Anticipating a Crush: In Prison, Tactical Teams Declare Uneven War
About 7:45 am on Tuesday, January 17, 2017, I muster the energy to get out of bed and walk the step to the sink from the bottom bunk and I hear it. Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk. “Shit!” I say to myself as my cellmate and I look at each other wide-eyed. We know that sound anywhere. That’s three-foot-long, two-inch diameter solid wood batons hitting the steel bars as “Orange Crush” runs down the gallery clunking every bar along the way as they yell. Though it’s not our cell house, it’s E House right behind us. We’re able to hear them through the utility alley that the cell houses share behind the cells. They’re making their rounds due to an unauthorized pair of headphones found during a cell search in another cell house.
We’ve already been on lockdown since Sunday afternoon here at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in Joliet, Illinois. That means no movement unless it’s a medical emergency, and then that means dead. So, we’re confined to a space with a toilet, absent a shower and a bunkbed, also known as a 7 x 10-foot concrete cell.
Orange Crush—or the tact team, as they’re called officially—is the Illinois Department of Correction’s (IDOC) most oppressive armed wing. They are bullies dressed in riot gear who kick you when you’re down, both figuratively and literally. These are usually big white guys with insecurities, poor communication skills and a power complex that makes for a horrible mix. Their outfits consist of a one-piece orange jumpsuit, a protector vest, elbow and knee pads, boots, and gloves — all black — with a helmet with a face shield. They carry a solid wood baton, a shield about half the size of one of them (usually only used for cell extractions) and a can of chemical agent on their hip that will bring you to your knees when sprayed. Many of their helmets have skulls and crossbones, blacked-out American flags and other military insignia as if they’re going to war and we’re the enemy.
When it comes to dealing with Orange Crush, prisoners are strip searched and fully restrained in handcuffs and/or shackles. If the inmate is “non-complaint,” well, that’s where the name “crush” comes from — because that’s when they have their fun crushing you, six of them with chemical agent, shield and baton. It’s a battle you can’t win, period.
The IDOC uses these orange bullies for many things, but typically for punishment and retaliation. For example, IDOC will enlist the tact team to “shakedown” an entire facility after an incident. These shakedowns are the worst. No one likes them. They are dehumanizing and painful, to say the least. Imagine having everything you own being searched through, including your body. Everything tossed around, ripped, broken, stomped on, mixed in with your cellmates or neighbor’s belongings, discarded as garbage. Pictures of loved ones, bedding, letters, clothing, books, important legal documents all scattered and thrown around. It’s a horrible experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody. I know that if Orange Crush is in E House today, then that means they’ll be over here in the next day or so, banging on my bars and screaming out orders.
So, as the whole cell house now anticipates the impending tsunami, I try to prepare myself as best as possible. Immediately opening the larger of the two suitcase size boxes I am forced to live out of, I start trying to condense all of my belonging by throwing out what I can spare. I pour out all my liquid bottles so they won’t pour them on my papers or bedding. I untie my TV from the metal bars of my bunkbed (that’s how I hold it up since there are no shelves here) so they won’t tear it down and break it. I make sure all my food is new and unopened and not in the wrong bag or container. But I know all of this may be in vain since Orange Crush can and will take what they want with no logical reason and there is no recourse whatsoever. No shakedown is the same as the last; it’s always different. One time it’s okay to have something; the next time it’s not.
Wednesday, about 4:00 am, I hear the sounds of toilets flushing and quiet talking much more than usual. I try to lay back down and stay asleep until 6:00 am, but my mind won’t let me. I periodically wake up every 30 minutes until then. As I get up again, I start my routine. I drink a small shot of coffee and a little water to wake me up, but not too much. If they come today, we could be stuck handcuffed in the chow hall for three to six hours, and last time, some guys ended up going on themselves because we weren’t allowed to use the bathroom. I brush my teeth and make a joke to my neighbor, trying to lighten the mood. Recalling the last time Orange Crush came, maybe six months ago, I remind him — and myself — that they didn’t do C House. So maybe, just maybe, we’ll get lucky this time and they won’t hit us. Then I make sure to use the washroom because all the water in the building will be shut off. This means that even after we’re brought back to our cells following an Orange Crush shakedown, we won’t be able to flush the toilet for at least a few more hours. That means no drinking, washing hands or using the toilet.
As time edges closer to 7:30 am, I hear someone yell out, “Plumbers in the building,” indicating that the water will probably be shut off and after that, they’ll be here. I flush my toilet and push my water as I pace back and forth from the bars at the front of the cell, looking out the mirror that I that I set up on the cell door so I can watch the gallery. I’m already four flights up so it’s hot, but the impending anxiety of waiting makes me sweat even more. I have my clothes and shoes laid out by the bars for the strip search. I sip a little water as I continue to pace. Neither my cell mate nor I say a word as we listen for our jail house P.A. system of guys who yell out what they can see. “They’re on the walk,” someone says, meaning they’re in front of the cell house but not coming for us. I push the water again to make sure it is still on. They are going to C House. We manage to dodge the bullet today.
Image Credit: Josh MacPhee
Not long after that, we can see out the window on the far wall of the cell house by the cat walk. Prisoners from C-house in rows of two — Black and Brown men all handcuffed with their heads down are being escorted by a third row of faux soldiers wielding batons in orange and black riot gear. We count 93 in all.
The men are forced to wait in the chow hall for six hours. We watch from our cells, and see bag after bag of prisoners’ property being taken, everything from TVs to shower shoes to cassette tapes. Shaking my head, I think to myself, I hope they don’t do me like that.
Later that night, we hear the horror stories of all the things taken from the guys in C and E Houses. We try to make light of it by thinking, “Well, I don’t have that much stuff.” I think how some of these men, myself included, have been confined to these cells for 20 years or more, and some will be here for the rest of their lives. Forced to live out of what amounts to two suitcases, saving obituaries of loved ones, pictures of funerals and weddings, and the last letters they wrote. These are the only things we have to remember them by. Imagine your most precious items being thrown away by someone who couldn’t care less, or members of the so-called tact team looking at pictures of your wife or girlfriend making dirty remarks. They’ll eat your food, leaving the remnants behind as if to say, “Fuck you, this is my shit.” They’ve ripped my bed coverings off, dumped an ashtray on my pillow case and sheets, and stomped on them, leaving their boot marks all over. They’ve stuck objects in my peanut butter. This is the type of treatment we experience during these times. Just another reminder that we’ve been demoted from the human race.
Thursday morning is the same routine. I know they have to be coming today. I’m up again early, pacing back and forth, clothes ready. The whole cell house up. “Plumbers in the building,” someone yells. But somehow, we dodge a bullet again. I watch them march to C House again. This time, I watch as three galleries get taken out for another six hours. I dread the impending torture and secretly wish it had already passed because the wait is killing me. Waking up so early, not being able to fully rest really does something to your mental stability. Locked in a small room with another man, both of us easily agitated as we await our turn at being shaken down, isn’t a good situation for anyone. My cell mate and I wince as we watch bags of property being taken out of C House.
That day as these faux soldiers leave, as if to put an exclamation point on their “fuck you,” they march extra hard as they sing some military cadence, stomping and yelling loud enough so both cell houses can hear, as if they are soldiers congregating after a day of battle. They seem to take pleasure in the anger and anxiety they are generating, which only adds insult to injury in an already hostile environment. Apparently, we are the enemy defeated on the most uneven playing field ever designed.
As I hear this faux war cry, I think maybe they’re done. They skipped C House last time, so maybe they’ll skip us again. The uncertainty makes me apprehensive and tense. For two days, they’ve faked us out, and I can’t relax. Friday morning slowly creeps in, and once again, I’m up early with the same routine, hoping maybe we will escape this time. I figure if we make it past Friday, we should be free and clear. But as I’m pacing the floor I hear it: “Plumbers in the building.” At 7:40 am, our water is turned off. I’m standing at the door, watching the gallery with my mirror, waiting. I know it’s coming. “Tact team in the cell house,” someone yells out. My mind races, thinking, Did I properly dispose of and pack everything? Did I forget anything? Right as my thoughts are racing, I hear it: Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, with all of them simultaneously yelling, but I can’t make out anything they’re barking out.
Image credit: Josh MacPhee
They run past my cell, one after another, banging their batons on the bars all the way down the gallery from the first to the last cell, 29 in all. As they line up in front of every cell, the two in front of mine tell my cellmate to “cuff up” and face the back of the cell. I am strip searched. No matter how many times I’ve been stripped and searched, it’s still a humiliating experience. I’m comfortable in my own skin, but that doesn’t come into my thought process as I’m being forced to disrobe. Afterward, I’m handcuffed and told to face the back as my cellmate goes through the same process. The cell doors all open at once and as we’re being told to back out of the cell. The officer grabs me by the cuffs.
I’m led into a line with everyone else down the gallery. I walk in formation with a faux soldier in front of me and behind me. The line goes on like this: faux soldier, inmate, faux soldier, inmate, and so on. When I hit the end of the gallery, there is a gauntlet of Orange Crush wielding batons lining the stairwell trying to look as mean and tough as possible. Some of them look funny, but laughing will get you screamed at and possibly physically hurt, so holding it in is your best option. There’s a psychological chess match going on. I can’t let them know that they intimidate or scare me in any way because then they will know they’ve gotten to me, that their tactics work.
As we’re led out of the building into a corridor leading to the chow hall, we’re told to stop. In front of me, I see the backs of Black and Brown men; to the left of me, a line of large white men face us in their orange and black gear, smacking their batons in their hands, waiting to pounce at any false move. This really puts the “us vs. them” mentality into perspective. Reminiscent of a time when Black people couldn’t look white men in their eyes, we’re yelled at to “keep your heads down.” I think maybe it’s hard for some of them to look us in the face because they know this is inhumane treatment and wrong.
We’re eventually led into the chow hall and told to sit. One of them tells us not to talk, threatening us with being transferred to a downstate prison. Really, I think, you don’t want me to talk while I sit here for the next few hours? This is absurd. I sit silently, all the while picturing what they’re doing to my property in the cell.
We wait for three hours, which is short compared to what C House endured. The walk back is just as grueling as the walk from our cells, only now I anticipate all my things being thrown about, potentially destroyed, and most definitely in disarray.
Back up the four flights, down the gallery and I walk back into the cell. As I’m uncuffed, I realize that I’m relieved that at least it’s over. Now, I’ll pick through the mess and figure out how to put the pieces back together. I hear guys voicing their discontent over missing items, and I hope nothing is missing from my property.
No matter how many times we have had to go through this, it’s never something I want to endure again. There is no way this is normal. I’m sure some might argue that Orange Crush is a necessary security measure. To them, I would say that when and if an incident occurs, the individuals involved are almost always sent to another facility immediately. So they aren’t the ones who are subjected to this dehumanizing ritual of retaliation and punishment.
As the weekend comes and goes, I look forward to the lockdown being lifted and to the norms of prison life. Going to yard, access to the limited library, visits. But as I rise early on Monday and walk to the sink, I can’t believe my ears. Clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk. “Shit.” My heart drops to my stomach. They’re back.
Phil Hartsfield is an incarcerated writer and father. You can find his writings and artwork on his Facebook page. You can write to him at Phil Hartsfield, #R46473, 5835 State Route 154, Pinckneyville, IL 62274.