Human Rights

For Decades, Chicago Police Used City Jails as Torture Chambers

Victims who were tortured into giving false confessions are now asking the city for reparations.

Darrell Cannon
Photo Credit: Vimeo

Meet American torture victim Darrell Cannon. On the morning of Nov. 2, 1983, Cannon, then 32 years old, was tortured while in the custody of the Chicago Police Department. Officers escorted him from his Southside home at 7:30am and took him to a local precinct where they shocked him in the testicles and the mouth with an electric cattle prod and struck his knees with a baton, trying to force him to confess to a murder he didn’t commit. Cannon gave a false confession around 2pm that afternoon.

He spent the next 24 years in prison until he was exonerated and released in 2007. While serving his sentence, Cannon sued for damages in connection with the torture; he was awarded the paltry sum of $3,000 and left with $1,247 after costs and legal fees were deducted.

He has been diagnosed with PTSD as a result of the physical abuse he endured, and he still carries memories of what the cops did to him that day.

“I think about it continuously, even though it’s been over 20 years,” Cannon told AlterNet. “I still remember it as if it happened yesterday.”

According to the Chicago-based People’s Law Office, members of the Chicago Police Department carried out hideous acts of torture against more than 120 Chicagoans, mostly African-American men. The abuse, which took place inside of police stations, lasted from 1972 until the early 1990s, and was instigated by police commander Jon Burge. Burge and his detectives subjected suspects to cattle-prodding of the mouth and genital areas, hours-long beatings, suffocation, and other forms of abuse to force them to confess to crimes of which they were often innocent. Most of the torture was carried out against residents of the city’s predominantly African-American Southside neighborhood. 

Burge was fired from the force in 1993 for “mistreating a suspect” but it took until 2010 for him to be convicted on perjury charges for lying about using Chicago’s jails as torture chambers; as of 2015, he has not been convicted for torturing any of his victims. Burge was released from prison into a halfway house in Florida in October. Though the statute of limitations has expired for most of his victims to sue for damages, Burge still collects a $4,000-per-month pension and has cost the city and Cook County more than $100 million in legal fees and settlements. Approximately 20 of his victims have received $67 million in settlement money in connection with the torture they endured.

Because many of the victims aren’t able to sue for damages, local activists are pursuing reparations. They argue that the damage Burge caused can’t be fixed with money alone. Joey Mogul, a partner at the People’s Law Office, drafted a reparations ordinance that is under review by the city council’s financial committee. The ordinance seeks, among other things, $20 million in damages for the victims of Burge’s torture; a mental health clinic to be built on the Southside that will help the city’s underserved people; the introduction of courses into the city’s public school curriculum to teach students about the police department’s history of torture; free tuition for torture victims and their families at city colleges; and public evidentiary hearings for victims who suffered at the hands of Chicago police officers—including those who are locked up.

Mogul, who has defended dozens of police brutality victims over the years, said she and her firm are seeking reparations specifically because of the profound damages caused by members of the Chicago Police Department.

“We are using that term because we see it as a term that goes well beyond just financial compensation,” she told AlterNet. “It looks at a whole panoply of redress that the survivors and those affected by this need. It's because the American judicial system is so limited and all we think about is money. We really had to find a term that would really encompass the holistic type of redress we wanted to provide in this case.”

Standish Willis, a Chicago lawyer who has been credited with pursuing reparations for torture victims as a legal defense, was a partner at the People’s Law Office in the late 1980s when it defended a man who claimed Burge had tortured him into confessing to the murder of two police officers. The People’s Law Office took the case. It didn’t take long before his office got more calls from people, mostly black men, claiming to have been tortured by Burge and his detectives.

“It was a kind of torture that we had never heard of,” Willis told AlterNet. “We'd known about police brutality, police beating the suspects and not giving them food or water for days, and they end up confessing. [But] they were using electrical shock devices. They were using suffocation techniques. They had cattle probes that they would use on the victim's body. All kinds of stuff that was really very unique.”

Willis founded Black People Against Police Torture as a means of galvanizing the support of the African-American community. He says it was essential that the movement to seek legal recourse for torture reflect the faces of the police’s victims.

As for the ordinance, it has been held up in the finance committee run by Alderman Edward Burke. Mayor Rahm Emanuel went on record during a 2013 city council meeting to apologize for Jon Burge’s deeds, calling them “a stain on the city’s reputation” that Chicago has to move past.

Mariame Kaba, an activist in Chicago and founder of Project NIA, told AlterNet that Emanuel has been giving the same lip service to the issue for a while. She said it’s time for the mayor to make the city accountable to the people its police officers abused.

“I think it's fine to talk about the fact that terrible things have happened to people, but you also have a responsibility to address the thing that was left at your doorstep,” Kaba said. “Rahm Emanuel was not mayor when these torture cases were taking place. But when he came into power he inherited the issues that came before him too.”

There’s no telling when or if the city council will approve the ordinance, though Darrell Cannon, now 64, is hopeful he and other victims will be awarded reparations for the torture they endured.

“I’m optimistic that it most certainly can happen,” he said. “Whether it will happen is another matter. That’s why we’re pushing as hard as we are now for the mayor to take care of this. It may not have happened during his reign but he is the caretaker today. Therefore, he has to clean up the problem that he inherited.”

Documentation of the torture of Darrell Cannon and more than 100 other black men and women can be viewed on the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial page organized by the People’s Law Office.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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