Winndye Jenkins held her Batman-costumed 5-year old grandson’s hand, guiding him through canopies of metal detectors and heavily armed prison guards. They were at United States Penitentiary ADX Florence, to visit his grandfather and her longtime partner, Larry Hoover, the notorious former leader of Chicago gang, The Gangster Disciples.
Hoover, also known as “King Larry,” was given six life sentences (150-283 years) for murder, conspiracy, extortion, and continuing to engage in a criminal enterprise. However, while incarcerated, Hoover transformed the Gangster Disciples into a community group called, “Growth and Development,” which focused on making positive gains in the Chicago Black community like education, entrepreneurship, and wellness.
But prison officials and prosecutors interpreted his attempts as subversive, criminally genius, and disingenuous ways for him to remain the leader of the Gangster Disciples while lying his way into possible clemency. But many of Hoover’s supporters say his community work is vital and genuine, and that Hoover is a political prisoner.
Hoover hasn’t been free since he was apprehended for murdering a drug dealer in 1973. But during all this time, 69-year-old Jenkins hasn’t wavered in her dedication to him and their family. During an interview, she warned ESSENCE that she might have to leave abruptly. “I never know when he’s going to call,” she explained.
Even though Jenkins is devoted to Hoover, aiming to take their family to visit him 3-4 times a year, the super-maximum security prison he’s cloistered in doesn’t make it easy for them.
But Jenkins won’t be deterred. When Hoover was first apprehended in September of 1973, Jenkins’s world came crashing down around. Pregnant with their child, a couple of months later, Jenkins gave birth alone. It was the first of many things she’d have to endure. Years later, she refuses to be deterred by ADX Florence. “I’m not going to stop coming down here until I die. I’m gonna come and try to make sure he’s doing okay. I don’t care what y’all [prison guards] think, but I am going to come.”
During the trip in question, the guards decided a piece of the young boy’s costume is a gang symbol; they commanded Jenkins to remove it. Jenkins protested. The child wasn’t — and still isn’t — a gang member. Also, the piece of cloth was connected to the rest of the costume, held together by a thread. But soon she had to relent, or else they wouldn’t be able to see Larry again for at least a year. Jenkins ripped off offending piece of her grandson’s costume, the thread popping and fraying.
That was 11 years ago, but Jenkins is used to having things taken away every time they come from Chicago to the breath-snatching altitudes of Florence, Colorado. The family’s visitation is revoked often, for arbitrary reasons or genuine human error. Once, it was her teenage granddaughter’s phone, accidentally left in her pocket, costing the whole family visitation rights for a year even though the family turned it in themselves when she realized.
Hoover’s lawyer Justin Moore also claims the prison intercepts their correspondence. Moore is helping Hoover sue the prison for these and other actions, telling ESSENCE that they “destroy confidentiality between client and attorney.”
One time, Jenkins’ voice was taken. She had just had thyroid surgery, and it was hard for her to speak loudly. But the guards repeatedly threatened to terminate her visit with Hoover if she didn’t speak louder — the prison microphones were broken, a regular occurrence, according to Jenkins— despite her repeatedly saying that she was in pain. “[The ADX Florence prison staff] have no compassion. Most of those guards down there, you can tell they’re racist… that they have no respect for you, ” Jenkins says angrily.
And for so long, they’ve prevented her and Hoover’s from legally marrying. “I’ve been with this man since the late sixties,” Jenkins said. “For years, each time that we try and get married — making it legal for ourselves, for the kids… for our family — [Illinois State Penitentiary and ADX Florence] find a reason not to allow it.”
Hoover’s very presence in ADX — rather than another, less restricted prison — causes indignation among many of his supporters, who have argued that Hoover’s leadership was critical to maintaining order in the streets of Chicago. It’s important to note that in addition to Hoover, ADX Florence also imprisons several high-ranking Al-Qaeda operatives, the Unabomber, and a Klu Klux Klan member who planned to deploy chemical weapons outside of Muslim institutions. It’s considered impossible to escape from, making it known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.” Robert Hood, a former ADX Florence warden, told the Denver Post that the prison was “a clean version of hell,” and a place “far much worse than death.” Many Muslim men at the prison, held on terrorism charges, were tortuously force-fed when they attempted to go on a hunger strike. Knowing that her partner will never escape this place is impossibly hard for Jenkins to tolerate. But she keeps going.
Jenkins has lived most of her life loving Larry through glass, through the brutal intermediaries of metal detectors and fences and phones and guards and inspections and visitation terminations.
For Jenkins, this lawsuit is about fighting for her family’s dignity. It’s about making sure that Hoover isn’t isolated from his loved ones. It’s about resisting dehumanization and affirming her family’s right to be a family and communicate with each other.