Courtesy of Mark Clements

Prison Speaks: Torture survivor Mark Clements on the coronavirus, decarceration, and more

Mark Clements spent April 7 the way he spends many days: protesting outside the Cook County Jail. That day, the police torture survivor and activist was denouncing Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Governor J.B. Pritzker, for the state of things inside the jail—the site of one of the largest single-site outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country—and for not releasing incarcerated fellow survivors of police torture, respectively. The protest went as planned, with the typically colorful Clements saying on Facebook that the governor needs his “ass whooped” for leaving people inside Illinois jails and prisons to die. Clements said in an interview with the Weekly that he didn’t expect the comments to be taken as a literal threat to beat up the governor; he was just trying to convey his frustration with Pritzker. So Clements was very surprised to be arrested and thrown in the same jail where he had been protesting the next day.

At age sixteen, Clements was tortured by detectives working under then-Chicago Police Department Lieutenant Jon Burge and convicted of a quadruple murder that he did not commit. Since his conviction was overturned in 2009, he has spent much of his time working with and for other torture survivors and incarcerated people through the Chicago Torture Justice Center (CTJC) and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR). 

One fellow survivor whom Clements has been advocating for is Gerald Reed, whose case the Weekly last covered in March. Reed, fifty-six years old, is confined to a wheelchair because of an injury he received at the hands of CPD detectives who beat him to elicit a confession. The state Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (TIRC) found Reed’s longstanding claim of torture credible and referred his case back to the Cook County Circuit Court in 2012, but he is still incarcerated. Reed reportedly fell ill in May, which prompted groups like those Clements works with to increase calls for Pritzker to pardon and release Reed and all police torture survivors at risk of contracting coronavirus in prison. 

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Since the COVID-19 outbreaks at the Cook County Jail and Stateville Correctional Center became some of the worst in the country, groups including CAARPR, Black Lives Matter Chicago, the Chicago Community Bond Fund, Parole Illinois, the Illinois Prison Project, and others have been organizing call-ins, car caravans, marches, and other protests to pressure Pritzker, Dart, and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to take every action available to them to decarcerate in order to protect the public health. However, these politicians have thus far failed to meet the groups’ demands. While some people have been released from state and county correctional systems, policymakers and government executives are basing their decisions on a narrow review process that advocates claim is far too slow given the magnitude of the crisis. Pritzker has used his tremendous clemency power to issue just twenty-four pardons so far in his term. The State’s Attorney’s Office opposed release in seventy to eighty percent of the thousands of motions for bond reduction filed by the Cook County Public Defender’s Office between March and May 13, according to data released by the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice. 

Elected officials are likely wary of the political costs of taking bold decarceral measures. Republicans in the state General Assembly have been attacking Pritzker for the very light use of his clemency powers thus far, and in late April, the Tribune published a deeply flawed critical investigation into the workings of two local bond funds, giving the incorrect impression that their work has led to an increase in violence. Ultimately, these attacks fail to acknowledge that COVID-19 is the biggest threat to the public, and that Illinois will never be able to recover from this crisis as long as the virus continues to ravage our incarcerated population. 

Jails and prisons are incubators for disease because they are perpetually overcrowded and unsanitary. Those diseases are easily spread to the surrounding communities through employees commuting home and “jail churn,” or the number of times people are booked into a jail in a year—10.6 million times each year in America, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that higher county jail incarceration rates were associated with increases in overall county mortality rates, even in normal times. As one would expect, it gets much worse during a pandemic: according to a study recently published in the medical policy journal Health Affairs, one in six Chicago coronavirus cases can be traced back to the Cook County Jail.

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Dart, in particular, continues to deny the complete inadequacy of his response to the crisis, even while federal judges have ordered him to do more to contain the outbreak. Dart’s failure to act was not a surprise to Clements, who has been familiar with the sheriff since Dart’s days as a state legislator from the Far Southwest Side in the 1990s. As the co-chair of the House Prison Oversight Committee during his time in the legislature, Dart was “the one that really destroyed, messed up prisons the way that they are now today in the state of Illinois,” according to Clements. 

In the 1990s, Clements operated a radio show from prison, and he used his platform to criticize Dart for the harmful effects of his reform efforts. But Clements said that Dart did his best to silence Clements’ concerns and those of other incarcerated people. “I was doing all I could do as a prisoner to voice and raise the attention of the people to say, ‘Man, we got to go vote and get [Dart] up out of here,’” he said. 

(Dart’s office declined to comment on the claims about Dart’s time as a legislator, writing in a statement it was “unsure of what Mr. Clements is referring to” and instead touting one of his reforms as sheriff: ending solitary confinement within Cook County Jail and encouraging other jail administrators to do the same. An investigation published in December by the Chicago Reporter and prison watchdog nonprofit Solitary Watch raised questions about the effectiveness of Dart’s replacement for solitary, called the Special Management Unit, with one detainee housed there saying, “It’s like basically you’re still stuck in a cell outside of a cell, shackled up.”)

A few years later, Dart was defeated by the Republican nominee when he left the General Assembly to run for state treasurer. Then he made the move to the Sheriff’s Office—first as chief of staff to then-Sheriff Michael Sheahan, then getting elected as Sheriff in 2006

Clements assesses Dart’s response to the outbreak in Cook County Jail in this context. Clements said, “I don’t think he has changed, because of all of his narratives on the news that I have heard so far, he’s stating that these safeguards are being provided… But it’s people like me who have talked to those guys [in Cook County Jail] nearly every single day, and they’re like, ‘No, they didn’t do this, they didn’t do that.”

Clements hasn’t just talked to people in the Cook County Jail: he has firsthand experience of its recent conditions, because he spent almost eighteen hours there on April 9. Clements said that he was placed in a tier with approximately thirty other men. Guards were touching the men without the protection of gloves, masks, or other equipment while mocking the detainees, saying they were certain to get infected. 

In a statement to the Weekly, Dart’s office said, “Due to the extensive social distancing measures the Sheriff’s Office has enacted in response to COVID-19, the population of that tier was 14 on April 9…. There is and has always been copious amounts of soap, hand sanitizer, cleaning products and PPE available to detainees and staff…. Additionally, testing at the jail has always far exceeded what has been available to the general public during this pandemic.” However, these assertions are directly at odds with Clements’s observations, as well as Cassandra Greer-Lee’s tragic experience of trying to save her late husband Nickolas Lee from dying of coronavirus in Cook County Jail, and the stories of many other people with firsthand experience of the jail

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While Clements was eventually separated and placed in his own cell as a protest on his behalf gained steam outside the jail, and was ultimately released on bond, he said, “The brothers and sisters who I spoke with inside of the jail, they are terrified…. That’s one of the things that is not being adequately reported by most media sources… These guys are terrified, they are muzzled, and they are controlled based off of the fact that our media is basically going off of these elected officials just because they are elected officials, and they are giving the inmates no credibility while the inmates are constantly testing positive for this virus.” Clements’ own life was put at risk by his being thrown into the epicenter of Cook County’s outbreak: he has asthma and is at high risk of a more severe case if he contracted the virus. 

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The dangerous conditions in the Cook County Jail during the pandemic are why Clements was so alarmed on April 7, after the protest at the jail, when he received a call from his sister saying the police had ransacked her house looking for him. While Clements originally thought that it couldn’t possibly be true because he didn’t do anything wrong, his fears were confirmed the next day when his girlfriend Crystal was contacted by the police while she was at work. Clements called the number back from a different phone to ask why the police were looking for Mark Clements, and after the police said that they just needed to talk to him—“he can come in and clear it up and that’s the end of it,” Clements says they said—he knew that something was up, so he refused to comply. 

Approximately thirty minutes later, the police were at Crystal’s door. Clements said that the men appeared to be detectives, and that there were a lot of them; some were even dressed in military fatigues. Clements and Crystal were alarmed and confused, so Crystal did not answer the calls or knocks while Clements tried to hide. The police then threatened to get the battering ram, before Clements and Crystal heard one officer instruct another to go get the keys. Mark immediately knew that was illegal, because they did not have a search warrant for Crystal’s property. “Even if they have a warrant for my arrest, they still don’t have a warrant to enter into her property without her providing consent,” he said. Nevertheless, the police got the key, entered, and searched the entire house, eventually finding Clements hiding behind the shower curtain. 

When the police first apprehended Clements, they told him that he had some parking tickets that he needed to take care of. When Clements replied that he didn’t drive, the police said that they were taking him in anyway, and escorted him over to the fleet of undercover cruisers waiting outside the house. The procession wound down side streets and eventually brought Clements to the Sheriff’s office in west suburban Maywood. During booking, he heard a disgruntled employee yell, “The phone won’t stop ringing, everybody keeps calling asking for Mark Clements.” BLM Chicago, CTJC, and CAARPR had organized a call-in to demand Clements’s freedom as soon as they heard that he had been arrested. Clements eventually got to speak with a friend from CAARPR, who assured him that his supporters would be in north suburban Skokie in the morning to support him in bond court.  

At the Maywood holding facility, Clements was placed in one of the fourteen dirty cells on the men’s side, where he said there was a complete lack of sanitation materials. His cell was close to six others who were locked up, so he began to converse with them. Five of them were there on unspecified charges related to alleged gang activity, potentially a result of Chicago’s error-riddled gang database. They told Clements that they had been at the Maywood station for days without access to a phone to call their loved ones or lawyers. “They can pick up people who are associated with street gangs and take them to that police station and leave them there for three to seven days without providing them any access to a telephone call while they’re claiming to be investigating,” Clements said. “When I found that out, that was also mind-blowing, because I had worked on the black site at Homan Square… And I’m like, this is a black site!” 

Clements was similarly isolated when he was tortured in 1981—when he was in police custody, his requests for his parents, an attorney, and a youth officer (he was sixteen at the time) were all denied. The use of incommunicado detention is a longstanding tactic of the Chicago Police Department, and lawyers have reported widespread abuse of this tactic during the recent uprisings against racist police violence. Overall, less than two percent of people arrested in Chicago actually get legal representation while in custody at police stations. 

Before court the next morning, Clements was interrogated by investigator Leslie Turner from the Illinois State Police. After a couple minutes of questioning, the officer seemed to recognize Clements and asked, “You wouldn’t happen to be Mark Clements, over there in C-House in Stateville, would you?” Both men took off their protective masks—Clements said that they gave him a “little tiny paper mask that really was nothing, it was like the masks that they’re saying don’t pass out”—and they immediately recognized each other from decades ago while Clements was still incarcerated. Clements recounted the interaction: 

“Come to find out I knew him for twenty-five years, he just started laughing, because this is the same type of stuff that I would do inside the prison system—pulling stunts is what it was called. [Turner] said, ‘Man, if I knew it was you I wouldn’t have even come.’

“[Turner] had told me that it was a stop order for Mark Clements… They had received a tip, is what they say, from law enforcement—he wouldn’t say who the law enforcement was—that I threatened to kill the governor. And I told him, ‘Well, Turner, listen here, you know how I am, we’re gonna just keep it real.’ I said, ‘What you’re looking for is on Facebook Live. And I said, ‘I wanna get the quote correct, I said, “The governor needs his ass whooped for leaving people, families inside to die,” and he started laughing and whatnot you know… Before [Turner] even left, he said, ‘Man, you know, I’m just gonna put down that the guy is an activist, you know, and this is what he does.’ ”

With the help of civil rights lawyer Joey Mogul and a team of attorneys from the CTJC and the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, Clements was able to secure bond and was back home later that night. However, he still suspects misconduct, as do his supporters, who protested and demanded Clements’s release for almost the whole thirty-five hours he was in custody. Clements argued that the police and their unions have a history of this kind of retaliation. He said that if he had known that old warrants for his arrest existed, he would have fallen back a bit on the activism, but he was never served with any kind of notice. While one of the warrants turned out to be related to an old relationship that soured and led to both parties taking out orders of protection, Clements believes that his arrest was pretextual and that he was targeted by CPD and the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) for his activism on behalf of torture survivors and people affected by police violence. 

Reports obtained by the Weekly from the Sheriff’s Office and Illinois State Police show that the day after Clements’s protest was broadcast on Facebook Live, a deputy chief of the Sheriff’s Police notified the department’s Street Crime Suppression Unit that Clements had two outstanding warrants—the last of which was issued in 2018. They also show that management of his girlfriend’s apartment building opened the door for police after a neighbor told the officers that Clements was in the apartment. 

After officers arrested Clements, they found he had apparently not completed his annual registration as a murderer, one of the conditions of the manner in which his conviction was overturned. The State Police was also notified the same day of the “threats” Clements made against Pritzker—though its report does not say who made the notification—and that he was “later taken into custody by the Cook County Sheriff’s Police on two unrelated charges.” The report notes that Clements told investigators that “he was merely speaking out of his emotions for those who are incarcerated” and that “he knows better [than] to threaten the Governor, especially after serving 28 years in prison.”

Clements had been wary of the possibility of retaliation ever since the conclusion of the civil rights lawsuit of torture survivor Stanley Wrice, who was exonerated after being incarcerated for thirty-one years and then awarded $5.2 million by a civil jury. Clements was present in the courtroom on the day the verdict came down, as the FOP’s president and vice president glared at him and others who celebrated after the verdict was announced. Clements feared that his comments at the courthouse that day, saying that their presence was a waste of taxpayer dollars given the fact that Wrice was innocent, had made him a target. In addition, shortly after that trial, Clements and his coworkers at the CTJC discovered an FOP letter in which the union demanded that Foxx charge torture survivors with perjury for making claims to the TIRC. Clements knew that the FOP and many CPD officers were probably upset with him, but he never thought that his life would be in danger. 

Despite his concerns about retaliation, Clements is doing everything he can to raise his voice, tell his story, and call for the release of all torture survivors and other people at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus in prisons and jails. Commenting on Illinois’s outbreaks, Clements said, “I think that this is now a time to seriously look at the punitive aspects of our criminal justice system and the effects that it is having on not just one community, but all of the communities as a whole… These guys just weren’t sent to these prisons to die. [Elected officials] have to do a lot more.” 

Clements was especially disappointed in Pritzker, the one official who has the most unilateral power to stop the spread of the virus through decarceration, by granting clemency. Since his release from prison in 2009, Clements has received countless letters from incarcerated people seeking his assistance. So when Clements got the chance to speak with Pritzker while he was still on the campaign trail, at an event with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH organization, he asked Pritzker what he would do about incarcerated survivors of police torture. Clements said Pritzker promised him that “if he was elected governor, any torture claims that were obvious, he would pardon them… But he hasn’t done anything.” 

No torture survivors have been freed by Pritzker as of the writing of this article—even Gerald Reed, whose conviction was vacated over a year ago. Clements is also seeking a pardon for himself and other survivors like him who were forced to take a plea deal in order to be released—which means that Clements still has a record, and requirements like enrolling in a state murder registry that facilitated his arrest after the April protest, for a crime that he did not commit. 

As he was getting ready to hang up the phone from his interview with the Weekly, Clements explained he had to run to another Zoom call. Before we spoke, he was meeting with others from the CTJC, helping community members prepare emergency petitions for their loved ones’ release before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. After the call, he was meeting with CAARPR members to help plan a “Free Them All” forum with the Campaign to Free Incarcerated Survivors of Police Torture (CFIST). The virtual event featured a documentary that highlighted the struggles of incarcerated survivors of police torture who still have not received justice, as well as a panel of speakers including torture survivor Darrell Cannon, Aislinn Pulley from CTJC and BLM Chicago, Nadine Naber from CFIST and MAMAs, Brian Ragsdale from CAARPR, and Armanda Shackelford, Gerald Reed’s mother. 

In an April 9 article published by Truthout, Shackelford wrote:

“What hurts the most is that our children didn’t bring the virus onto themselves. It’s being brought to them. I have befriended many prisoners because not everyone has family to speak for them. The message I’m hearing from those inside is the same: We need help because the prisons aren’t sanitized and aren’t clean… It’s clear that a thorough rethinking of our prison system—and much else about our country and its numerous racial and economic disparities—will need to take place if we want to successfully put this catastrophic pandemic behind us. But for now, the urgent priority must be removing as many prisoners as possible, especially elderly people and those with underlying conditions or compromised immune systems.”

Clements’s work shares this urgency, and it will not stop as long as torture survivors remain incarcerated. Elected officials should heed his call and free all torture survivors, domestic violence survivors, and others incarcerated due to police or prosecutorial misconduct. They should also listen to Shackelford and the countless other advocates who are calling for them to free their loved ones who are most at risk of contracting the coronavirus in prisons and jails. 

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “Illinois has an incarceration rate of 564 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities), meaning that it locks up a higher percentage of its people than many wealthy democracies do,” including the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Italy, and more. It has been apparent for many years that there are far too many people locked up in Illinois, but the coronavirus crisis has made it an even more urgent life or death matter. A study by the ACLU predicts that a failure to decarcerate could lead to 100,000 additional deaths nationwide, among people inside prisons and out. 

Cook County Jail is the ninth largest single-site outbreak in the country as of July 6, and Stateville is also among the top hundred hotspots. While the jail’s population has decreased since the outbreaks, it is back on the rise again, going from its record low of 4,026 back to 4,524. Further, Illinois’ prison population has barely budgedan alarming pattern that is being replicated across the country. As Clements continues to highlight, Dart, Foxx, and Pritzker could be doing much more. 

Additional reporting by Sam Stecklow

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Bobby Vanecko is a contributor to the Weekly. He is a law student at Loyola University Chicago. He last wrote for the Weekly advocating for defunding CPD

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