Militant Journalism

Inmates go on hunger strike over conditions at Illinois jail

Recently, a group of men incarcerated at the Champaign County Jail banded together and went on a hunger strike that lasted from Feb. 25 until March 11. But what prompted them to give up food and water?

Conditions in jails and prisons are no secret, but often it takes first-hand accounts to drive home the inhuman treatment that prisoners are subjected to. Strapped to chairs, left unattended while on suicide watch and denied access to legal representation, these are some of the more direct violations that might occur while locked up in the county jail. In fact, these are specific examples given by two of the strikers’ mothers, Julie Campbell and Monique Coleman, who spoke to Liberation News.

Both shared stories they had heard from their sons, Jakob Hill and Troy Carter. “One man had clogged his toilet and flooded the cell. They left him like that, and didn’t bring him any water. Jakob saw him drinking from the toilet,” said Campbell, Hill’s mother. 

Other methods of repression tend to be more covert. Among these, and the primary issue raised by the strikers, are the massive financial penalties levied upon those incarcerated. Many of the strikers have sky-high bonds, some as much as $1 million. Between that and the $6 audio and $13 video calls, it is very difficult for those accused to form proper defenses.

Not only are these methods intended to dehumanize and demoralize working-class folks who may be driven into poverty while incarcerated, it all occurs while these individuals are still presumed innocent. Campbell said her son stated that he feels like he’s “in a vortex, and never getting out.”

So what was the end game of striking? “They just want to be treated fairly and be able to get help,” says Campbell. Hill has struggled with drug addiction and mental health challenges for much of his life. Champaign County once had a separate court for charges associated with mental health. Such a court was focused more on reformative rather than punitive justice, similar to the existing drug court.

The hunger strikers released the following statement while the strike was still ongoing:

Declaration of Champaign County Inmates

We, the inmates of Champaign County jail, understand the following. Our Eighth Amendment rights are being violated. Bonds that are so excessive that we could never afford are quantifiably no different than having no bond at all. We do not have access to resources that can help us prepare for our defense. We are facing a constant state of oppression, depression, and anxiety from being away from our support systems. We are denied access to tablets to allow communication for contacting loved ones. 

Champaign County should allocate the money used to cage our fellow beings for other promoting prevention and education. 

To this end, we are on a hunger strike starting Saturday, February 25, 2023. No food or water until our Eighth Amendment rights are recognized. 

This is an opportunity to be pioneers in a new age of reform.  

Dominic Augustus Fortune, Jacob Hill, Troy Carter, Richard Frazier, Malcom McGee, John Clay, Rajuan Williams

The sheriff’s response to the statement was, of course, to first deny a strike was occurring at all, then later claim that it had ended days before it truly did. The strikers have received support from the community in abundance. Community members gathered outside the county jail on March 6 to rally in solidarity with those inside. Speakers pointed out the complicity of the state’s attorney, Julia Rietz, in both rising jail populations and poor jail conditions. By charging high bonds, folks tend to stay behind bars longer and are easier to prosecute. If people are able to bond out, they have less money to spend on forming an effective defense. 

Following the rally, all hunger strikers, then numbering 17, were released from solitary except for one. This shows the power of physically pressuring government officials, both elected and unelected. To this end, making calls to both the Champaign County Sheriff and the State’s Attorney about cash bail and the conditions in the state’s jails can help forward the cause of those incarcerated.

Continuing to fight for carceral system reform is critical to advancing working-class power in the United States. Those incarcerated represent some of the most exploited and oppressed among our class, producing goods for the meagerest wages or sometimes no wages at all. Reducing the power of private prison companies and the corporations that benefit from prisoners’ labor means increasing the consciousness of America’s working class. We must realize that we aren’t free until all are free!

Feature photo: Community members gathered outside the Champaign County Jail, March 6, to rally in solidarity with those inside. Liberation photo

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