By GABRIELLA CRUZ-MARTÍNEZ
Ronald Kitchen, a Jon Burge police torture survivor and co-founder of the Death Row 10, discussed his newly published memoir “My Midnight Years: Surviving Jon Burge’s Police Torture Ring and Death Row” with Journalist Jamie Kalven Aug. 2 at Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., in a talk titled ‘Enduring Chicago Police Abuse.”
On a normal summer evening in 1988, Kitchen was walking out to buy cookies for his young son when Chicago detectives picked him up for questioning. As the officers’ car headed to the precinct, the 22 year old called out to his family members telling them not to worry and that he would “be back in 45 minutes,” read Kitchen’s memoir.
Kitchen never made it back. Wrongfully arrested for the slaying of two women and three children in 1988, Kitchen spent over two decades imprisoned after the Chicago Police Department beat and tortured him into signing a confession for a horrific crime he did not commit.
The detectives were working for notorious Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, who was fired in 1993 after being accused of overseeing systematic torture of African-American suspects with his so called “Midnight Crew,” a group of rogue police detectives who spent decades brutalizing and incarcerating men in Chicago’s African American communities. To date, 118 survivors have come forward – Kitchen being one of them.
In his new book, “My Midnight Years,” Kitchen shares a detailed account of his isolation and experiences surviving Burge’s police torture ring, overcoming overwhelming difficulties and his reflections on the ordeal as a free man.
“Writing this book gave me relief and strength to gain my voice back,” said Kitchen, who was accompanied by family on stage during Thursday’s discussion. “It is a part of my history, a part of my family and my legacy.”
Kitchen cofounded the Death Row 10 from his maximum security cellblock. Together, Kitchen and the men of Death Row 10 fought to expose the grave injustices that led to their wrongful convictions. The Death Row 10 appeared on 60 minutes, Nightline and Oprah were instrumental in turning the tide against the death penalty in Illinois.
Kitchen was finally exonerated in 2009 after spending 21 years in prison – 13 of them on death row – and filed a high-profile lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department, Jon Burge, Mayor Richard Daley and the Cook County State’s Attorney General.
“Torture didn’t end with Burge,” said Kitchen. “Our job is to recognize that torture is part of our criminal legal system, raise these issues and take down those responsible one at a time.”
During the talk, Kalven a journalist and human activist known for his investigative work titled “Code of Silence,” published by the Invisible Institute and The Intercept discussed topics such as police reform and community action with Kitchen.
“Community organizing played a strong role in getting justice,” said Kitchen. When discussing the mothers of the members of the Death Row 10, Kitchen added, “They were the powerhouses that brought death row to its knees. Sometimes it takes a soft voice for us to listen, but we have come a long way.”
Last year, Chicago Public Schools unveiled plans to add a new curriculum to teach all eighth-graders and high school sophomores about the torture and brutality inmates suffered under Burge’s time. The coursework was mandated as part of the 2015 deal in which the City Council approved $5.5 million in reparations for dozens of victims.
In response to this, Kitchen gave teachers and youth leaders in the audience a few words of advice, “It’s important to get them while their young, teach them our history and teach them the right way of going about things. I would love for schools to pick up my book and make it a part of their curriculum.”
The talk ended with an informative discussion on pathways for those survivors in recovery by spokespeople from The Chicago Torture Justice Center, 641 W. 63rd St., a group that helps provide access to healing and wellness services and supports movement to end all police violence. For more information on The Chicago Torture Justice Center, please call 773-962-0395.
Kitchen’s book is available for purchase online and at Build Coffee, at the Experimental Station.