Woodlawn’s Chicago Torture Justice Center Commemorates Sixth Year | evening summary

Eight years and two mayoral administrations after the city’s landmark Reparations Ordinance for Survivors of Police Torture was passed, Chicago has yet to break ground on a promised public memorial for Jon Burge-era torture survivors. . Following the April election of Brandon Johnson as mayor, who made an explicit commitment to build the monument, the city may soon make good on that promise.

A Chicago Police Department detective and CPD commander from the 1970s to the early 1990s, Burge supervised or directly participated in the torture of more than 100 black and brown men to force them to confess to crimes that were not they committed.

The 2015 Reparations Ordinance, the nation’s first reparations package for survivors of police torture, appropriated $5.5 million for Burge torture survivors and their families, pledging to teach Chicago Public Schools students about history of police torture as part of their curriculum. The work of the Illinois Torture Commission for Inquiry and Relief, which was created to investigate other Burge-era torture claims, is still ongoing, with 445 cases yet to be reviewed and reported. (To date, Chicago taxpayers have spent more than $210 million in settlements related to Burge’s conduct.)

Another provision of the ordinance was the creation of a center to offer counseling services and re-entry programs to survivors of police torture. The city delivered on that promise by opening the Chicago Torture Justice Center (CTJC) in 2017. Currently located in a city-owned building in Woodlawn, 6337 S. Woodlawn Ave., the CTJC celebrated its sixth anniversary this May. However, CTJC leaders hope to move to a permanent facility next to the pending memorial soon.

As part of its anniversary commemoration, the center hosted an open house on May 18 with plenty of empanadas and soft drinks for guests.

Cindy Eigler, co-CEO of CTJC with Aislinn Pulley, and other staff members were there to greet visitors at the door and provide tours of the growing space.

Eigler said that before the start of the pandemic in 2020, CTJC had just five employees. It now employs 17 people. “The amount and types of programming and services that we can provide to the community has grown very quickly,” Eigler said.

Black banners listing the names of torture survivors in white letters line the aisles. In addition to a lounge, conference room, kitchen, and numerous offices, the center also has a corner room where Shalom Parker, an art therapist, teaches ceramics.

During the open house, La Tanya Jenifor-Sublett, peer reentry coordinator and torture survivor, asked Parker how thin she should stretch the clay to make a mug slab. Jenifor-Sublett has hosted several classmate re-entry events in recent months, including dinner parties and a movie night.

“It’s beautiful to see people who haven’t seen each other since they were inside together being able to meet and see each other outside,” Eigler said.

Jenifor-Sublett said it was liberating to be around people you didn’t have to explain yourself to. Plans to go go-karting are underway, she noted.

As Parker stepped in to help Jenifor-Sublett, Curtis Ferdinand, a peer reentry specialist who served 24 years of a 60-year sentence before being pardoned, quietly painted a bisque bowl yellow and purple.

“It’s meant to contain my pain,” Ferdinand said.

The workshops Parker runs, where survivors create grief vessels, started just a couple of months ago. Before joining CTJC, Parker worked at Little Black Pearl, 1060 E. 47th St., a nonprofit organization in Kenwood that runs an art and design high school, as well as a café and artist-in-residence program. There she conducted art classes for teenagers, some of whom enrolled in her school after encounters with the criminal justice system.

Eigler noted that CTJC is “expanding the population we can work with and the survivors we can talk to,” in part, by hiring Yanitza Carmona Correa, a Spanish-speaking trauma specialist.

While CTJC was created to serve those directly affected by Burge and his “Midnight Crew,” they are now putting together special programming for exonerees framed by Sgt. Ronald Watts, who operated South Side public housing units in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and Det. Reynaldo Guevara, the disgraced former CPD officer whose misconduct has led to the first mass exoneration of murder cases in US history.

“We are the only organization of our kind in the entire country doing this work and developing a new framework for how to do this work,” Eigler said. Many funders “want it to look like a more traditional organization or a more traditional direct service. But none of our work is traditional.”

Since its opening, the center has provided individual and group counseling sessions to more than 200 participants, sent more than 1,000 newsletters to incarcerated survivors, and supported dozens of individuals and their families by appearing with them at court hearings.

Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM), an organization of artists and activists that began in 2010, is lobbying the city to meet commitments made in the 2015 Reparations Ordinance. The organizations selected a parcel of land at 55th Place and King Drive for the monument, but one hurdle remains: The parcel is not wholly owned by the city because the University of Chicago owns a small portion.

“We believe that it is a privileged place for us to have this memorial. And we hope that the University of Chicago will commit to this memorial and that one,” said Joey Mogul, an attorney with the People’s Law Office, who represented many of Burge’s torture survivors in court. “It’s an important part of Chicago history.”

“We hope that the University of Chicago will provide that land to the city so that this can be the home of the monument,” said Mogul, who is also one of the founders of CTJM.

While the city could offer a land swap or buy the land outright, negotiations with the U. of C. could stall the project at a time when Burge survivors are aging, some even dying of natural causes.

In a statement, a U. of C. spokesperson said, “The university is aware of this proposal for the monument and we support collaborative efforts to reach a solution that benefits the community and the city. We are in talks with the city and look forward to working with the city and the CTJM to carry out the project.”

According to Eigler, the survivors and their families strongly believe that the center and the memorial should be placed together. They want the center to be not only a community space where people can come together, but also where survivors can develop social enterprises.

“Many people who come home (from prison) have ideas about what they want to create, the businesses they want to start, how they want to do it,” Eigler said. With an expanded center next to the monument, “we could have something like that.”

The planned center would also have a museum space so that visitors could learn more about the history and context behind torture and other abuses by Chicago police. It would also provide temporary housing for people returning from incarceration, a significant barrier to re-entry; Returning citizens often struggle to find permanent housing and end up homeless on the streets, where they are at greater risk of interactions with police.

“We really need to build this monument so that as many survivors as possible can see, witness and experience the monument being built in their honor,” Mogul said. “We believe that time is of the essence.”