Warning: This article contains references to violence, suicide, mental and physical health crises, and domestic harassment. Please take care while reading.
“I wish I had a camera so you could see what’s going on,” John Clay told me over a phone call from the Champaign County Jail. He is one of seven men who have initiated a hunger strike. Since Saturday afternoon, February 25, 2023, they have refused food and water.
“I’m so weak,” John told me. “I’m not trying to get attention. I just want to be treated fairly.”
Some, like John, are in jail for murder charges. They may have possessed illegal guns. Some are in on lesser charges, but have million dollar bonds. Others have lower bonds but their families can’t afford the $4,000 to $10,000 to get them out of jail.
Under the Pretrial Fairness Act, which has been signed into law but is held up in the courts, those on lower amounts would not be sitting in jail because they couldn’t afford to bail out. Keep in mind, these are all people who have been convicted of no crimes, and are innocent until proven guilty.
The hunger strikers say they, like others at the jail, are being held on high bonds, some for well over a year. They haven’t talked to their attorneys in months, don’t know how to take any legal action, and there is no end in sight.
They were put in segregation on Monday morning, February 27th. They have been put on a “23-and-1” lockdown: they spend 23 hours a day in their cell, and they have an hour to take a shower and use the phone. The guards weighed them after their first 24 hours in segregation and they had already lost three to six pounds each. Sheriff Dustin Heuerman has not responded to a request for an interview.
The hunger strikers have released the following statement:
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” — Eighth Amendment, U.S. Constitution
Declaration of Champaign County Inmates
We, the inmates of Champaign County jail, understand the following. Our Eighth Amendment rights are being violated. Bonds that are so excessive that we could never afford are quantifiably no different than having no bond at all. We do not have access to resources that can help us prepare for our defense. We are facing a constant state of oppression, depression, and anxiety from being away from our support systems. We are denied access to tablets to allow communication for contacting loved ones.
Champaign County should allocate the money used to cage our fellow beings for other promoting prevention and education.
To this end, we are on a hunger strike starting Saturday, February 25, 2023. No food or water until our Eighth Amendment rights are recognized.
This is an opportunity to be pioneers in a new age of reform.
Dominic Augustus Fortune, Jacob Hill, Troy Carter, Richard Frazier, Malcom McGee, John Clay, Rajuan Williams.
I spoke to Troy Carter’s mom, Monique Coleman, who said, “They are keeping them locked up in a cage 23 hours a day, they tell them, ‘Hurry up, take a shower,’ and put them back in the cage like a dog.”
She has not been able to see her son in person. Troy was 16 when he was locked up; he is 19 now. There have been no in-person visits since March 2020 when the pandemic began. Troy’s family can schedule a “visit” over a video screen at a terminal at the jail, or pay $13 for a video call from home. Or they can make phone calls, but Monique says the phones are often broken. With each 20-minute call costing six dollars, a family can run up hundreds of dollars in phone bills. The phone/video system is run by Securus Technologies, one of the biggest prison profiteers in the country.
Troy is being held on a one million dollar bond for charges of first degree murder. I talked to his attorney, Jed Stone, who has tried to make an argument for self defense to get charges dropped to second degree murder, but the State’s Attorney’s office has refused. The million dollar bond, Troy has said, is a “ransom.”
Troy recently told his mother over the phone, “There’s people peeing in cells, it’s inhumane, mom.”
“They fail to realize that’s someone’s loved one,” Monique told me.
Currently, about half of Champaign County’s people in custody (excluding those on electronic monitor) are being held at the jail in Kankakee County due to overcrowding here in Champaign County. Katrina Ambrose told me that her son, Rajuan Williams, had been held in Kankakee since his arrest in November 2022, and was recently brought back the Champaign County Jail. “It’s his first offense,” Rajuan’s mother told me. “He’s never been in trouble.” He was being held on a $300,000 bond for charges of aggravated robbery with a firearm. His attorney got it reduced to $75,000, of which the family would have to pay $7,500 to get him out. That is still too much money, Katrina told me, “That’s hard for me to get.” Rajuan was in court this week and had his bond reduced to $4,000, but the family still needs help to raise that amount.
The Pretrial Fairness Act was passed by the Illinois legislature in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, making Illinois the first state to eliminate cash bail. Scheduled to take effect January 1, 2023, a lawsuit filed in Kankakee County has stalled its implementation, leaving those like Rajuan Williams’ family waiting for reform. This delay is at the root of the anxiety felt by those who have staged the hunger strike.
I have been getting calls daily from the hunger strikers at the jail who tell me their stories and ask for help. Adajah Daniel said her fiancé Malcom McGee has been sitting in jail for “months on end.” He was arrested in August 2022 and charged with armed robbery. Adajah says she and Malcom were at a park where they were attacked by a man with a two-by-four. She lost her purse during the altercation. Malcolm was attributed with a stick “which the police claim they can’t find.” He has a bond of $75,000, but Adajah can’t raise the $7,500 needed to get Malcom out of jail.
I talked to Julie Campbell whose son Jacob Hill has been held in the jail since July 2021. He was originally arrested for stalking the mother of his child, but she has since refused to testify against him. Jacob’s mother said his life has been filled with trauma and he has mental health issues. When he went into the jail, he was forced to go off his medication, and fell into a crisis. He was put on suicide watch but still had access to a phone. He made 14 calls to his son’s mother, who had an order of protection against him. He was charged with a felony for each call. He is being held on a three million dollar bond. His phone access has since been shut off, and his mother can only see him by driving 45 minutes to the Champaign County Jail to have a free visit over the video system, or make a $13 video call from home.
“It got to this point,” Jacob’s mom said, “because there has been no communication, no family support. My hands are tied because I have limited funds. I’m paying for video visits so he doesn’t go over the edge. He’s come to a point of desperation. He’s been begging for help the entire time.”