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. (Some fifty men claim to have been brutalized in the eight years he served as state’s attorney.) In 2003, out of concern that innocent men had been convicted and sentenced to die based on confessions that had been tortured out of them, Governor George Ryan famously emptied Illinois’s death row, commuting 167 sentences and pardoning four men.
Burge was fired in 1993 and moved to Tampa, Florida, where he spent leisure time on his boat, The Vigilante, and continued to collect his taxpayer-provided pension. It was not until 2008 that he was finally arrested—not for the torture itself but for his role in trying to cover it up in the case of one of the pardoned men, Madison Hobley. Burge was sentenced to four and a half years in a minimum-security federal prison. He is scheduled for release in 2015.
Conroy, meanwhile, was laid off by the Reader in 2007. By then, he had started writing a play about the torture scandal. Darkly titled “My Kind of Town,” and now in its final weeks at the TimeLine Theatre on Chicago’s North Side, it is a complex and powerful indictment of the city’s collective unwillingness to confront its legacy of torture. In two acts, the play draws from numerous cases—and actual testimony describing the abuse—to bring to life the character of Otha Jeffries, a death row prisoner in a state of total mental breakdown, who swears that his confession was brutally extracted from him. (In real life, twelve tortured men were sentenced to die and five were exonerated.) Jeffries’s treatment at the hands of Detective Dan Breen and his boss, Jack Gunther (the Burge character who exists only offstage), includes being handcuffed to a pipe and having his pants pulled down, being shocked on his genitals and his rectum and suffocated with a plastic bag. As Jeffries’s estranged parents try to piece together what happened to their son, his mother, Rita, visits District Attorney Maureen Buckley, who as an assistant state’s attorney years earlier was in the police station during her son’s interrogation and heard him scream. “Please don’t tell me you’re here because you think your son is innocent,” Buckley says wearily, having deeply buried her recollections of that scream. She then advises Rita, “There’s nothing you can do about it except pray for him.”