This is an interview with Chicago activist Mark Clements, a survivor of police torture by the Chicago police who was wrongfully incarcerated for twenty-eight years before his conviction was overturned in 2009. In what was likely retaliation for his tireless work organizing and advocating for the release of prisoners at Cook County Jail during this crisis, Mark was taken into custody on a misdemeanor warrant from 2018 last week. Mark spent two days in Cook County Jail, site of the largest cluster of corona virus cases in the country, and witnessed firsthand the mistreatment of prisoners there. He generously agreed to be interviewed by Dana Blanchard from Rampant shortly after his release in order to bring to light the inhumane conditions prisoners are facing in Chicago and beyond.
Thank you so much, Mark, for taking the time so soon after your release to talk to us. First, can you take a minute to talk about what the conditions are like with regards to the COVID-19 crisis inside Cook County Jail as someone who has just been there but also as someone who has been organizing around the demand to release prisoners because of this crisis?
The conditions at Cook County Jail can only be described as inhumane.
Once I arrived at the jail there were as many as thirty different brothers jammed inside of a cage. I immediately started to address this and ask why is this occurring and based on that the lieutenant then decided to spread everyone out. There are no cleaning materials. The guards have hand sanitizer but hand sanitizer is off limits to the prisoners. I can share that, from the time I was brought into the Cook County holding area in Maywood, Illinois, up until the time I arrived at the Cook County Jail and until the time I was bonded out, I was never provided with soap, a towel, or anything to safeguard myself other than a cloth mask. Guards touched us, some of them wore gloves and some of them did not wear gloves. I was fed a bologna sandwich each meal along with a drink for each of the six different meals I had while under the control of the Cook County sheriff’s department. One of the things to take into consideration about this virus is that it can be spread when food is not properly heated up and now you are being fed cold food and have no way to wash your hands because you have no access to soap. For me, I had no access to soap for the course of two days. That is inhumane at a time like this.
I talked to numerous inmates while I was there. All of them appeared to be terrorized. They did not know what to do, many of them younger prisoners, and the guards were showing no regard for their safety. On the same day that I was released a guard was making fun of another inmate who was going home because he had just bonded out and a fight occured because the guard was making fun and joking about him having the coronavirus.
Watching how all of the county, the state, and city officials are acting as if the men and women in incarceration are not being exposed to this virus is infuriating since that is exactly what is occurring, and it is spreading so quickly because prisoners are all bunched up inside. Even when prisoners are put on buses for transportation from courthouses or police stations they are all bunched up. That is something the county officials don’t want to address because it would mean opening up one of the other units that has been closed in order to allow prisoners to be distanced from each other.
In the living units the inmates know that they are being put in danger. It is agony, you can see tears running down their faces, many of them begging for medical techs that never arrive because the officers are not making their rounds to check on people. This situation is highly disrespectful.
From the moment I arrived at the jail everyone seemed to know who I was and they knew they were going to have a problem. I was determined that I was not going to ignore what I was seeing. I am going to raise the red flag that those people inside are most likely going to be exposed and many of them will die. The real consequences of this won’t be fully felt until probably the end of this month if not longer because every day they are exposing new people and there is no distance. These places are overcrowded and that is the biggest thing that needs to change inside of Cook County Jail. With no distance and many of the units being enclosed with no access to windows with fresh air, they are going to continue to have a major problem there unless things change immediately.
Cook County is obviously the worst situation for COVID-19 cases in the country but this is likely happening in many more places around the country and we just aren’t hearing about it yet. I just got off the phone with one of the people I work with at San Quentin State Prison in California and he said that they are not being told that anyone has the virus but it is clear people are sick. They are putting prisoners who are sick in solitary confinement as a way to try to contain the spread. He said you can hear people coughing all night and it echoes off the cell walls. There also was at least one guard who had it but no one told the prisoners who it was or if they were exposed. It is truly inhumane, as you say.
I really appreciate your willingness to talk so openly about the conditions you saw inside Cook County Jail. These are the kind of stories that people don’t know. They see the statistics and the numbers but not the human faces behind what is happening and they don’t get to hear about how basic things, like providing people with soap and towels, are not being done.
The final question I have for you is what do you think is the most important thing for people to be doing right now to support prisoners and try to stop this inhumane situation. I know many of us were out last week at the #MassReleaseNow car protests at Cook County Jail and other detention centers around Chicago. After that governor J.B. Pritzker released some prisoners but clearly that is not enough. What do you think people who are outraged by what they just read should do?
I am going to be honest that I think we need a solid week where people just constantly call their elected officials and sic these elected officials on the people who are overseeing the jails. This may be hard to do in Cook County. We need both parties, all elected officials, to prioritize getting resources into the jails. Many of these officials are reluctant to really release prisoners and provide assistance at the numbers that are required because they are looking at the fact that some of these prisoners might be sex offenders or murderers and they are reluctant to help them. What they fail to realize is that unless we do things to dramatically stop the spread of the virus it is not going to go anywhere and it is going to infect everyone.
I believe we need to have a call to direct action to put pressure on our county and state elected officials to do something. In order to do this effectively the little people need to come together, like the teachers, the health-care workers, who I know had a news conference on Friday about this, are going to have to link together with other groups to draw enough effective attention to this issue.
Most media is not going to follow the narrative about what is really happening to the inmates, but if there are medical professionals that are standing there and supporting the prisoners’ claims I think then those claims will have a chance to go all the way up to the top of the state government. I am not really fond of governor J.B. Pritzker because I have talked to him about these conditions and asked him what he would do if this crisis were to occur. Instead of putting forward a way to help people he came into the African American community and he lied to us. He is not doing enough to support prisoners nor the African American community that is dying at higher rates than anyone else.
The last thing I want to say may be controversial but I think the entire state, really the entire country, needs to be shut down for two weeks with only the most essential workers, like those in health care or those providing food deliveries, moving around. We should call on stores to donate their fresh food supplies to people who need it. We have to begin to strategize collectively to start to really stomp out the fire of this virus because we have seen that our elected officials are not doing enough to prioritize people’s needs and stop the spread of the virus. I have really seen how evil elected officials are when it comes to Black and brown people being affected by this virus. They are not doing what they need to do to effectively save lives. We have to come together to make them do the right thing.