Chicago IL – In the following letter, hear directly from Lester Owens, a Black man incarcerated at Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mount Sterling, Illinois. Like too many others, Owens was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 24 years for a crime he did not commit. Detective Brian P. Forberg, along with his partner Kevin Eberle, coerced witnesses into testifying against Owens by threatening them with drug charges. Owens has been fighting for his freedom since his wrongful conviction, alongside his loved ones and 15 other people targeted by Forberg. Forberg is among the highest paid detectives in the Chicago Police Department and remains on the force, despite 38 allegations of misconduct.
The focus of this letter, however, is not Lester Owens’ obvious innocence, but the torturous conditions he and all those incarcerated at Western Illinois Correctional Center are forced to live in. Denied their basic rights and subjected to the racist violence of white supremacist guards, those held at Western Illinois are going through hell and are fighting back. Owens submitted the following statement on August 14 to a hearing of Illinois lawmakers investigating the ongoing healthcare crisis in the Illinois Department of Corrections, where 46% of all prison healthcare jobs are unfilled and countless people are suffering medical misconduct and neglect. Read more in Owens statement below.
“My name is Lester Owens, I’ve been incarcerated for 13 years and am still currently serving time at Western Illinois prison. I am writing to inform your department of the unethical, unprofessional, tyranny, and racist acts being frequently performed by this prison staff. Officers are behaving like tyrants, abusing their authority, and attempting to inject trepidation into inmates with either physical abuse, verbal abuse, or psychological abuse. Western Illinois is infested with staff who are white supremacist and whose goals do not align with the goals of DOC. Officers routinely addresses inmates with aggression and disrespect then punish inmates for reciprocating the exact attitude.
“About a month ago there were two staff assaults within six days, in both incidents the officers provoked both inmates (Black) to react in a hostile manner by verbally abusing them and daring them to act. Prior to those incidents, an inmate (Black) was conversing with a fellow inmate when an unruly officer offensively uttered “shut the fuck up and turn around.” When the offended inmate regurgitated the insult back at the officer he charged toward the inmate and threaten to physically harm him if he didn’t cease talking.
“These are the type of insults that are leading to staff assaults. Additional to those issues, in the month of April I was in the yard socializing with others when the officer working tower 6 exclaimed through the bullhorn “get the fuck away from the gate if I have to tell you N_______s again I’m going to start shooting motherfuckers”. Then he inserted a bullet into the chamber of his firearm to put exclamation points on his statement. But that wasn’t the first time I was threaten by a racist officer, earlier this year I reported an incident involving 5 to 6 officers who encircled me and threaten to beat me like Rodney King. They also stated I might not be as lucky as Rodney King and make it out alive. A brief investigation was conducted by the internal affairs, without further actions.
“Every day black inmates are subjected to racial profiling, racist comments, and unfair treatment at Western Illinois prison. Black inmates are always pulled out of line and frisked; staff refer to us as N_______s and tell us to keep our eyes where they belong if we’re looking at a white woman. They’ve been taking out the BET channel (Black Entertainment Television) then tried to tell us BET is no longer in service. Yesterday, June 19, they took out the BET channel again so that we couldn’t watch the Juneteenth celebrations that aired on BET. And now today June 20 the BET channel is back working, this is done deliberately.
“These white supremacists arrive to work every day with the intention and desire to oppress us. They disguise themselves as correctional officers but portray themselves as slave masters; creating their own rules and punishing inmates for failing to conform to them. Officers deny inmates yard and gym for not holding up their ID, for talking to someone in passing or for making a comment they don’t like. During gym, which is for a hour, officers deny inmates access to the bathroom forcing them to suppress their urine or feces until gym is over. Inmates are reluctant to write grievances out of fear of being targeted by these officers whose misconduct is exempt from ramifications. The warden is fully aware of the uncivil acts being perpetrated by her staff and she’s aware of her staff creating a hostile environment.
“The warden’s inaction and silence is a clear indication that she condones her staff’s conduct, and it implies that she shares the same white supremacy views as her staff. The administration is not creating a safe and secure environment that will allow inmates to make choices for a productive stay. This prison is detrimental to inmates’ growth and development. It is operated by white supremacist who is averse to positive change and rehabilitation. It is designed for pure punishment, and it is the epitome of modern day slavery.
“Western Illinois officers has a history of beating Black men, and their unchecked behavior is what led to multiple officers fatally beating an old Black man. Today officers are displaying the same behavior and attitude that led to the death of that inmate. The same officers who lied to federal investigators and tried to cover up the murder still works here and all of them has been promoted to higher positions. So instead of these officers being punished for lying and trying to cover up a murder they were rewarded by a warden who believes they done nothing wrong.
“Serving time in Western Illinois is like living in the Jim Crow era, prison staff are supposed to help rehabilitate inmates not victimize them. This is the only medium security prison that have more restrictions than a maximum security. At Western Illinois we are restricted to 1 dayroom a day for 90 minutes, and during dayroom we are inexplicably restricted to the back of the dayroom for the duration of dayroom. We are prohibited from leaving the restricted area with the exception of using the phone or shower. We are restricted to one phone call a day. Although the administrative directive states that all medium security prisons are permitted to shop at the commissary once a week, we are restricted to one shop a month.
“Everything this prison do is based on pure punishment. If an outside entity doesn’t step in and investigate these issue things are going to get worser. I urged the Department of Justice civil rights division to launch an investigation and eradicate the systemic racism and the systemic problems at this prison.”