Tortured many times over

April 17, 2013

Brit Schulte talks to a Chicago woman who has suffered more than once at the hands of the criminal injustice system--but who continues to resist and speak out.

LAJUANA LAMPKINS was 24 years old in 1982 when she was sentenced to 60 years in prison for a crime she did not commit. Arrested and convicted for murder in the city of Chicago, Lampkins endured not only police torture and a harsh prison sentence, but the death of a son at the hands of the cops.

In the 1980s, female suspects were subjected to the same treatment that male suspects experienced at the hands of former Commander Jon Burge and his detectives. Thanks to years of work by activists and prisoners, Burge and his gang of torturers were finally exposed for having systematically abused and beaten suspects, with the aim of extracting confessions that were used to send the suspects to prison.

The interrogation tactics that LaJuana was subjected to were barbaric--she recalls being slapped and kicked. At one point, she says her children were used as leverage to coerce a confession from her--she says the officers conducting the interrogation handcuffed LaJuana to the wall, physically held them in front of her, and told her that unless she admitted to the crime, she would never see them again, or at least not until they were grown.

LaJuana Lampkins
LaJuana Lampkins

According to LaJuana:

The police took me at age 24 in April 1982 into an interrogation room. They slapped and kicked me, ordered me to tell them the whereabouts of my children ages 9, 4, and 1 years old. They brought them down to the police station, put my sons, ages 4 and 1 years old, in that interrogation room. As I was handcuffed to the wall, they whisked away my 9-year-old daughter to some "undisclosed" area. They were all male officers. And they denied them food, beverages, sleep or any female matron supervision.

Despite these threats and torture tactics, LaJuana still refused to sign a confession. But at the trial, she found herself saddled with a public defender.

Today, she recounts testifying to the inhuman treatment and beatings she endured while in custody. Despite this, as well as the complete lack of physical evidence presented at trial, LaJuana was sentenced to an extended term in prison. At the time, the average sentence for a man convicted of a similar crime was 40 years--LaJuana found herself with a 60-year sentence.

HER CHILDREN were immediately separated into foster homes, and while family members attempted to obtain custody, the state never granted it. LaJuana had difficulty maintaining contact with children, although they did manage to keep in touch, and even visit.

LaJuana only received legal representation through the trial--then the public defender was taken off of her case, despite LaJuana's desire to file appeals. She managed to enroll in distance learning programs and became a paralegal once inside prison, because as she stated, "You're expected to pursue your own legal defense. It is all put on you immediately. I had to get on medication to deal with losing my kids, and now defend myself against this false charge."

At the trial, LaJuana says, the prosecutors constantly deflected the proceedings from the actual crime at hand and instead referred to her involvement with sex work. With all the claims that she was a "bad mother," the trial transcript reads more like character assassination for the "crime" of being poor and a woman, rather than a murder trial. LaJuana always maintained that although she was at the same location where the crime took place, she had no way of knowing that it would, and she was not involved. She ran from the scene, she said, because she was young and scared, and feared for her own life.

Five years into her sentence, LaJuana received word that a police officer named Capt. John Nichols had flown in from Michigan to testify in front of then-Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar that he had information about her case and that she had not committed the crime. People from her church, her oldest children and this officer appealed for clemency from the governor. Despite all of this, her request for clemency was denied, and there is still an active petition for clemency for LaJuana to this day.

During her incarceration, LaJuana constantly wrote to various law firms, schools and innocence projects, but rarely got word back. "African American women, we can't seem to get into those innocence projects," she stated. "We just don't seem to be at the top of their lists."

She voiced frustration at a system that necessitates innocence projects in the first place, but also felt entirely abandoned as a Black woman on this inside:

I am the female part of the broken system Gov. [George] Ryan forgot existed when he paraded numerous men across televised nationwide media and spoke of their torture, their abuse, their injustice. Yet out of approximately 3,000 women in the Illinois Department of Corrections, not one did he exonerate. Not one did he acknowledge as also a victim of a broken system. 

Did he only envision the system is broken for men, and imagine that women had access to the true justice part? I am the voice of the women.

LaJuana talked about the things she missed out on while she was wrongly incarcerated, including family members who passed away while she was serving her sentence. "It was hard, when you're gone that long from your kids, your family," she said. "My youth, they took everything. They never proved me guilty. They just talked about my social status. I was poor. I had three kids. I had no defense against such a powerful system. I had no education to deal with what was happening to me."

In an effort to cope and express herself while imprisoned, LaJuana discovered a passion for poetry and drawing. She translated these talents into a means of survival--trading her skilled portraits and landscapes for necessary commissary items and phone call credits. She spoke out against the conditions of solitary confinement and separation, and often wrote poetry reflecting her discontent with the racist criminal justice system.

LAJUANA WAS granted parole after serving 30 years of a 60-year sentence. She was now 54, a grown woman--and faced with what she characterized as an even greater loss than the loss of her youth.

Two years before being released, LaJuana was notified of the death of her son, Columbia College graduate and respected slam poet Prince Alim Bantu Akbar. On January 4, 2010. Prince found himself disoriented in Calumet City looking for a phone. He was managing bipolar disorder, and was known to be forgetful at times and to lose track of time.

Prince went into a local business and asked to use a phone. When the receptionist refused, he offered her every cent he had on him, which was over $80. She still refused, so he left. The receptionist then called the police, although surveillance video showed there was no threat or disturbance. Police responded within minutes, and shortly thereafter, Prince was dead.

Upon apprehending him, the police moved Prince behind the squad car. Because of this, there is only a partial audio recording of what happened. Medical evidence shows that Prince was Tasered by both officers at least twice, and then shot twice--once in the leg and once in the abdomen. The medical examiner also verified that he was handcuffed at some point, but it is unclear whether or not he had been handcuffed through the entire attack.

This would not be the last time Calumet City police decided to be judge, jury and executioner. In February 2012, Stephon Watts, a 15-year-old autistic child, was tragically murdered by the city's police.

After recounting the details of her son's killing, LaJuana said, "To me, it is just modernized lynching. They found a quick way of killing Black men. I don't think they thought twice about it."

After pausing for a moment, she continued, "I don't know if he took a beating. But I do know that he called on God 12 times in Arabic before he died. You can just hear him screaming. My other son can't listen to the tape. It doesn't sound like a man who was fighting them. It sounds like a man being tortured."

Prince was just 32 years old.

LaJuana immediately set to work while still in prison trying to uncover what really happened to her son, and her fight for justice continues. Not only is she still pursuing a cleared record for herself, but she's working with a team of lawyers on behalf of her son. She said her actions are about restoring dignity and honor to her son's name, which was defamed in the media in the initial reports of his murder.

Asked what she wanted most, LaJuana said she doesn't want another family to ever again go through the many traumas she has been through. She said that she fights not only for her own family, but is united with all families who have lost loved ones to police terror. She spoke about police accountability and methods of prevention of police brutality, including more cameras on police vehicles that rotate and better audio quality. She said she wants them to know they're being watched.

"I want Prince to be remembered for the great man he was," she said. "He was 'Jus Rhymz' when he performed his poetry, and people loved that he talked about real issues. He loved God, and he loved his family. I want people to know how good he really was."

The cruelty of the New Jim Crow justice system is clear in LaJuana Lampkins' conviction and in her son's killing. The blatant sexism and racism are overwhelming, but the concerted efforts of families fighting all over the country for justice in their own cases and in solidarity with each other is what keeps LaJuana and her family fighting.

She has become active with local struggles and attends meetings of the Illinois Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, where continues to lend her voice to the struggle. It's clear that with women like LaJuana on the side of justice, this cause has a fighting chance of challenging the racist system and winning.

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