The kind of apology we really need

January 21, 2015

Mark Clements is a survivor of torture by Chicago police under the command of Jon Burge. At the age of 16, he was coerced into a confession that was used to convict him of murders he didn't commit. Mark spent 28 years in prison before winning his freedom. On the outside since 2009, he has been a tireless activist, including as a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Here, he makes the case for reparations for Burge's victims, explaining what this would mean for those outside like him, and those still inside.

JON BURGE is a criminal who will go down in Chicago history as responsible for as many as 200 cases of torture inflicted on African American and Latino suspects in the interrogation rooms of the Chicago Police Department. But he has not been held truly responsible for his crimes, and the victims continue to suffer, both inside and outside prison.

Last month, a group of Chicago activists, attorneys, family members of imprisoned torture victims and former victims of torture marched from police headquarters at 35th and Michigan to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office downtown to call on city officials to have a heart and grant reparations to the Burge's torture victims. Then, on January 15, Martin Luther King's birthday, activists and former torture victims held a sing-in at City Hall to advocate for reparations.

In August 2013, Chicago Mayor Emanuel made an apology to the victims of Chicago police torture. However, neither he nor any Chicago aldermen attempted to do anything concrete for those who suffered.

Marching for reparations for victims of torture by Chicago police
Marching for reparations for victims of torture by Chicago police

While the reparations proposed by the alliance of activists and former victims has drawn criticism--it doesn't address the housing or employment of the men--many believe that it's a starting point that can help stabilize the lives of those who had to suffer even after being released from prison, because they found it difficult to find employment and housing, and maintain normal lives.

The proposed reparations would pay for hospital care, psychological treatment and city college education. Some funds would go toward building a memorial to memorialize the torture survivors, and some of the $20 million total would be split among the survivors themselves.

Some torture survivors who pursued lawsuits against the city have won much larger awards--the city has paid out more than $100 million in settlements and legal fees related to these suits. But the $20 million fund would be a start to help.

BECAUSE OF the downsizing of government agencies and reduced help from church-related groups, men and women released from prison, whether guilty or innocent, have nowhere to turn to help them rebuild a life.

As explained, after an historic, generations-long expansion, U.S. prisons are now releasing more than 600,000 inmates each year. The punishment doesn't end at the prison gates. On the outside, ex-prisoners face broken connections to family and more closed doors when they try to remake their lives.

Most of the men tortured by Jon Burge and his subordinates came from the poorest communities in Chicago. Some had ties with street gangs, some were drug users and sellers, and many were considered petty criminals, frequently arrested by police for minor crimes. Many of the men tortured into confessions by Burge were innocent of the crime they were accused of. Others weren't, but none deserved to be tortured.

As I said in a speech to a protest outside the mayor's office, where petitions with thousands of people supporting reparations were delivered: "I was just sixteen years old when I was arrested. I served 28 years in prison under some of Illinois prisons' darkest conditions, where inmates were killed and staff were killed. Where is my psychological treatment? Where is my health care? I am sick to this day?"

I was detained by police in June 1981 and brought in for questioning. I was handcuffed to a ring attached to the wall inside the interrogation room, and I was beaten, called racist names and had my genitals grabbed and squeezed until I confessed to four murders I didn't commit. This treatment leaves lifelong psychological scars. Plus, 28 years of my life was taken, and I cannot get it back.

I will never have the opportunity to enjoy a normal teenage life. My memory of youth involves maximum security prisons, chains, noisy visiting room and being told that I was someone who set fires and killed people.

Early on in my incarceration, conditions in prison were better. They included college education programs and rehabilitation opportunities. When a prisoner was released, part of the condition for parole was that they must work--and the system helped find them jobs.

That all changed when government stripped education from most U.S. prisons in 1993. Prisons became housing for the homeless and recovery centers for people who did nothing other than possess or sell small amounts of drugs. Inmates, including the Burge torture victims, had to endure violence by some prison staff and the mental abuse of being confined to a cell for weeks without end. Being tortured by Burge and his men was the start of each of these men's lives going haywire and being exposed to what takes to survive behind prison walls.

Plus, there are still men like Johnny Plummer, Gerald Reed, Javan Deloney, Virgil Robinson, Robert Allen, Tyrone Hood, Antonio Nicholas and others who were tortured into making confessions, but who still sit in prison, their appeals for hearings on their claims of torture denied.

In July 2006, a Cook County special prosecutor's report confirmed that torture took place in the Chicago Police Department under Burge's command. The report suggested there was credible evidence to indict Burge and some of his subordinates on criminal charges. But the statue of limitations had expired.

Burge walked free until it surfaced that he had lied in a federal document that he knew nothing about torture inflicted on suspects. Burge was tried for perjury and obstruction of justice in a federal court. In 2010, he was found guilty and was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison. In October of last year, he was released early.

MANY IN the African American community screamed about this injustice for more then 40 years, since when tortures first began to take place.

I know this injustice personally. In 1991, my nephew Javan was arrested, beaten and falsely accused of three drive-by shootings. Another nephew was released in connection with this same crime after telling the court that he had been tortured. His attorneys were competent and had dealt with this issue before, but Javan was found guilty on the same evidence used against his cousin.

Javan has been incarcerated for more than 23 years while evidence piles up of the torture that he and others faced from Burge and his subordinates. It's only fair that Javan and the other torture victims who remain incarcerated be granted a hearing on their claims, based on the newly discovered evidence of what happened at Area Two and Three Violent Crime Units.

Personally, I experienced Chicago's harsh and sad chapter of torture and the workings of the criminal justice system as a 16 year old--and then served 28 years in a torturous environment for a crime that I never committed. The city of Chicago is responsible.

A series of investigations have revealed that the victims of Burge's torture met with skeptical responses from many officials over 20 years when they tried to say what happened. The city repeatedly denied the scope of what took place, even after the special prosecutor's report admitted what took place.

Forty-two years after the first documented case of torture by Burge, Rahm Emanuel apologized to the victims. Now it's only fair that the city of Chicago be held responsible, not only for the original crime, but for the engaged in by officials throughout the system. This caused the city of Chicago to incarcerate innocent men. Some were exonerated and freed, but others had to agree to plea deals to be released from prison, without the city acknowledging that they were innocent.

As a torture victim--and, thank God, today a torture survivor--I believe that it is extremely important for the city of Chicago to get it right and make it right. City officials are responsible for terrible injustices, but at this point, most only talk about change when there is political gain to be had. They have done little to show any true regret for the tortures that Emanuel apologized for.

How can anyone be so cold-hearted to not recognize all the consequences of this epidemic of torture at the hands of Chicago police. No person running for political office should be seen as worthy to hold that office and represent the people if they don't have the heart to own up to the behavior of overzealous and violent police.

I believe that there is clear evidence for the city of Chicago to finally move forward and take responsibility for the Burge scandal--as well as set an example for criminal justice system around the country to rethink how petitions claiming actual innocent are viewed in the courts. Innocence must matter in the same way that guilt does when petitions are examined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Burge torture victims have always been provided a different kind of justice. Courts in Illinois often deny claims of torture based on procedural mistakes or because some were unable to get investigators to obtain the documents needed to show systematic torture.

But keep in mind that the some of these cases have bounced around courthouses for years. How could these judges have not known that Burge were torturing criminal suspects when the allegations were being made so often, and all these defendants and prisoners were fingering Burge or the detectives who worked under his command.

The city has admitted that torture occurred under Burge. That by itself is reason enough to make it right for all torture survivors.

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