Woodlawn Health Center, 6337 S. Woodlawn Ave., on Dec. 6, 2021. The site is the future home of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, which plans to move its expanded operations into the space early next year. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

WOODLAWN — A resource hub for survivors of police violence and incarceration is fundraising to reopen early next year in Woodlawn, breathing new life into a former mental health clinic closed by city officials.

The Chicago Torture Justice Center is preparing to open in the Woodlawn Health Center, 6337 S. Woodlawn Ave., moving from its longtime home in Englewood to accommodate more staff and expanded programs.

The center’s Love-a-thon campaign aims to raise $150,000 to renovate the space, which was “left in a pretty bad state,” co-Executive Director Cindy Eigler said. Old furniture and exam tables remain, walls and ceiling tiles are damaged and none of the bathrooms are accessible for people with disabilities.

If funding is secured, work can begin by the end of 2021, though there’s a chance supply chain issues will limit access to construction materials. The center’s goal is to open in March, co-Executive Director Aislinn Pulley said.

“We are more than tripling our space” from the center’s original location in Englewood, Pulley said. “It’s going to allow us to gather safely while we’re still in the pandemic. … This also allows for expanded programming and public use, for events where we’re going to be able to invite people in. That’s really, really exciting.”

The torture justice center opened in 2017 at Englewood Health Center, 641 W. 63rd St. A counseling center was one of the reparations approved by the city in 2015 for survivors of torture carried out by former police Commander Jon Burge and his “Midnight Crew.”

The center’s core services include individual counseling, human services, support groups and somatic therapies for survivors of police violence and incarceration. Survivors “have been really feeling the loss of that physical space” as they’ve experienced stress and trauma over the past two years, Eigler said.

The Woodlawn location will feature resources to help people cope with grief, as well as a community closet and pantry. There will be re-entry support, like a computer lab dedicated to providing tech classes for the “many survivors who have spent decades incarcerated,” Pulley said.

Services are open to anyone “impacted directly or indirectly by policing,” and people can “self-identify what that means,” Pulley said. With Chicago spending $1.7 billion on police in 2021 — a budget that will rise to nearly $1.9 billion in 2022 — “a large percentage of folks” have been impacted, she said.

The center has doubled its staff during the pandemic, necessitating a bigger location based off the team’s size alone, the co-directors said. The Englewood location also “allowed no space for social distancing that would be needed for reopening,” given the center’s growing slate of programs and increased demand for services, Eigler said.

“Because of the growth, we have to move because we don’t have the space,” Pulley said. “We are simultaneously working on looking for a permanent location that can exist alongside the [torture justice] memorial that has yet to be built. In the interim, we need space.”

The torture justice center will occupy about 75 percent of the Woodlawn Health Center, sharing space with Thresholds, a mental health and substance use treatment resource. Cook County ran a clinic offering medical and dental care in the health center until last December.

The torture justice center’s co-directors said it is important to bring the resource to the former Woodlawn Mental Health Clinic, one of six public clinics closed under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012.

Center staff and organizers who occupied the mental health clinic in 2012 are planning a permanent exhibit inside the justice center to honor Chicago’s public mental health movement.

“The political significance of that location is huge, both in its symbolism and in its literal relevance to saving public health,” Pulley said. One of the center’s long-term goals is to ensure “the entirety of the Woodlawn location will return back to being a fully publicly funded resource for anyone in need,” she said.

The center’s mission statement places it within the struggle to end all forms of police violence, the co-directors said. They’ve had conversations with a few groups about filling the “collaborator spaces” in the building, which would provide organizing space for activists.

As survivors once again engage face-to-face with center organizers and each other, “they can be reminded of what can happen when we fight together and when we create communities of care,” Eigler said.

The Chicago Torture Justice Center “hopefully will be, in the not-too-distant future, [a hub for] all movement folks who are working to end all forms of state violence,” Eigler said.

To donate money to the center’s campaign, click here. For a list of furniture and services requested by the center, click here.

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