review 96 (Fall 2006), 58–86, 59.
[2] Gomez, "Resisting Living Death…” 76.
[3] J. Michael Olivero and James B. Roberts, "Marion Federal Penitentiary and the 22-Month Lockdown: The Crisis Continues," Crime and Social Justice no. 27/28 (1987): 234–255,
[4] Stephen C. Richards, "USP Marion: The First Federal Supermax," The Prison Journal 88 no.6 (2008): 6–18.
[5] See Leena Kurki and Norval Morris, “The Purposes, Practices, and Problems of SupermaxPrisons,” Crime and Justice, The University of Chicago Press, 28 (2001): 385–424.
[6] “Case Summary” for Williams, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, December 9, 2000; “Case Summary” for Jimerson, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, January 16, 2001.
[7] Eric Slater, “For Wrongful Imprisonment--$36 Million,” Los Angeles Times, Mar 6, 1999,
[8] Justin Glawe, “Talking to the Journalist Who Uncovered Police Torture in Chicago,” ViceMedia, May 15, 2015,
[9] Amnesty International, “Chicago City Council Passes Landmark Police Torture Reparations Ordinance,” press release, May 16, 2015,
[10] Matthew Walberg, “Ex-gang member: ‘I’ll Never Forget’ Detective who Suffocated Him into False Confession,” Chicago Tribune, June 10, 2010,
[11] “TIRC Home,” State of Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, accessed November 3, 2015; G. Flint Taylor, “Richard M.Daley: A Central Figure in the Chicago Police Torture Scandal,” Huffington Post, August 2,2012,
[12] “Home,” Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission; Matthew Walberg and William Lee,“Burge Found Guilty,” Chicago Tribune, June 28, 2010,
[13] “Bringing Human Rights Home. Chicago and Illinois: Torture and Other Ill Treatment,” Amnesty International,, 4–5.
[14] Amnesty International, “Torture Reparations Ordinance”; Mark Guarino, “Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Apologizes for Two Decades of Police Torture,” Christian Science Monitor, September 12, 2013,
[15] Spencer Ackerman, “Homan Square Revealed: How Chicago Police ‘Disappeared’ 7,000 People,” The Guardian, October 19, 2015, Zach Stafford,“Chicago sued for ‘unconstitutional and torturous’ Homan Square Police Abuse,” The Guardian,October 19,2015.
[16] “Early Years,” The People’s Law Office, accessed October 21, 2015,
[17] Gomez, “Resisting Living Death…,” 76.
[18] Flint Taylor, “Rahm Emanuel Apologizes For Police Torture. Now What?” The New YorkTimes, September 18, 2013,