On January 25, 1990, the Chicago Reader, the free alternative weekly, published a cover story, nearly 20,000 words long, titled “House of Screams.” Written and reported over the course of a year by journalist John Conroy, the investigation exposed, in meticulous detail, a long and chilling history of abuse by police against suspects on the South Side of Chicago. At the Area 2 Violent Crimes Unit, Police Commander Jon Burge had overseen and participated in the systemic torture of an untold number of African-American men, dating back to the early 1970s. They had been beaten, burned against radiators, suffocated with plastic bags and, most disturbingly, had their genitals subjected to electric shocks. “Fun time” was how Burge referred to the electrocution sessions, which, Conroy would later reveal, drew on his experience as a military police officer in Vietnam.
Despite its bombshell revelations, the story did not spark immediate or widespread outrage. Even the local dailies failed to run with it. So over the next seventeen years, Conroy would write twenty-two more articles about Chicago’s police torture regime—stories that laid bare the extent of the abuse and decried the total impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators. Among those who knew about the torture was former Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Daley, sworn in as mayor months before “House of Screams” was published...
I saw “My Kind of Town” on June 30. It was auspicious timing; that same day, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission—created in 2009 to investigate several dozen claims of police abuse—had officially gone out of business after state lawmakers announced it was being defunded. The stunning move, over a relatively paltry budget request of $235,000, came just as the commission had finally recommended its first set of cases for judicial review. “It’s chump change,” the commission’s executive director, David Thomas, told the Chicago Tribune about the money saved by the state. “But we don’t have a real political constituency. Our people are all in prison...”
That goes for the media outside Chicago, too, which mostly ignored the story for years. “This is the biggest national police scandal of the past fifty years,” Conroy says, reminding me of the innocent men who landed on death row. “Corruption is one thing. This was attempted murder.”