LISTEN: Us and Them

Two Black women took mental health jobs at one of Illinois’ toughest prisons. What happened when they reported what they saw behind the wall.

Motive Season 4 - Alt Crops
Motive Season 4 Laura Vergara
Motive Season 4 - Alt Crops
Motive Season 4 Laura Vergara

LISTEN: Us and Them

Two Black women took mental health jobs at one of Illinois’ toughest prisons. What happened when they reported what they saw behind the wall.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Damaria Bates and Jimia Stokes started their jobs as mental health workers, full of hope. But soon, they saw signs of severe abuse— mentally ill prisoners with injuries, drenched in tear gas. When they tried to report the problems, they say fellow staff retaliated against them.

In this episode we go behind the walls with the two women, as they try to make changes from the inside out. As two of the only black women on the mental health staff, they say they navigated racism and harassment. They began to feel like it was impossible to do the job they came to do.

Exposing violence and cover ups, Season 4 of Motive investigates the hidden world of big prisons in small towns. Places where everyone knows each other and difficult truths get buried.

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About the host

Shannon Heffernan (@shannon_h) is the host and a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ in Chicago. She has spent much of her career reporting on prisons. The work for this podcast began nearly four years ago when she got a call that an inmate at a prison had died under suspicious circumstances.

Motive is a production of WBEZ Chicago. Jesse Dukes (@CuriousDukes) is the producer. Marie Mendoza (@marieannmendoza) is our associate producer. Joe DeCeault mixed this episode. Nicole Pasulka is our fact checker. Our editor is Rob Wildeboer. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. Tracy Brown is our Chief Content Officer. We had additional production and reporting help from Arno Pedram and Candace Mittel Kahn. Original music by Cue Shop.

TRANSCRIPT:

A QUICK WARNING BEFORE WE START, THIS EPISODE INCLUDES DESCRIPTIONS OF VIOLENCE AND DISCUSSION OF SUICIDE.

SHANNON HEFFERNAN, HOST: Last week on Motive.

(MUSIC)

VANOKA WASHINGTON: Society looks at us like we deserved it, you know, he in jail for something. And it’s only in extreme and severe cases that something is brought to attention… When they kill someone.

WILLIE EARVIN: I was told that he was beaten severely and they sent pictures of him laying in the hospital bed, his feet chained to the bed. He was my brother and didn’t deserve that treatment. And none of us do.

ROGER LATIMER: I was told that, you know, hey, this prison is in this small town area. Everybody knows everybody. You know that, that’s kind of a family thing. And it’s hard really for anybody to go against that.

(MUSIC PEAK)

HEFFERNAN: Larry Earvin was allegedly beaten by guards, and I wrote letters with men who say they saw the aftermath of the beating. Almost none of them stayed at Western Correctional Center. Instead, they were transferred to prisons all over the state. One man I spoke to ended up incarcerated at Pontiac Correctional Center.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You leave Western, at least Western look like a Prison. Pontiac, it look like you just… it’s like it’s over with. That’s how I could describe it, like you pull up, you’re like ‘what I did? like whatever I did, I’m sorry.’

HEFFERNAN: Some staff will tell you that Pontiac is where they imprison the worst of the worst. And people in prison will tell you it’s where the worst of the worst guards end up too.

(MUSIC ENDS)

(AMBIENT SOUND FROM PONTIAC)

HEFFERNAN: It’s a maximum security prison. And it’s the oldest in the state— Founded in 1871. And it shows. It looks like a giant haunted fortress— tall red brick walls, and towers. People say it gets too hot in the summer. Too cold in the winter. Full of rodents and bugs. To be blunt: it’s bad shape.

HEFFERNAN: The prison is set right in the middle of an otherwise cozy looking neighborhood of Pontiac, Illinois. People can sit on their porches and watch the staff shift changes. In the shadow of the prison is a cute little neighborhood playground. Big yellow slide. Sitting on the swings I can peer into one of the guard towers.

(THEME MUSIC)

HEFFERNAN: I guess, what I’m trying to show with this is that Pontiac Correctional Center, like many prisons in small towns, is a big part of the community. Woven right into its tight knit fabric.

This week we go inside to see what happens when two women… women who were not from the community… women labeled outsiders… what happens when they get jobs at one of the toughest prisons in the state.

From WBEZ Chicago, I’m Shannon Heffernan and this is Motive.

Episode 2: Us and Them

(THEME MUSIC ENDS)

HEFFERNAN: Damaria Bates never thought about working in a prison, but when she was looking online for a job as a counselor, she saw a posting at Pontiac Correctional Center.

DAMARIA BATES: I was like, ‘wow, I didn’t even know they had these type of jobs there.’ So I applied. They called me, came in for the interview, loved me. I was kind of hired on the spot.

HEFFERNAN: So many people in prison have mental illness… and she knew some of them had probably never seen a therapist a day in their life. She was a licensed professional counselor… She thought the job was perfect for her.

BATES: I knew it would be a struggle, as I felt with the inmates, you know, but I’m a believer of God. So I’m like, ‘hey, God is sending me here. I’m going to help these guys and I’m going to really make, you know, a change in somebody’s life.’

(MUSIC)

HEFFERNAN: So in your imagination, what would it be like?

BATES: Meeting with the inmates, you know, hearing their past, you know, giving them proper coping skills, trying to keep them from coming back into the system. I really thought ‘hey, the state is doing a great thing, they want to help these offenders.’

HEFFERNAN: This was early 2018, and part of the reason Bates was feeling hopeful, was because the state was doing a massive overhaul of mental health in prisons.

HEFFERNAN: A couple of years before, the state agreed to a big legal settlement in a lawsuit that basically said the mental health treatment in Illinois prisons was so bad, it violated the U.S. constitution.

HEFFERNAN: The Department of Corrections promised, in federal court, to make things better, in a bunch of ways, including hiring more mental health professionals, like Bates.

(MUSIC ENDS)

HEFFERNAN: Do you remember your first day? Do you remember getting up and getting ready, what that day was like?

BATES: I do. I was so excited because one was paying me ten thousand dollars more than what I made in my last job. So that was a great thing. So I get up, it was like an hour drive from my house. Drove there, came in, of course I got searched, you know went through all that. I’m like, ‘OK, that’s just different. I’m not used to having to do this.’ Everyone was so nice, so nice, so pleasant. I was kind of nervous but then I was excited as well.

HEFFERNAN: Even though everyone was nice, Bates couldn’t help but notice that she stuck out on the mental health staff.

BATES: I was the only African-American in there and which concerned me because majority of the population is African-American. So I’m like ‘Oh, OK, then.’ And I’ll never forget this young lady. She said no one can last here longer than three months. She, she literally said that she’s like she said–

HEFFERNAN: No one can?

BATES: She said no one can.

(MUSIC)

HEFFERNAN: Since plenty of staff had lasted longer than that, Bates assumed she meant Black people couldn’t last that long. It was awkward. But she decided to just leave it alone.

HEFFERNAN: But then she was paired with this white co-worker, Todd Nelson, one of the seasoned mental health workers to shadow him while he made his rounds— talking to patients, checking in on how they were doing.

BATES: And I noticed how he spoke to the inmates, he would make derogatory comments. You know, calling the guys a******s and s*** turds. And ‘I’ll f*** you up.’ Like things of that nature like, and he’s talking to guys who are on suicide watch.

HEFFERNAN: Wait, the mental health worker saying this?

BATES: Yeah, yeah… like he would kind of laugh it off and the inmates would laugh it off. So I thought ‘Oh, you know, maybe this is their relationship.’ But after the third day of going out with him, I was like ‘hey, I don’t feel comfortable with you saying those type of things.’ He’s like ‘Oh, you know, don’t worry about that. These f*****s know what’s going on,’ blah, blah blah. And so I was telling him ‘but I feel offended, you know, by this.’

HEFFERNAN: This coworker, Todd Nelson, had been around a long time. And everyone there seemed to know each other. Pontiac is a small town. This nurse dating that guard. So-and-so being so-and-so’s mom. Bates was the new kid on the block and she didn’t need to piss off Nelson or his friends off by saying something to higher ups.

HEFFERNAN: So she kept her head down. Built relationships with her patients. Still, she was relieved when a new mental health worker joined the staff— Jimia Stokes.

BATES: Mia is what I call her. She’s a very wise woman And with her being African-American, I saw her with dreadlocks. I said ‘oh, you’re African-American, African-American. So you’re really not going to stand for this.’

HEFFERNAN: Jimia Stokes also felt relieved to see Bates on staff.

JIMIA STOKES: Oh well, I thought ‘Oh, this is going to be really good’ because I know that she and I can connect in ways that maybe my other counterparts probably couldn’t connect.

HEFFERNAN: When you first met her, what was your impression of her?

STOKES: Super funny. I mean, she’s funny, even when she doesn’t know she’s funny. As a matter of fact, when I started, She had taken off a few days. But when she came back, everybody was so excited to see her. It seemed like she had like, her infectiousness kind of like was all over the room.

HEFFERNAN: Stokes was a licensed professional counselor, worked in a jail before, but never a prison. Just like Bates, Stokes was passionate about working on recidivism— keeping guys from going back behind bars.

HEFFERNAN: But they had pretty different dispositions— Bates is expressive and energetic. Stokes a little more steady. But they liked that about each other. It was a good balance. Stokes loved how, even with the strict dress code, Bates found a way to show her personality, with her collection of cute sneakers.

HEFFERNAN: Bates loved how Stokes immediately felt like a trusty advisor— a good listener, who always knew the right thing to do. They started having lunch together. And they realized they were both from the same area— closer to Chicago. It was a long drive from the prison, over an hour. When Bates drove, they listened to rap. In Stokes car it was news or Gospel music.

STOKES: I don’t speed, period. And, and so Bates, she likes to drive fast. Like, she was like ‘We gotta get through this traffic like you’re going so slow.’ And so she would get so annoyed when it would be my time to drive because we were going to get there, you know, real, safe and calm versus she’s going to go full throttle. So it’s pretty much the same. Our driving is the same way as we kind of dealt with situations.

HEFFERNAN: And by situations, she mainly means cringey or even offensive things that guards or mental health staff said to them.

BATES: I just noticed they would say things like ‘Oh yeah, the hood and their homeboys’ and you know, just terms like that. And I’m like ‘hey, you know, why are you guys, you know, saying that?’ And so, when I would advocate for them, they would say ‘Oh well that must be your brother, that must be your friend.’ It’s like, no, I don’t know these guys.

HEFFERNAN: Sometimes guards would talk about how they thought people were faking depression or schizophrenia. Or straight up make fun of them, for the ways they’d harm themselves.

HEFFERNAN: Just like her driving, Bates would go full throttle when people said those things. Call it out and tell them to knock it off. Stokes, instead, was a bit more subtle. She offered to do a training about unconscious racism and implicit bias.

HEFFERNAN: They were each trying in their own way, to make the place a little better — for themselves, but also their patients.

HEFFERNAN: The Department of Corrections didn’t answer a long list of questions we sent about Bates and Stokes allegations. But, in a brief written statement a spokesperson said that the department does not ignore a person’s mental health diagnosis, and accusations that someone did would be addressed swiftly and could even result in termination.

HEFFERNAN: Bates and Stokes. said one day when they were driving in, they got caught by a train, and they saw Todd Nelson, the mental health worker that Bates had shadowed early on also driving into work.

STOKES: We saw him on his motorcycle and we spoke to him like ‘Hey, Todd.’ and we were waiting at the train because if you get caught by this train, everybody’s stuck at this train.

HEFFERNAN: When they all arrive at the prison, Bates said she gave Nelson a bit of a ribbing.

BATES: Like ‘Hey, you tried to act like that you didn’t see me and Stokes pull up on the side of you this morning.’ And he was like ‘S***. I started searching for my gun when you guys pulled up on the side of me. I didn’t know what you was going to do, like rob me or something.’

STOKES: He said ‘Oh s*** I forgot my gun.’

BATES: And I was like ‘Wow Todd that’s insulting. Why? Because we’re Black?’ He was like ‘ Um no, I’m not saying that but,’ and kind of, you know, just kind of shrugged it off.

HEFFERNAN: They decided to complain about him to their bosses.

STOKES: We reported it immediately. And nothing happened to him.

HEFFERNAN: I don’t have documentation of this report, but I reached out to Todd Nelson about a number of allegations, including that he’d made racist statements. He referred all questions to prison administrators, who so far, have not directly answered any questions about Nelson.

[MUSIC]

HEFFERNAN: Bates and Stokes were struck by how little their supervisor had reacted to the Nelson incident. They started to notice signs that it was maybe even worse than they thought for their patients too. Not just talk.

HEFFERNAN: They were running group therapy sessions, but also going to people’s cells, to check in on them. Bates said she saw a nurse skipping giving someone meds. Sometimes their patients told them they weren’t being allowed to shower, or that staff had purposely destroyed their property

HEFFERNAN: One time Stokes said she visited a man’s cell and it was covered in feces. He was a really clean guy, almost obsessive about it. He told her the guards moved him to a dirty cell, filled with someone else’s filth, as punishment.

(MUSIC)

STOKES: He loved to clean, like to keep everything. And so they knew that putting him in a cell with someone else’s feces would really just get him really riled up and upset. It sounds gross, but you could even see, like he would point out, like there was like chunks of like feces that was on the floor. And I looked and I was like ‘Oh, that is gross.’

(MUSIC PEAK)

HEFFERNAN: All of this obviously worried Bates and Stokes. So in staff meetings, they started raising concerns about what some of the other employees were doing. But, they said they were shot down. Told they were ‘overidentifying’ with the men in prison.

HEFFERNAN: That was a word other mental health staff seemed to love, ‘overidentifying.’ Which Bates and Stokes took to mean, they’re Black, you’re Black, you can’t keep the distance you need too.

HEFFERNAN: Hearing that from other staff was discouraging. If advocating for their patients, trying to create conditions where therapy would work was ‘overidentifying,’ then what were they there to do?

(MUSIC PEAK)

HEFFERNAN: This feeling Bates and Stokes were getting — that the conditions were not at all conducive to mental health treatment. It wasn’t just them that were seeing that. Remember how the state had promised, in federal court, to improve mental health care?

HEFFERNAN: Well, as part of that settlement agreement, the court appointed an independent monitor — someone who would go into the prison and see if the state was living up to its promise. His reports to the court from around this time are pretty bleak.

(MUSIC ENDS)

HEFFERNAN: Staffing was short. There was a huge backlog, more than 200 people were waiting for their mental health evaluations. He said the level of care in Illinois prisons was so poor, it was causing all kinds of problems — suicidal behavior, self-injuries, staff assaults.

HEFFERNAN: The monitor wrote quote ‘This is an exceptionally dangerous situation which puts staff and offenders at life-threatening risk.’

STOKES: I thought that I was going to be actually being able to provide like therapy and, and actually like work with people when they’re in crisis and things like that. But that’s not what you’re doing. You’re actually literally just going in and you actually don’t have time to do anything. But just ask these standard questions. ‘Are you suicidal? Do you feel like hurting yourself? You know, can you guarantee your safety?’ That’s pretty much it.

(MUSIC)

HEFFERNAN: When I talk to people who were locked up at this time, they don’t have much nice to say about the therapy. One said it was almost entirely in group settings. Another said the mental health staff would just throw them markers and tell them to draw, like they were five years old.

HEFFERNAN: But despite the difficult circumstances, Bates and Stokes patients said they did make a difference. Like Carey Pettigrew, someone who was in Stokes group.

CAREY PETTIGREW: Miss Stokes was f****** awesome.

HEFFERNAN: Pettigrew was at a County Jail when we talked, so the phone line is a little fuzzy. Before he met Stokes, he’d been frustrated with the mental health groups.

PETTIGREW: They’ll tell you do diaphragmatic breathing or walking meditation where you count your steps inside of your room and they’ll leave it at that. Like it’s that easy to suddenly grab hold of a coping skill. And I brought to Miss Stokes attention. I’m like ‘Well, what about someone like me who starts to experience rapid thoughts where my mind gets to moving so fast.’ And when I told her that she asked me a question, she was like ‘Well, when you get like that, generally, what happens?’ I said ‘Well, I get to the point where I start to have suicidal thoughts and thoughts of harming somebody else, and I asked for a crisis team.’ And she told me ‘That’s a form of a coping skill, asking for help when you need it.’

HEFFERNAN: Crisis teams are mental health staff who are supposed to respond quickly, in an emergency, when someone says they want to hurt themselves or others. Pettigrew liked how Stokes had told him that asking for a team was a good strategy — that felt like something he could actually do.

HEFFERNAN: Like, there was a time when he stopped getting letters from his mom, which sent him into an absolute spiral. He’d been buying pills off other men on the wing.

HEFFERNAN: Had you ever attempted suicide before?

PETTIGREW: Yes, ma’am.

HEFFERNAN: And had you tried while you were in there before?

PETTIGREW: Yeah, absolutely.

HEFFERNAN: Pettigrew said he told a guard that he was feeling suicidal and requested a crisis team. The guard said he would get one, right after he handed out the meal trays. But then, when everyone had eaten and the guard came back to pick up the trays, Pettigrew said he still hadn’t gotten the crisis team.

PETTIGREW: I said ‘You know what man? F*** that.’ And I step to the back of my room, and I started taking the pills. And now it, sh** that got serious now. ‘Hey, stop doing what you’re doing! Hey, what are you doing?’

HEFFERNAN: Pettigrew said the guard ran off the wing. Then came back with another guard who had handcuffs and a canister of OC spray, pepper spray.

PETTIGREW: And he’s screaming and hollering at me, telling me to the cuff the f*** up, now. And I told him ‘Dude, I don’t feel safe cuffing up with you, I’m not cuffing up until mental health comes.’ When I told them that he pulled a mace can out and started shaking it. And I’m like ‘What you got that for?’ And he sprayed me, it wasn’t nothing to talk about. And I’m like ‘Dude what the f***? You just sprayed me. What the f*** you spray me for?’ ‘If you don’t come up here and cuff up, I’m gonna spray you again.’ ‘This is the s*** why I didn’t want to cuff up cause look at you’re trying to hurt me.’ Sprayed me again.

HEFFERNAN: What did it feel? What did the spray feel like?

PETTIGREW: That s*** burns, instantly, instantaneously. You start coughing. Snot coming out of your nose. You have no control over that. It completely like opens your f****** sinuses

HEFFERNAN: Okay.

PETTIGREW: It was horrible.

STOKES: He was like on his knees. Up against, his head was against the brick.

HEFFERNAN: Stokes said she didn’t see the situation with Pettigrew unfold. But she did see Pettigrew right after. He was outside the building.

STOKES: He looked like he took a shower in CO spray. It was like he was covered. Drip. It was dripping, dripping off of his head.

(MUSIC)

HEFFERNAN: Staff reports tell a different version of events from Pettigrew’s. They say they sprayed him before he took the pills, to stop his suicide attempt. Those reports don’t mention anything about Pettigrew asking for a crisis team.

HEFFERNAN: But the way Pettigrew tells it — he’d already taken the pills when they sprayed him. At that point, they weren’t going to stop him from doing that. He said what they could have done was finally get mental health.

HEFFERNAN: In the end, he said he didn’t really get to talk to anyone about how distressed he was, really get mental health help, until Stokes visited him in healthcare, days later.

HEFFERNAN: Bates and Stokes had other stories like Pettigrew’s. Times their patients reported assaults, or abuse. This problem was documented by the court monitor too — the guy hired by the courts as part of that lawsuit.

HEFFERNAN: His name is Pablo Stewart. He’s a psychiatrist, but he also comes from a corrections background. In our conversations, Stewart often stuck up for guards, said their jobs were really hard. He’s not someone who believes staff should never use force, including pepper spray.

(MUSIC ENDS)

PABLO STEWART: I’m not totally against OC Spray. There may be some times where it’s, where it’s necessary to prevent further harm to people, and it’s a way to control an out-of-control person.

HEFFERNAN: But when he started monitoring Pontiac, he noticed that there were times when they used force, when what they really should have done was given someone mental health help. Like, they’d spray someone with pepper spray instead of calling in a crisis team. He said lots of incidents started with someone, often in mental health crisis and not getting enough treatment, doing something. Like throwing some feces out of their cell. He said it created this feeling that the men in prison and the guards were fighting each other — an Us versus Them mentality.

STEWART: And the guards aren’t sophisticated mental health practitioners, so they see a guy who’s acting out and throwing feces at them. They don’t say ‘Oh, it’s because he has untreated schizophrenia.’ They’ll say ‘It’s just, this is just a prisoner who’s throwing shit at me.’ And so that’s sort of the basis of the Us versus Them mentality.

HEFFERNAN: Stewart wrote in his reports that there was an elaborate system of retaliation against people with mental illness for their behaviors. Including— withholding food or planting evidence in someone’s cell. He wrote about showing up and seeing incarcerated people with severe injuries. The kind of thing, if it were in the outside world, he’d report it to police.

STEWART: I’d get stories they tell me, says ‘Oh, this guy here, he’s in the cell next to me, and I heard the guards come in and work him over.’ And I said OK, I hear a lot of stories, so I don’t take them, you know, anything at face value, but after you start hearing ten stories. And they name the same guard or they point out the same supervisory officers, then it starts to be a little more credible.

(MUSIC)

STEWART: And then I started looking at medical records and seeing where on a given date, where a person says he was assaulted by a guard. And in fact, he had gone to the medical unit and needed to be cleaned up for abrasions on his face, or tooth that was knocked out. From my training and experience, I had a pretty good idea what was going on.

(MUSIC PEAK)

HEFFERNAN: So Bates and Stokes are going into work, and they are seeing and hearing the same kinds of things the monitor is noticing — Injuries from alleged beatings, accusations staff destroyed someone’s property.

HEFFERNAN: They said their bosses told them, if they see these things, report it. Fill out the right documentation. Let us know what’s happening, so we can fix it and make things better.

HEFFERNAN: But then when they actually did it, actually wrote the reports, the reaction was different. They said one of their supervisors called a meeting, gathered everyone together, the whole mental health team, and gave really mixed message. Stokes said a supervisor said, you should keep reporting, that’s your ethical obligation…

STOKES: But, at the same time, you want to be really cautious about like how often and what you’re saying, because these are the same people that we’re asking to protect us when we go into these cell houses.

(THEME MUSIC)

HEFFERNAN: Basically the message Bates and Stokes got from that meeting was sort of like what the monitor Pablo Stewart had observed. There was an Us versus Them dynamic. Guards versus Prisoners. And the supervisors were saying, the guards are the ones keeping mental health staff safe. So we’re on their team — don’t go messing that up.

HEFFERNAN: Bates and Stokes said the meeting was for the whole mental health team, but everyone knew who they were really talking to. Because Bates and Stokes said they were basically the only ones speaking up, the only ones who stepped over the line of Us and Them.

(MUSIC PEAK)

HEFFERNAN: What happened when they stepped over that line… after the break.

HEFFERNAN: Jimia Stokes said one day, not long after she’d reported a guard, she arrived at the entrance to the prison — where everyone gets searched. She had a clear, see-through bag — just like she was supposed to. She said staff usually just breeze through quickly. But this time, the guard stopped her.

(MUSIC)

STOKES: And she said ‘I want to see your bag.’ So, I hold it up like this because that’s what I normally do. So, she said ‘No, I need to see it.’ Now, mind you there’s like four items in there. So you could actually, there was nothing that was obscuring the items or anything. She literally took each item out and turned it and inspected, took that item out, turned it and inspected, you know? And so again, I knew that they have this little system and they have this family system that they are very protective of one another. So if you do something to one then you’ve done it to everyone.

HEFFERNAN: Stokes was pretty sure she was trying to make her late and send her message about her report. Sometimes it wasn’t just annoying, it was scary. Like how once she said she was on a wing and a guard delayed opening the doors for her to leave. It made her feel like she might be left open to an attack from the incarcerated men.

HEFFERNAN: In a report to her superiors she wrote that she was concerned that she was being placed in unsafe conditions, as retaliation for writing a report. Bates and Stokes’ patients, the men in prison, had noticed something was off too.

(MUSIC ENDS)

BATES: The inmates used to tell me that, that the guards were talking about following me home. And so they started telling me ‘Stop taking up for us, Miss Bates, stop advocating for us. They’re going to come after you.’ And I would tell them I want them to come after me.

HEFFERNAN: Bates said when they went into prison, they were on an island — cut off from the world. No phones. No leaving for lunch. So Bates and Stokes said having each other there was essential. Their morning drives became strategy meetings about how they were just going to get through the day.

BATES: Mia, would always give me that pep talk like ‘Look, don’t go in there, don’t let them get under your skin on today, Damaria. You got to stay cool. You got to stay calm.’ So I’m going in ready like ‘They’re gonna do something! I know they’re doing something!’ I just felt like, it’s something going to happen every day.

HEFFERNAN: One day, they were both in a mental health staff meeting. It was a routine meeting to check-in meeting. They all gathered around a big table. Bates and Stokes were across from each other, at a diagonal. Even before the meeting even started, Bates was in a terrible mood.

BATES: I was dreading the meeting because there was always some B.S., so I just I don’t I don’t even know it’s beyond my mindset. So it was probably just like, I hate it here, and I don’t even want to be here.

HEFFERNAN: That day, Bates said they were discussing a man who was on suicide watch.

BATES: From what I was hearing, I guess he just had a very bad stomach ache, and he had told them he swallowed a spork, but no one was believing him.

HEFFERNAN: Sporks are those plastic utensils that are half spoon and half fork. And even though he said he swallowed one, and looked in bad shape, Bates said he wasn’t getting sent to the hospital. Bates remembers that people didn’t seem to take it seriously.

BATES: I think they just started saying negative things, ‘Oh, he’s lying,’ you know. It was nothing that was being addressed at all.

STOKES: And so everybody was like saying ‘He, he ain’t swallow no spork. He’s lying, you know, he’s just trying to get he’s just trying to go to medical and all of this,’ you know, they were just dismissing it.

BATES: Like, I cannot believe this is their response actually is going to get them to medical. Yeah. So I felt like I have to report this like I have to escalate this to somebody higher because this inmate is a human who possibly can die, and this is their response.

(MUSIC)

HEFFERNAN: I don’t have any documentation of this particular incident, health records are protected by privacy laws, and the department of corrections refused to comment.

HEFFERNAN: But I do have evidence that swallowing objects is sadly common. I found one case, where a man at another Illinois prison, died after he also swallowed a spork and staff failed to act.

HEFFERNAN: Stokes said the attitude when a man swallowed something was pretty much quote ‘He’ll s*** it out.’ During the meeting, Bates said she actually got up, went to get an incident report, and started writing everything up, right in front of everyone.

STOKES: She was very agitated, and so that’s when she made the remark like, ‘Y’all willing to lose y’all jobs, I’m willing to lose my license. Y’all gonna lose your license.’

BATES: You guys are licensed therapists and registered nurses here, how are you guys overlooking these red flags? You know, like it was just too overwhelming for me, and I just kind of lost it.

HEFFERNAN: Bates says she was so boiling mad that she didn’t even want to look around at their faces. The next day a staff psychologist wrote an incident report, complaining about Bates behavior.. In the report he wrote that he thought the comment about staff losing their licenses was quote ‘very inappropriate and also threatening.’

HEFFERNAN: The mental health worker who Bates had shadowed when she started,Todd Nelson, he wrote a report too. Just after that, Bates got a notice from her supervisors laying out concerns about her performance.

HEFFERNAN: It said, once again, she was ‘overidentifying with prisoners.’ For example, it reported that Bates had once said she felt more comfortable quote ‘in a cell with an offender than being out of the cell with a CO,’ which Bates doesn’t deny.

HEFFERNAN: But, it also said that she’d encouraged her patients to go on a hunger strike. Another employee said they witnessed her talking to men on the wing about it. Bates denies she ever encouraged a hunger strike.

BATES: As their therapist, I encouraged them ‘Don’t throw feces on the officers, don’t throw. You don’t spit at them because this is not helping. You have to fight them another way. You guys are cutting yourself, smearing feces on yourself, trying to protect yourself in there.’ I’m like ‘Hey, you’re not animals. Don’t do that.’

(MUSIC)

BATES: So I was off for two days, and when I came back, nine offenders were on hunger strike. So they, they said that I gave them unhealthy coping skills. I said ‘I never told them to go on a hunger strike. They thought of that on their own, I never even thought of that.’

HEFFERNAN: After the complaints were filed, and the notice was sent, Bates was placed on leave and an investigation was opened. The investigation looked into all the accusations against Bates about a hunger strike and overidentifying. Bates said her supervisors invited her in for a meeting to respond, and she went through each accusation defending herself.

BATES: After everything was done, I, you know, told them, you know, I did want my job, you know, but it’s overwhelming for me, and so they said ‘We’ll be, you know, we’ll be in contact with you.’

HEFFERNAN: So you just never showed back up?

BATES: I never showed back up. So, after a week of not hearing anything, I just went to the unemployment office.

(MUSIC)

HEFFERNAN: According to documents from the department, Bates was terminated for unsatisfactory performance. She’d been there five months, two months longer than she said her coworker had originally predicted she could last.

HEFFERNAN: How did you find out about that? Did she tell you?

STOKES: She told me. She told me.

HEFFERNAN: What did it do to you when she left, then when she had to, was forced out? How did that affect you?

STOKES: I felt so alone, I really did. I really felt really alone because… I felt really alone. Because I knew I was on the losing end. It just made you feel bad because you knew you were doing the right thing. And for them to, just minimize what they were doing to say ‘Oh, we’re over-identifying.’ And so, yeah. I just felt alone.

HEFFERNAN: After Bates left, Stokes said the treatment from other staff just got worse. She felt like she was the only one left reporting the abuses, and other staff would rather she not be there.

HEFFERNAN: She said she got a nickname, crude enough I’m not going to repeat it here. The harassment got bad enough that she was actually afraid when she went into work.

STOKES:I started feeling fearful that at one point, since they feel like I’m the enemy, that at one point they’re going to be able to talk the inmate into doing something to me.

STOKES: And I shared that with my husband, and my husband was like ‘I don’t feel I don’t feel comfortable with you going in there either, because I thought the same thing.’ Plus, I would drive an hour and, it’s like an hour and 30 minute drive. And it’s desolate, a lot of it is blank land. And so, he was thinking ‘You know, you don’t know if somebody’s going to follow you home one day, run you off the road, whatever, you don’t know.’

HEFFERNAN: We didn’t find evidence that there were any plans to attack Stokes, or have her attacked by a prisoner — but she was feeling afraid. Stokes says the way she was acting towards the men in prison, her patients, was shifting.

HEFFERNAN: Yes, because of that fear. But also, because she was getting used to it all — the abuse, the Us versus Them mentality. For example, there was one man who was really outspoken about bad conditions. Stokes said she never had problems with him. But she was aware that he’d been accused of exposing himself to other female staff, something he denies. After one of these alleged incidents, he told her the guards beat him up.

STOKES: Yeah, I saw the bruising.

HEFFERNAN: What did you do when you noticed these injuries?

STOKES: I think he was telling me about, like what he, you know, what actually happened. And I told him that I would write it up. And I don’t think I did. I don’t think I did though.

STOKES: I don’t. I don’t know why I didn’t write it up. I don’t know whether I was just… I was really almost just ready to get out of there, for real. And I just think I just probably… it’s just a sea of sea of many.

HEFFERNAN: Did that affect, did that moment of seeing him in such a state and then not writing it up, was that a turning point in any way for you?

STOKES: It probably was. It probably was. like I said it’s just. Just not feeling like there is anything that I could do, and then, of course, because you do you have this struggle with… that they’ve done bad things to people, too. So things are happening bad to you. You know, it’s maybe karma for you. I don’t know, I don’t know what I was thinking, I just don’t. I just felt like help. Like, almost like just so conflicted because. And that’s I think that’s really why I really wanted to get up out of there because either you were going to go along… or you were just gonna get, mistreated, picked on, bullied. I was just tired of that.

(MUSIC)

HEFFERNAN: When you read about prisons, There is a phrase you end up hearing a lot. It’s almost a cliche: Prisons and jails are the largest mental health providers in the country. Maybe you’ve seen a headline like that. And I see why people say it. There are so many people with mental illness locked behind bars — and this drives home that point.

(MUSIC)

HEFFERNAN: But after talking with Bates and Stokes, I really don’t know. It’s like saying that, saying prisons are the largest mental health providers — It assumes that these prisons are actually providing mental health help, like it’s a reasonable location for that. And from what Bates and Stokes saw, it’s really hard to do treatment inside. Maybe not impossible, but certainly not ideal. The culture is bent so hard toward bad guys and good guys. Us and them.

HEFFERNAN: Prisons can have this midas touch, a way of turning everything into punishment. A way of changing the people who go inside them. So one day, after all this had happened, Stokes was at work.

STOKES: I just decided I just said, Today’s the day, I’m, I’m not coming back here no more.

HEFFERNAN: That day she walked around the prison and told her patients goodbye — including, the man with the bruising she hadn’t reported. We talked to him but agreed not to name him.

UNNAMED MAN: She was crying and she’s walking past, you know. So like I said, this is like one of our main advocates, and she’s like, I just can’t take it no more. And she ended up quitting.

HEFFERNAN: What did it do to you when she quit?

UNNAMED MAN: It was kind of like, it was a blow, not just to myself, but to everybody, because it’s like, when you lose an advocate or ally. It hurts the movement, but, you also take it personally when it comes to people like her, someone who was genuine with their intentions to help. You know, who wasn’t just there for a paycheck.

HEFFERNAN: After she said her goodbyes, Stokes said she went to her desk and wrote an email to her supervisor. It explained she couldn’t continue working in those conditions. She hit send, walked out the gates, and didn’t ever come back.

STOKES: I felt free, and I also felt… kind of like I gave up on them, too, if I really if I’m really honest about it. You know, I could leave, happy to be leaving. My lifestyle is such that I could leave. But t if I think about it, I could hear the, you know, just the sound of the prison itself, you know, because it’s, you know, you can oftentimes hear people on the yard, you can hear you can hear gates clanking, you can hear all of that. And it kind of almost felt like out of a movie, almost like a movie that… happy but sad. Like you wonder what happened in the end. Like, you know that the person is walking out and, oh, I’m just so glad that they got out. But then you’re also wondering about the people who are behind.

HEFFERNAN: Since Bates and Stokes left Pontiac in 2018, some conditions for people with mental illness in Illinois prisons have improved, at least according to a monitor’s report, the person hired by the courts to oversee how things are going.

HEFFERNAN: But the reports from the court monitor still flag problems with too few mental health staff and poor access to crisis care. And people in prison with mental illness are still reporting physical abuse.

HEFFERNAN: There were a lot of different staff that came up in my conversations with Bates and Stokes Guards that said something rude, others that would cut them a break. But there was one guard’s name that stuck with me.

STOKES: Uh Major Prentice was uh…

HEFFERNAN: Princess like a prince?

STOKES: No Prentice. P, R, E, N, T, I, C, E.

HEFFERNAN: Jimia Stokes was the first person to mention her to me.

STOKES: I would describe Susan Prentice, as I always would say, that she really seems like she’s the devil and I say that… with all sincerity.

(MUSIC)

HEFFERNAN: I don’t know if you’ve had the experience where you learn about a new thing, or maybe learn a new word, and suddenly you notice it everywhere. That’s what it was like with Prentice. Once I heard her name, it was popping up again and again. Incident reports, lawsuits, people working and incarcerated inside.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: her reputation was uh f you didn’t comply with whatever she told you to do, she would get officers, and she would come to your cell and they would jump on you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I worked with Major Prentice. She was my supervisor for the longest time. And she’s got her tough ways, but she was I mean, I would, I would die for her. I mean, she was awesome, you know, I love her to death.

HEFFERNAN: Next time on Motive. Major Susan Prentice, and her friends and family that work alongside her.

(THEME MUSIC)

If you’re thinking about suicide, or worried about a friend or loved one, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.