Metro-East News

Lawsuit: ‘Orange Crush’ guard unit terrorized, humiliated Southern Illinois inmates

This file photo shows the Menard Correctional Center in Chester.
This file photo shows the Menard Correctional Center in Chester. AP

Inmates know them as “Orange Crush.”

They are an elite, mobile Illinois Department of Corrections tactical unit, which civil rights lawyers say regularly humiliated and terrorized more than a thousand Illinois inmates on various occasions using tactics such as forcing them to march naked in single-file, tight formations, causing men’s genitals to press against the buttocks of men in front of them.

The special squad calls the exercise “nuts-to-butts,” according to a civil rights class-action lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in East St. Louis, and state prison officials aren’t commenting on it.

Members of the tactical unit begin the tactic by running onto a prison tier when female guards are sometimes also present, “whooping,” banging on metal tables and shouting to prisoners: “Get butt-naked.”

The guards do this, according to the lawsuit, while dressed in orange fatigues, wearing helmets, carrying clubs and chanting “Punish the inmate. Punish the inmate.”

Hundreds of prisoners at a time were marched in this way in April of 2014 at four Southern Illinois prisons while being threatened by laughing guards who shouted they would be taken immediately to solitary confinement if they allowed any daylight between themselves and the man in front of them, the plaintiffs’ lawyers allege. Prisoners were eventually led to an exercise area and made to stand for hours with their faces pressed against a wall while their hands were cuffed behind them in a “stress” position. During this time, other members of the guard unit searched the prisoners’ cells for contraband.

“This is above and beyond what I’ve seen ever in the 35 years I’ve been doing this kind of work,” said civil rights attorney Alan Mills of the Chicago-based Uptown People’s Law Center, one of two law firms pressing the lawsuit. “This is part of some official policy. Higher-ups in IDOC will have to explain what in the world they were thinking when they gave these people this kind of direction and leeway.”

This is part of some official policy. Higher-ups in IDOC will have to explain what in the world they were thinking when they gave these people this kind of direction and leeway.

Alan Mills, attorney for inmates

Mills said the practice continued on at least a few occasions after the lawsuit was filed in 2015.

Mills said, “We get lots of complaints where two or three people say they were abused by this sort of thing, but not where it’s four different prisons right in a row doing the same exact things in each of these prisons by the same group of officers...The purpose of this was humiliation. There was no question that the whole point of this was to belittle, dehumanize and intimidate prisoners.”

Nicole Wilson, spokeswoman for the state prison system, declined to answer questions about the lawsuit or about the Orange Crush squad.

“The IDOC cannot comment on pending litigation,” she said in a written statement.

District Court Judge Staci M. Yandle in federal court in East St. Louis last week cleared the way for state officials, potentially including prison system director John Baldwin, to be questioned under oath about Orange Crush. Hundreds of inmates from four state prisons — Menard, Illinois River, Big Muddy and Lawrence — are listed as plaintiffs, and 236 prison system guards and officials are named as defendants, including the wardens at the four prisons.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to prohibit the tactics and asks for damages for excessive force, failure to intervene, conspiracy and emotional distress.

Yandle also tossed one of five motions filed by the office of the state attorney general on behalf of Department of Corrections seeking to dismiss the lawsuit. The state had argued that the lawsuit was vague in that no individual guard was identified by name as abusing a particular inmate. The lawsuit alleges the guards covered up their identities and illegibly signed receipts that are required by regulations to be given to inmates when possessions are confiscated from cells.

In a 9-page ruling, Yandle stated that while individual guards were not identified by name, the plaintiffs’ legal arguments could still go forward because “at this juncture, plaintiffs’ inability to identify individual defendants is not grounds for dismissal.”

At this juncture, plaintiffs’ inability to identify individual defendants is not grounds for dismissal.

Staci Yandle, federal judge

The attorney general’s office also argued that an allegation of a conspiracy should be thrown out because it, too, was not detailed, but Yandle rejected this contention and allowed the conspiracy claim to stand.

Yandle ruled that federal law allowed her to consider the guard unit’s actions in their entirety and when that was done, “the allegations as a whole plausibly suggest an agreement between the defendants...”

Mills said, “What sets this case apart is that a supposedly elite unit of specially-trained officers brutalized over a thousand prisoners in four different prisons, in what appears to have been an officially sanctioned campaign of verbal intimidation, sexual harassment and blatant physical abuse.”

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