Eric looks proudly at the collection of knives, razor blades, sharpened scissors, and welding guns in his cell at Pekin federal prison. Some might see his cache as a treasure trove of contraband. Eric Williams (pseudonym) sees a future. He starts his shift in the prison steel factory as a skilled welder. He has done so for the last seven years. The radiant blue light of Eric’s welding gun always reminds him just how far he’s traveled in life. Memories of being tortured in a dark, dingy Chicago police station flash before him. Memories of his teen, drug-addicted mother leaving him with no food cross his mind, and so do memories of ones lost to the streets. Finally, Eric remembers the day he stood before a federal judge who sentenced him to a mandatory lifetime of imprisonment. He was 26 back then. He has been locked away over 20 years.
Eric Williams is a son of the drug epidemic, not a forefather of it. His mother, Patricia Ann Williams, was a 14-year-old girl when she brought Eric into the world. Eric grew up in and around the grey, concrete wastes and limited sightlines of Robert Taylor Homes public housing projects. According to federal census data, six of the poorest US census areas with populations above 2,500 were once found in the Robert Taylor homes. Planned for 11,000 inhabitants, the Robert Taylor Homes ballooned up to a peak of 27,000 people whose circumstances rarely extended beyond basic arm’s length.
When Eric was just four or five years old, he watched their drunk landlord shoot his mother five times while she stood just a few feet from Eric.
Patricia survived the five gunshots. By the time she turned 19, Patricia was addicted to cocaine and hard partying. Eric was starting kindergarten when his mother was starting cocaine. Patricia Williams recalls: “Eric was a crutch for me. What I didn’t do, he did. When I went out, he took care of the kids. I was a teen mom. After he went to prison, I finally had to grow up.” Patricia admits that she left her children for days at a time, with no adults present to make sure their most basic needs were met. Back then, her addiction was most important to her. The apartment’s utilities were frequently cut off. As the oldest, Eric shouldered the household responsibilities: “When I get home from school, I’m going to make sure there’s something on the table for [my siblings] to eat, make sure they get into the tub, and try to help them with their homework.” That was how Eric and his siblings existed on Chicago’s southside: one day at a time, in dire circumstances, barely scratching survival. Eric’s younger brother Marshall remembers: “We were running around on our own; Eric was the one trying to feed us, clothe us, and protect us.”
As he grew, Eric became a father figure for his younger brothers and sisters because his own father was a transient presence who abused his teen mom the few times he did come around. Marshall recalls: “Eric bought our school clothes, school supplies, food – everything a father would do, he did.” Because there was rarely an adult in the home, Eric’s siblings looked to him as the eldest to meet their basic needs; Eric had no time to be a child. Eric’s efforts to provide for his siblings ultimately could not keep them together. Paricia separated her children, sending 13-year-old Eric to live with his uncle Jimmy, while his younger siblings went to live with their grandmother. Uncle Jimmy, a neighborhood drug dealer himself, became a corrosive adult influence in Eric’s young life. Uncle Jimmy taught Eric to sell drugs. The pressure on Eric to be a provider, not a teenager, continued. His brothers and sisters called him, not their mother or father, when they were hungry. Watching his uncle make quick money seemed like a solution to the pressure Eric felt. According to Dunbar High School records, in 1987, Eric made one D and six Fs. Eric eventually left high school in the twelfth grade with a failing average. When asked why he dropped out, Eric says: “I left to take care of my family. I did what I thought was right at the time.”
The Police Torture Precinct
The summer of 1988 changed the trajectory of Eric Williams’s life. On August 25, 1988, 19-year-old Eric was walking down Union Street “drinking a juice” when the aptly-named Chicago Police Detective Michael Kill pulled up in an unmarked car and ordered Eric to get in and lay down in the back of the car. Eric felt a rush of terror. He had just been walking down the street and now he was face-down, alone in the back of a police car. At one point, Eric looked up to try and figure out where he was being taken, but a swift elbow to his head told him sitting up was not allowed.
Eric would later learn he was taken to a police precinct by the “Midnight Crew” — a now infamous gang of Chicago police officers, led by police commander Jon Burge, notorious for torturing false confessions out of scores of Black men on Chicago’s southside. Eric was dragged up three flights of stairs and left on the floor in a dark room. “Then the door slammed open. The lights came on. [An officer] came in and kicked me between the groins and walked out, cut the lights back out.” Eventually, officers took Eric to another room and began interrogating him about his cousin, Ronny Kitchen, and Ronny’s alleged involvement with a murder. They showed him graphic pictures of bloodied and burned bodies. Eric remembers the pictures “made [him] throw up. . . . [he] was scared.” The officers continued the torment. “I was punched. I was punched. I was jumped on. When I say jumped on, I’m not talking about someone physically getting on top of me. I’m talking about beaten.”
Eric was unable to offer a statement to stop the beating—he had no idea what they were asking about. The officers resorted to what would later be exposed as their routine: the use of violence and torturous tactics to coerce confessions from those in their custody. Eric was moved from an interrogation room to an actual cage, where Detective Kill and other officers beat him. Eric was “kicked in the groins[,] hit upside the head, [and] jumped on…At one point they had a souvenir little bat[,] like they give at the…ballpark. [He] was struck with that.” Eric knew his cousin Ronny was experiencing something similar; he “heard him hollering and crying.” At one point, Eric and Ronny were placed into the same cage. Eric saw that his cousin was “hurting, bending over” “and he was moaning.” The officers threatened to “beat [their] ass” if Eric and Ronny even attempted to console or speak to each other. So, they sat in stoic, terrified silence.
The “Midnight Crew” only ended the beating because a lawyer arrived and asked to see the two boys. When finally released from the police station, Eric was unable to seek medical treatment because he was too poor to afford medical insurance and had no money to pay out-of-pocket. Eric was able to resist making a false statement, but Ronny was not. At 22 years old, Ronny relented to the police torture and falsely confessed to the murder of two women and three children.
Though Eric escaped the torture precinct without making a statement, something in him was forever broken after those hours of violence by the Chicago police. He will never be fully rid of the dehumanization he felt, or the image of his cousin, doubled-over in pain while they stood caged, like animals. Most of all, it corrupted his decision making in a way he now regrets.
A Wrong Turn
At 19 years old, Eric had just been dehumanized and violated but could not turn to family; his parental system had failed him. Eric could not turn to law enforcement; they had tortured him. Eric turned to one of the few options that remained: a local gang. From 1991 until his arrest, Eric Williams was an active member of a Chicago gang. By 1995, he was one of several leaders of the gang.
Eric’s earnings in the gang never amounted to much. Eric and his wife Maria rented a house her father owned for $200 per month at 2045 West 63rd Street. After a few years, the couple, moved to 6639 South Crandon where they rented a southside apartment for $585 per month, which they frequently struggled to pay. Eric and Maria had two kids, Tanya and Eric Jr. Eric never made enough to buy a home. He did not take lavish vacations. He has never traveled outside of the United States. He could never afford expensive cars, jewelry or the accoutrements of drugs dealing. At the purported pinnacle of his drug dealing, Eric bought a Chevrolet van with a $2,500 down payment and financed the remaining $31,000 balance with a bank loan. By the time Eric was arrested, his sole asset was $100 in a savings account, and he owed $890 in debt. He was adjudged indigent and the court appointed counsel. For all of the money the gang leaders told him he could make, Eric Williams’s net worth was -$790.
The quantum of Eric’s entire life flashes before him in the bright blue light of his prison welding gun. In the federal penitentiary’s steel factory, Eric earns just over $1 per hour. Eric’s gaze never rose above the eye level of poverty.