First-person accounts from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford

“In the late 60s, as the coal mines in Appalachia were closing down, there was a huge migration from the coalfields to Chicago. As they got older, they began to have problems from black lung disease. They applied for disability benefits, and were told by the Social Security offices, ‘There are no coal miners in Chicago. Go back to Appalachia.’ They wanted to get health care, and they were told, ‘We don’t know anything about black lung. That’s a problem in the south.’

“So they found this lawyer, Jim Chapman, and he said, ‘That’s a breach of duty. You’re entitled to money.’ The Uptown People’s Law Center was incorporated in 1978. Nowadays it’s me, another lawyer, an executive director, two paralegals, and a receptionist. Our executive director is the granddaughter of coal miners.

“We do a little bit of everything: public benefits; landlord-tenant work; and prisoners’ civil rights, which does not mean getting anybody out of prison. We’re talking about violations of constitutional rights after someone’s been convicted.

“One of the things we’re working on right now involves Tamms, Illinois’s supermax prison. In general, people at Tamms spend 23 hours a day alone, 365 days a year. There are some people who have been in that situation for 13 years.

“We have a class-action case pending saying that prisoners in Illinois are not provided with mental health treatment that complies with the Constitution. They are treating mental illness as a disciplinary problem rather than a medical problem. It doesn’t matter if they’re getting medication; the fact that they’re being held in this sort of isolation means they’re going to get worse.

“The vast majority of guys are in supermax either because they are mentally ill and so have a hard time conforming to prison rules, or because they were active litigators, or because they were labeled by the Department of Corrections as having some influence in a gang. You’ve got some who committed murder. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Anthony Gay. He went in on a burglary and got a seven-year sentence. With good behavior, he would have done three and a half years. He is severely mentally ill and got a lot worse in prison. He did things like spit on guards and throw feces on guards repeatedly, which we contend are symptoms of his mental illness, and now has a 99-year sentence. He started off with three and a half years and ended up with life.

“It’s a culture which is broken. The prison system as a whole has about a 50 percent recidivism rate. It’s the only product where there’s a 50 percent failure rate and our solution is: let’s build a lot more. If 50 percent of our cars had a recall, nobody would say, ‘Let’s just build twice as many cars.'”