Meet the victims of mass incarceration

June 15, 2015

Marlene Martin of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty reveals the invisible injustices of the prison system in this account of a visit to a downstate Illinois jail.

IT IS a wet dreary day in Chicago when a group of 35 people gather at Precious Blood Church on the Southwest Side of Chicago to make the long drive to Menard Correctional Center. The prison is at the southern end of the state, a six- or seven-hour drive from Chicago, depending on traffic.

Julie Anderson has made the trip, on her own, with a friend or with her husband, five times a month--the maximum number of visits a prisoner is allowed--every month for the past 20 years. Her son Eric was 15 when he was convicted of a double homicide and given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. "I never knew my life was going to be like this," Julie tells me. "What I once thought of the criminal justice system has completely changed. I used to believe in it--I don't anymore."

People have their bags, suitcases and blankets, and they're beginning to congregate in front of a large bus, donated by Northwestern University School of Law's Bluhm Legal Clinic. This is the fourth annual trip, coordinated to help family members visit their loved ones, many of whom were sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles.

Inside Menard Correctional Center in downstate Illinois
Inside Menard Correctional Center in downstate Illinois

For some, this bus trip will be the only time this year that they will be able to get to Menard, since many don't drive and wouldn't be able to afford a hotel stay. Ray Joiner, whose son is incarcerated at Menard says, "They put these prisons so far away for a reason. It makes it so difficult for family to visit. That makes it hard on these guys, not getting to see your family. It's like they want to break you. And that's exactly what they do--they break you."

A minister says a prayer before we leave. As he steps off the bus, someone says, "This is the party bus." People chuckle as the bus pulls away.

OF THE 3,400 prisoners housed at Menard, 17 will get visits over the two days we're there, as a result of this trip.

Julie will be visiting her son's cellmate Michael, because her own son is presently at Cook County Jail, awaiting a resentencing hearing. "He's a wonderful person," she says of Michael, "and I feel bad because he doesn't get visits very often. He's been such a good influence on Eric. They've become very close. And he's so smart. He helps a lot of people in there."

Julie sends as much as she can to both Michael and Eric, so they can share items they buy from the commissary. Julie's mission is to bring her son home--since she can't do that right now, she'll instead bring as much home to him as she can. That's why she makes this long trip five times a month--she is Eric's lifeline.

Like the other juvenile offenders at Menard who were given mandatory life without parole sentences, Eric has had a stroke of luck. Because of a 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Miller v. Alabama case, it is no longer constitutional to sentence people who were juveniles at the time of their alleged crime to mandatory life without parole sentences. Then, in 2014, Illinois became one of several states to determine that the Supreme Court ruling should be applied retroactively.

Each of the 80 prisoners still incarcerated in Illinois who were given a mandatory life without parole sentence as a juvenile offender will get a resentencing hearing. Each one will come before a judge, who will decide if the sentence was correct or if a lower sentence should be imposed.

In theory, a judge could listen to a prisoner's appeal and determine that they have already served enough time--and vacate their sentence. That's what Julie and the other family members are holding out hope for.

Unfortunately, the Miller decision didn't do away juvenile life sentences. Going forward, judges can still impose this barbaric sentence, even for a juvenile. But at least now they will be required to take "mitigating circumstances" into account: the age of the defendant at the time of the crime, their life circumstances, and the current scientific research showing that the brains of juveniles are still developing and so they have less impulse control and are more vulnerable to peer pressure.

The U.S. has more than 2,000 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences--a sentence that no other country in the world gives to minors.

RESENTENCING HAS begun in Illinois, and that has Julie very much on edge--especially considering how the first case went: that of Adolfo Davis.

Back in 1990, when Adolfo was 14 years old, he agreed to be the lookout for his fellow gang members in a crime in which two people were killed. He was arrested and put on trial as an accomplice, but the courts treated him as responsible, as if he had pulled the trigger. When he was convicted, he was given a mandatory life without the possibility of parole sentence--even though he didn't actually kill anyone.

Earlier this year, Adolfo, now 38 years old, came before Judge Angela Petrone for his resentencing. The hearing lasted 11 hours, and one of the moms of an Illinois prisoner describes what a grueling day it was: "[Petrone] let the prosecutors talk for four hours, and they just kept saying the same thing over and over again, and dramatically pointing at Adolfo. She only gave us a two-minute bathroom break, and then you had to be back in the courtroom. Some people couldn't even get downstairs to the bathroom in time."

Petrone re-imposed the original sentence, stating in her opinion: "This sentence is necessary to deter others. It is necessary to protect the public from harm. The defendant's acts showed an aggression and callous disregard for human life far beyond his tender age of 14."

Julie was in the courtroom to support Adolfo. She was stunned by Petrone's ruling. "She didn't even give any credence to the new findings on brain science that were presented at his hearing," Julie said. "The judge said it was only speculative. But the Miller ruling specifically talked about the brain science. It's not speculative! She had her mind made up as soon as she came in there."

Julie described watching Adolfo--who has already spent almost two-thirds of his life locked up in prison--when he heard he had been re-sentenced to life without parole. "It was awful," Julie said. "He just broke down. His shoulders were heaving as he sobbed. I was so angry. I just went home, and I thought: Really? Really?"

Julie said Adolfo wasn't even in the room when the judge entered and began to read out her seven-page decision. His lawyer had to interrupt to stop her so he could be found. "She wasn't even aware that he wasn't here," Julie said. "She wasn't even going to look at him. She's throwing away his life, and she isn't even going to look at him. He wasn't even a person to her."

ON THE bus, someone puts on a movie, a few folks chat quietly with each other, and others stare out the window at the endless miles of flat, open land on each side of the highway.

Julie tells me I won't be able to take pictures of Menard. "No, they don't let you. They don't even allow photos of the prisoners." She pulls up a picture of Eric on her phone. Beaming out is a young, slim, handsome boy of 15. "This is Eric when he was 15," she says proudly, "but that's it. I don't have anything current." Even though Eric is now 35, there is nothing to depict him over the years or to chronicle his visits with his family. "It's just cruel--another form of humiliation." Julie says of the policy.

Gladys Weatherspoon is talkative and friendly. She is traveling with her mother Maxime to visit her brother, Fred Weatherspoon, who has served 22 years in prison. He's also charged with accountability. "I've been on three of these trips, and I just hope we don't have to make it again," she says, referring to her hopes that Fred's sentence will be vacated at his hearing.

Gladys has two kids of her own, who are grown and out of the house. She talks about some difficulties in her life own life. "I live with my mom now," she says. "I haven't worked in three years." She talks about hopeful job prospects and of maybe being a nursing assistant--when she finds out that I'm a nurse myself, she asks me detailed questions.

I overhear her ask Ray if he believes in God and then if he believes in hell. I think to myself that they're already living through a kind of hell. Ray says he does, and Gladys is incredulous. "Like all that fire and heat and stuff?" she asks.

Throughout the bus ride, people share similar stories of the awful conditions inside prison, starting with the petty and cruel restrictions. Julie asks the people around us:

Remember when the woman visited, and they told her she couldn't leave with the candy bar she bought? She didn't see the signs, and she had bought the candy bar from the commissary, so she thought she could bring it out with her. They were so mean. They were just screaming at her: "No! YOU CANNOT BRING THAT OUT!"

So the girl just sat there and opened up the wrapper, and she just shoved the candy bar all into her mouth, and just munched on it right in front of them. She just stared at them as she munched on it. They were so mad. She got banned from visiting for that.

Another family member talks about the routine shakedowns inside the prison. While their cells are searched, the men are brought into a main area, their hands are shackled, and they're made to squat down and put their foreheads on the wall. They aren't allowed to move, and they might have to stay there for hours. Some defecate on themselves, and others fall over or pass out.

When I ask why they're made to do this, Julie answers: "Because it's prison. Because that's what they do." Others nod in agreement.

WE HAVE a bus driver who makes good time. Julie said the last bus driver they had was mean and took the long way to get to Menard. Our bus driver Roland is friendly and appreciative of what we're doing. At the end of the trip, he tells us he wants to be our driver next year, and will join us to visit someone inside. "I actually know a few guys in there," he says.

We pull into the convent where we will be staying before 5 p.m., and the nuns--all of them white and most of them elderly--are waiting for us and start to fuss over us immediately: "How was the drive? You must be hungry? Come in and have something to eat."

Everyone will have a room of their own, with a dresser and Internet--every three people will share a bathroom. The nuns show us to our rooms down the expansive corridors, where our names are handwritten on each door. The nuns refuse to take any money for our two-day stay, and they insist on feeding us several meals while we are there.

Emmanuel Andre is the tall, elegant man who co-organizes this annual event with Julie. They are a study in contrasts outwardly: Julie is short, white and gregarious; Emmanuel is tall, Black and reserved. But both care a great deal about these families and the prisoners, and they convey respect when talking with each of them.

A certain amount of dignity is stripped away from family members when a loved one is in prison. How do you tell your friends that you are taking a three-day trip to downstate Illinois to visit your son, who is locked up in prison and may die there? Emmanuel wants to give back their rightful dignity to every family member.

Emmanuel is a practicing attorney who knows the inside of the criminal justice system and helps break down the legal jargon for people. Each night, Emmanuel pulls people together in a circle to share what is on their mind. We each take a turn speaking to the questions he poses, "What are you most looking forward to on this visit?" "What is it that you feel you need most right now?" He listens carefully as each person speaks.

Mary Hicks, who will be visiting her son Keon Hicks, expresses how happy she is to be seeing her son. Unlike the family members of others in the circle, her son is not eligible for resentencing. "My son missed it by a year." She expresses her gratitude to everyone. "It just feels so good to be with you all," she says, as she smiles broadly.

Many people give thanks and recognition to God. One mom says, "I know God is going to see us through this."

When Gloria Jackson speaks of visiting her son Demetrius, she breaks down. Between sobs, she talks about how isolating it was before she met the other family members in the room. "It was just so hard," she says. "I just cried so much. I felt so alone, and I didn't think I could to it. You all helped me."

Sitting next to her, Gloria's daughter is also crying as she tells us how happy she is to be seeing her brother. Demetrius, like Eric, will be getting a resentencing hearing, and like Adolfo, he was charged with accountability, which means that even if you didn't actually commit a crime like murder, you are just as guilty in the eyes of the law for having participated in it.

The Guerra family, a mom, brother and sister, are in the circle for the first time. Maria, the mother, talks about how frustrated she is with the criminal justice system. "They twist everything you say," she says. "You say one thing, and they twist it around like it was something else." Anita, the sister, says, "My brother didn't do anything wrong. He shouldn't be in there." Daniel, the brother, remains silent, fidgeting nervously with his hands.

THE NEXT day, we go in two shifts to Menard. People are dressed up like they are going to church. Gloria is wearing a smart white denim matching pantsuit. Vera has her hair done up nice and is wearing a striking purple shirt.

Approaching Menard is like approaching a fortress. It's a huge facility, perched on top of a hill. We are processed and assigned seats in the small visiting room that looks like a workplace lunchroom--there are 20 or 30 small tables with chairs that are all bolted to the floor.

Signs litter all of the walls with various rules written on them. On the back wall are vending machines. Some of the family members begin buying food from the machines and put it on the tables as they wait for their loved one to be ushered in. Prisoners aren't allowed to get up from the tables once they sit down, only the visitors can.

This will be my first time visiting Jamie Jackson. I came to know him from working alongside his mother Marva in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's chapter in Chicago. Even though Jamie didn't get the death penalty, his "life until death in prison" sentence is tantamount to the same thing. Marva and other moms--like Virginia Clements, whose son Mark Clements, now free and a dedicated Campaign member, also got life without the possibility of parole--wanted a place to fight for their sons too. So they got involved in our chapter.

Julie is excited I will be able to visit with Jamie. Marva is getting older, and it's difficult for her to make the trip. "I've called her a few times, begging her to come, but I just can't convince her," Julie says. "I just love Marva. She is the sweetest thing. She's always praying for me."

Jamie is late in arriving, so I sit and watch as others greet their loved ones, hug, laugh, begin chattering. We call out to each other, and some introduce me. I comment more than once, "He looks just like you!" Even though we can't go to each other's tables, there is a sense of camaraderie about the visit.

Ray, who lives in the Englewood neighborhood, is the only dad making the visit--he's here to see his son Robert, who is serving a 40-year sentence and is likewise not eligible for resentencing. In the group circle later that night, he identifies the atmosphere in the room that day. "It was a good visit," he says. "It had a good energy in the room. I've been on other visits, this was a good one."

I am amazed at what the prisoners can eat. Keon Hicks is tearing through burgers and all kinds of snacks. Julie is visiting her son's cellmate Michael, and he has piles of food she has bought for him on the table, which he carefully unwraps and eats as he talks and laughs with Julie.

FINALLY, JAMIE comes out. We exchange a hug. His smile is warm, and he's upbeat.

He tells me the guys were calling him pops for a while because he had a long beard until just a few days ago. "Then I just cut it all off," he says. His head is bald, too. "I shave it," he says. "Does it look good?" He tilts his head back to show me. He has an easy laugh, oftentimes from the belly. How can you laugh from the belly in a place like that? I don't know, but Jamie does.

I want our table to match the others and use up the $20 I put on the vending card, but Jamie can't tell me anything he wants from the vending machine. I guess and come back with a burger of some sort and a bag of chips. He doesn't even finish the burger and painstakingly nibbles on each chip until they are finally gone. "I don't care about the food," he says. "I just want to talk."

He wants to know how the ride down was, what it's like at the nun's place. I tell him about how I took a walk around the grounds surrounding the convent and got lost. "I walked toward a barn I saw," I say, "and a whole family was eating at a picnic table out back. I walked towards them, and they all turned to look at me, surprised to see me there, while I apologetically asked them if they could point me in the direction of where the nuns live." Jamie says, "Good thing you weren't Black." He leans back in his chair laughing, and so do I.

There aren't many Black people around this area. The majority are confined inside Menard. This area has a reputation of being Klan country.

Jamie tells me of his work at Menard. He works in the kitchen six days a week, six hours a day. He and a crew of guys clean the food trays, wash and stack them again. It's very physical labor, for which he gets paid $19 a month.

He talks about how he once had a job stocking items for the commissary: "I really liked that, and I was good at it. I had to figure out how much to order of something, and I always changed it up. Like I always had a different pair of sneakers, not the same ones. I would figure out what was selling and what wasn't and always changed it up a bit." I can tell by the way Jamie describes this job that he would be good at running a business of his own. He says it's one thing he hopes to do one day.

Jamie was convicted of robbing and killing a store clerk in 1991, when he was 17. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. But his sentence doesn't exactly fit under the Miller decision. The judge who imposed it wasn't required to do so under mandatory sentencing. "But he may as well have," says Jamie. "He really didn't take anything into account, like the fact that I had no prior record."

Jamie and his lawyer believe that the Miller decision will have ramifications that will eventually help Jamie, too. Presently, he has a petition before the court for a new trial, and he is also pursuing resentencing in light of Miller.

Jamie went to prison when he was 18. He just turned 42 last month.

IN NO time at all, our two hours are up. We are escorted out by a guard, get back on the bus and head back to the convent. Julie is glad it was hassle-free with the guards and staff. "They treated us nice," she says. Everyone on the bus is jubilant, asking one another if they had a good time, and hearing only yesses. Someone says, "But the very best part is that we get to come back and visit again tomorrow."

On the ride back to the convent, Daniel--the brother from the Guerra family, who was silent at the circle last night--is sitting behind me with his mom next to him. I haven't heard him say very much. I ask him what he's holding. I can see it's a painting. "It's my dad." His brother painted a picture of his father wearing a hard hat. "That's my dad," he says nervously stroking the painting.

Daniel starts getting excited and pointing out the window. "I drove that," he says excitedly. "I was there. I drove my tractor there!" His mother Maria says firmly, "Look at me." He does, staring blankly at her. She says, "Calm down, it's okay." After a few moments, he does calm down, and she lets him look away. She tells me that Daniel has seizures and she sometimes has to be careful that he doesn't get too excited.

Daniel looks out the window again, at the green rolling meadows, spotted with barns and cows, and he says, "I drove that, I drove that tractor." I let him know how proud I am that he did.

AT THE circle that night, people share how happy they were to see their loved ones.

"It just felt so good to give him a hug," LaToya Jackson said about visiting with her brother Demetrius. Vera Wages visited her brother Michael Wages and said, "It was just so good to see him," Esther Clark was beaming about her visit with her son Javell.

I was embarrassed when it was my turn, and I cried. I felt overwhelmed by the injustice of it all--to look around and see them visiting, chatting, all dressed up, and seemingly so happy in such an impossible, sad situation that has pushed their relatives so far away, maybe for the rest of their lives. I choke out: "I hope we can get more people like me to visit, to be involved, to help make this invisible injustice visible."

Sarah Silins, who used to help organize these events, drove down on her own with her 10-year-old son. She has brought him before, and he likes the whole experience. "This is good for him," she says, "it's good for him meet these family members and prisoners." She is watchful that he is nothing but respectful to everyone. But she doesn't have to worry--everyone finds him endearing with his mop of curls and his friendly demeanor.

Sarah has an insightful observation about the visits. She notes how family members have been deprived of seeing their loved ones in social situations. "They never get to see them interact with other people," she says. It's something that you can see that Sarah treasures, as she watches her young son's interactions with family members and prisoners.

It's such a simple thing, but life exists in all the simple things. These parents, these brothers and sisters--they've never gotten to see their family members hang out with their peers, interact with a coach or a teacher or a workmate. So the very brief moments in the visiting room--when we call out to each other across our tables, "Oh you look just like your mom!!" "Hello, it's nice to meet you." "How are you doing?" "I'm doing just fine, thank you"--for just a very few precious moments, it's almost kind of normal.

The next day's visit goes equally well. Jamie is in a good mood. He wants to talk about his case, what he feels needs to be done to help him get out of prison. Again, the time goes by too quickly, and I'm getting up to leave. I can see the tears welling up in his eyes. "You'd better send pictures," he yells as he stays seated on his bolted seat, while I line up with the others to leave.

In a letter I get from him when I get home, he says, "It was like I just wanted to walk out with you when you were leaving."

ON THE way home in the bus, people are quiet. Julie ordered everyone a Subway sandwich with chips. She's happy that the families had a good visit, and that most everything went smoothly.

Julie's son Eric does nice paintings, and he donated one to the nuns. After Julie showed the painting to me and Gloria Jackson, she turned to me and said in her husky voice, "She didn't know Eric had life." "Yeah," Gloria agreed, "I didn't know." Julie is so good at taking care of everybody else that not everyone knows her own story.

Julie tells me her daughter called to ask if Sarah was making the trip, and pointed out to her mom that if Sarah didn't go, Julie would probably be the only white person on the trip. I asked Julie what she thought of that. "The system is racist," she said, matter of factly.

Her son Eric is likely to have a resentencing hearing sometime in August. In the meantime, Julie is preparing herself for what might come:

Eric wasn't a bad kid. I was very strict. I was raised Irish Catholic. When Eric complained about his school, that he hated it, I didn't do anything. One time, they made him have silent lunches for one month. I didn't know. Looking back, I should have moved him. Now I would get him out of that school. But that's me at 56--28-year-old Julie didn't know to do that.

Shortly after arriving home, I get a letter from Jamie. The judge has ordered him to court, and he isn't sure why. In a few days, I learn that the judge has agreed to hear Jamie's petition for a new trial. He now has 60 days for his lawyer and him to get ready to make the best case they can to the judge for a new trial.

Hope leaks out of his letter. He writes: "I've just spent so much time in here, I'm ready for the next part of my life to begin."

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