Guantánamo in Chicago

March 3, 2015

Nicole Colson reports on revelations about an off-the-books detention center used by Chicago police--and explains that this is only the latest chapter in a long, dark history.

FROM THE outside, it looks like a nondescript warehouse building on Chicago's West Side.

But inside the building known as Homan Square, victims of Chicago police are subjected to a perverse and abusive legal limbo--kept out of the formal system without access to lawyers, shackled to benches and walls for hours at a time, and improperly interrogated and sometimes abused at the hands of police.

The new revelations about police torture in Chicago have been coming fast and furious after a series of articles by Spencer Ackerman in Britain's Guardian newspaper--but they add to a long and dark history of sickening abuse and violence, carried out in the name of upholding the law.

"These are acts of child abuse, beatings, torture and a police department in Chicago that has recklessly disregarded the fundamental decency of due process," said Mark Clements, a victim of Chicago police abuse three decades ago under the notorious torturer Jon Burge. He was falsely convicted and sent to prison for 28 years until he was finally released. "The violations described here cannot be ignored," he said.

Chicago police stand outside their Homan Square "black site"
Chicago police stand outside their Homan Square "black site" (Brian Greene)

Calling the facility the "domestic equivalent of a CIA black site"--the secret U.S. prison sites abroad operating as part of the so-called "war on terror"--Ackerman wrote that the practices at Homan Square included:

-- Keeping arrestees out of official booking databases;
-- Beatings by police;
-- Shackling for prolonged periods;
-- Denying attorneys access to the "secure" facility;
-- Holding people without legal counsel for between 12 and 24 hours, including people as young as 15.

Lawyers who spoke to Ackerman described what happens at the Homan Square facility as an "open secret" among defense attorneys. They said they had clients who had been "kept out of the system" while in custody at Homan, meaning they were essentially denied representation while being interrogated or pressured to confess.

Eliza Solowiej of Chicago's First Defense Legal Aid told Ackerman that one client's name was changed in the Chicago central bookings database before he was taken to Homan Square without a record of his transfer. He was later sent to the hospital with a head injury. According to Solowiej:

He said that the officers caused his head injuries in an interrogation room at Homan Square. I had been looking for him for six to eight hours, and every department member I talked to said they had never heard of him. He sent me a phone pic of his head injuries because I had seen him in a police station right before he was transferred to Homan Square without any.

Suspects "just disappear," criminal defense attorney Anthony Hill told Ackerman, "until they show up at a district for charging or are just released back out on the street."

Vic Suter, a protester arrested prior to the 2012 NATO summit held in Chicago, told Ackerman that she was detained for some 18 hours at Homan, but was never booked or allowed to make a phone call. For the entire time, Suter says, she was shackled to a bar behind a bench. Other NATO protesters faced similar treatment. As Suter said:

The stark difference between Homan and a county jail or a precinct that has holding cells or any other concept of a common jail that most Americans have is that you have no rights at Homan. You are just kind of held hostage. The inability to see a lawyer is a drastic departure from what we consider our constitutional rights. Not being able to have that phone call, the lack of booking, makes it so that when you're there, you understand that no one knows where you are.

According to Suter, the officer who drove her to Homan warned her, "You're going to get a tour of hell in Homan."

COMPARING HOMAN Square to the treatment of "war on terror" detainees at U.S. black sites and prison camps like Guantánamo Bay may seem like hyperbole. But according to Ackerman, there's a direct connection between the methods of the Chicago police and those used on detainees at Guantánamo Bay.

Before focusing on Homan Square, the Guardian published multiple reports by Ackerman about Chicago detective Richard Zuley, a Navy reservist who later became an interrogator at Guantánamo Bay. One man whose questioning Zuley oversaw, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, alleged that he was shackled for extended periods of time and that Zuley made an implicit rape threat against his mother.

Ackerman wrote that Zuley's interrogation of Slahi is considered one of the "most brutal ever conducted at the U.S. wartime prison." Stuart Couch, a former Marine lieutenant colonel and military commissions prosecutor, told Ackerman: "I've never seen anyone stoop to those levels. It's unconscionable, from a perspective of a criminal prosecution--or an interrogation, for that matter."

Zuley appears to have perfected his technique while a Chicago police detective. As Ackerman writes:

[W]hile Zuley's brutal interrogation techniques--prolonged shackling, family threats, demands on suspects to implicate themselves and others--would get supercharged at Guantánamo for the war on terrorism, a Guardian investigation has uncovered that Zuley used similar tactics for years, behind closed police-station doors, on Chicago's poor and non-white citizens. Multiple people in prison in Illinois insist they have been wrongly convicted on the basis of coerced confessions extracted by Zuley and his colleagues.

Zuley, according to Ackerman, was so skilled at eliciting "confessions" from suspects during his time as a Chicago detective that he even won awards, including one signed by then-Mayor Richard Daley for his role in getting a "confession" from Benita Johnson, implicating herself and her ex-boyfriend Andre Griggs in a murder. Johnson claims that she confessed after being handcuffed to a wall for over 24 hours, and that Zuley threatened her with never seeing her children again.

Multiple people who were put behind bars by Zuley maintain their innocence. In 2013, Lathierial Boyd, who had been convicted of murder based on an investigation by Zuley and spent some 23 years in prison, was exonerated by the state of Illinois.

Boyd explained to Ackerman that after giving Zuley permission to search his "swank" loft, the detective returned, telling him, "No nigger is supposed to live like this." Boyd added: "This guy is in another country torturing people, ordering people to be tortured. So what do you think he would do to a nigger in a Chicago police station? I didn't have a chance, man."

Today, according to Ackerman, the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Cook County State's Attorney office is looking into more cases involving Zuley--but it's unclear how many other innocent people might be behind bars as a result of his actions.

IN THE days following Ackerman's initial report about Homan Square, multiple people came forward to tell him and other reporters that they, too, had been "disappeared" in the West Side black site.

In a follow-up report, Ackerman detailed the stories of four African Americans who say they were improperly detained at the facility. Brock Terry claims he was taken to Homan in 2011 after police found him with a large amount of marijuana. He says he was held in Homan for three days, "with no talking, no calls to nobody....I was kept there. I didn't speak to a lawyer or anything. I didn't interact with nobody for three days. And then when I do see the light of day, I go straight to another police station."

Terry said he heard shouts of "no, no, no" and "stop"--and saw cages that looked like dog kennels, but were designed for people. "I didn't really want to believe that, but it's the truth," he said.

During the three days he was kept in Homan, Terry says he was only fed twice and was allowed to use the bathroom only rarely.

In a report at The Intercept website, Juan Thompson described the case of Kory Wright, Deandre Hutcherson and David Smith, who were held at Homan in 2006. Wright claims he was arrested after making change for an undercover police officer. Smith, who is Wright's cousin, and Hutcherson, a friend of Wright's, were also arrested.

Wright says he was zip-tied to a bench for six hours and never allowed a phone call or read his Miranda rights. Hutcherson, who was also shackled to a bench, told The Intercept that he was assaulted by one of the officers: "He gets up, walking toward me. I already know what's gonna happen. I brace myself, and he hit me a little bit, and then took his foot and stepped on my groin."

Hutcherson says he was released only after he faked an asthma attack. Wright and Smith were booked on drug charges--Wright's charges were thrown out, while Smith was eventually acquitted.

As attorney Anthony Hill explained to Ackerman, "This isn't just a facility that's used to detain people for political protests. It's used to interrogate poor Brown and Black young men. That's that the majority of abuse at the Homan Square facility on a daily basis."

ONE OF the questions being asked now is how a facility like Homan could exist and the abuses described as taking place there could continue for so long without a public outcry. But for anyone familiar with the history of the Chicago Police Department, the allegations about what goes on at Homan Square are easy to believe.

In 2003, then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan pardoned four death row prisoners and commuted the sentences of every other death row prisoner in the state of Illinois. Ryan's actions came after years of protest and scrutiny exposed the torture of some 200 African American and Latino men by former Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge and his men at Area 2 and 3 police headquarters.

The methods were brutal--suffocation of prisoners with a plastic typewriter cover, beatings with telephone books, chaining prisoners to radiators, electroshock applied to genitals and more.

It took a protracted fight, beginning with around a dozen prisoners on Illinois' death row putting together their individual stories of police torture and false confessions. With the help of activists on the outside, they raised their voices as the Death Row 10, and the fight spread to other prisoners. In 2000, Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty, declaring that he could no longer be sure innocent people weren't being sent to their death.

The protests continued until Burge--who was fired from the police department after his torture ring was exposed, but who stayed out of jail and kept his pension--was finally arrested and charged by federal prosecutors with perjury in connection with the abuses he oversaw. He was tried and convicted, but spent less than four years in prison. Today, Burge is free, while some of his victims still languish behind bars, decades later.

In 2014 alone, according to the Chicago Reporter, the city paid $54.2 million to settle claims and verdicts in police brutality cases. "Police misconduct complaints accounted for just 15 percent of all cases brought against the city that were settled last year, but more than half of all payouts," noted the Reporter.

Mark Clements, the former torture victim, said the revelations about the abuse at Homan Square aren't surprising. "This is, in living color, why there is no transparency among police throughout the city of Chicago," he said. "It's a department that has been allowed to pay out more then a half billion dollars to settle police misconduct claims over the past decades."

THOUGH THE allegations about Homan Square are still unfolding, Amnesty International has called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to open an impartial investigation into the facility. There are also calls for a Justice Department investigation.

But the victims of Chicago police brutality and their supporters know that it will take a determined struggle to win justice.

The police continue to maintain that there is nothing sinister happening at Homan Square, and that the Guardian reports are wrong. But at two separate recent protests, activists, including members of the Black Lives Matter movement, have called for the facility to be shut down and for independent investigation into the conduct of officers there.

Ackerman's reports are coming at an inconvenient time for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is facing a runoff election--the first-ever in a mayor's race--against liberal challenger Jesús "Chuy" Garcia, after Emanuel fell well short of a majority of votes in the February election. Unfortunately, though, Garcia has made the hiring of 1,000 more Chicago cops a main campaign promise--and so far, both he and Emanuel have been all but silent about Homan Square, apparently hoping not to alienate the "cop vote."

As Flint Taylor, an attorney with the People's Law Office who has pursued police torture cases over many years, explained to Ackerman, activists shouldn't have much hope that the politicians will do the right thing on their own:

Over the last 25 years, we have repeatedly brought to the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney powerful evidence of systemic police torture, repeater cops running wild without discipline or supervision, and a myriad of other patterns of outrageous police misconduct.

When Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator, he assiduously avoided any acknowledgement of, or involvement in, the fight against police torture, as did then Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who later became Obama's chief of staff. Hence, both Chicago and national politics, past and present, make me very skeptical that the Justice Department will investigate Mayor Emanuel's cops now.

Mark Clements agrees that the blame goes far beyond individual officers. "This behavior [at Homan Square] is mind-blowing, another example of why the U.S. Justice Department and the Obama administration have failed the people through their ignorant response to police misconduct that has affected many," he said.

"Chicago seems to not have learned from the days of Jon Burge's torture, which affected me," Clements added. "There must be accountability demanded of the Chicago Police Department for their criminal conduct. From the mayor to the police superintendent, all must be held accountable, with pink slips."

Marlene Martin contributed to this article.

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