Federal Court Records
Federal Court Records

In a handwritten lawsuit that cites the Constitution and the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an Illinois inmate is suing the federal government and asking for reparations for slavery.

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Illinois Department of Corrections

The lawsuit, which James D. Lewis filed last week in the Central District of Illinois, accuses more than three dozen federal government agencies of violating the Constitution by enforcing slavery and murdering African-Americans.

"America murdered, conspired, conspiracy to commit murder, attempted to commit murder, kidnap, slave, torture, hanged my people from trees by a rope," Lewis writes in the rambling, seven-page lawsuit. "Exhibits are at every museum(s), schools, library, history books and etc."

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Illinois Central District

Lewis, 40, is an inmate at the Pontiac Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison in central Illinois. He's spent much of his life incarcerated, according to prison records. He was first put behind bars at age 16 on drug possession, robbery, and attempted murder convictions. He's now serving his fourth stint in prison, for armed robbery and home invasion, and isn't eligible for parole until 2037.


He writes that he has legal standing to sue "because America kidnap my people which are now African-American." As exhibits, he includes a full copy of the U.S. Constitution and the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; he also cites the Bible, the Magna Carta, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Lewis is asking for $100 million in damages, and wants the "United States Treasurer Department to release the rest of the money into the community." In addition, he says, "African-Americans should be tax exempt, because my ancestor built America."


Court files show that this isn't the first time Lewis has turned to the judicial branch. He's filed multiple lawsuits concerning his treatment in prison, the most of recent of which alleged that he was denied medical treatment after suffering a seizure. That lawsuit was dismissed in 2013 under a "three strikes" rule—he had previously filed at least three other lawsuits which were dismissed without merit. He appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied his appeal last year.

It seems unlikely that his latest case is going to have a different result. Alfred Brophy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill who studies reparations, said Lewis' lawsuit had "zero chance" of succeeding in court.


"There's a very strong moral case here, but to try to put it in a legal framework where we're going to get relief for this—the courts aren't designed for that," Brophy told me.

In the early 2000s, a number of lawsuits were filed against corporations that had at one point held slaves or made money from slavery. Those cases (which were more formal than Lewis' suit) were dismissed. Advocates for reparations believe the most promising course of action would come from the legislative branch.


"It's been defeated in the courts, but the claims don't go away because they're so compelling morally," Brophy said.

Legal merits aside, Lewis' lawsuit is just the latest example of a long history of these claims, and a powerful image: a single inmate taking on the entire federal government.


Here's a copy his complaint and exhibits:


And here's a full list of the defendants:

Defendant: Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urbana Affairs
Defendant: United States of America
Defendant: Committee on Foreign Relations
Defendant: Select Committee on Intelligence
Defendant: Committee on Banking and Financial Services
Defendant: Committee on International Relations
Defendant: Office for Civil Right
Defendant: Administration for Native Americans
Defendant: National Institute of Mental Health
Defendant: Executive Office for United States Trustees
Defendant: Executive Office for United States Attorneys
Defendant: Office of Special Investigations
Defendant: Bureau of Prisons
Defendant: Federal Bureau of Investigation
Defendant: Immigration and Naturalization Service
Defendant: Bureau of International Labor Affairs
Defendant: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Defendant: Bureau of the Public Debt
Defendant: Office of the Treasurer of the United States
Defendant: African Development Foundation
Defendant: Central Intelligence Agency
Defendant: Export-Import Bank of the United States
Defendant: Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
Defendant: Federal Prison Industries
Defendant: Federal Reserve System
Defendant: Federal Reserve Banks
Defendant: National Credit Union Administration
Defendant: Division of Corporation Finance
Defendant: Office of Native American Affairs
Defendant: United States Commission on Civil Rights
Defendant: Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
Defendant: Securities Investor Protection Corporation
Defendant: United States Institute for Peace


Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

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