Tamms Correctional Center on 200 Supermax Road, near the southern
tip of Southern Illinois, may be as far from the hustling and bustling
city of Chicago, with its constant city throb of noise, as you can get.
And it's likely that no one can feel the difference as much as its
The only supermax facility in Illinois, meaning it is the only
prison built to keep the majority of its prisoners in isolation, Tamms
prison was consigned for closure by the state's governor in July.
But the battle between former prisoners, the families of those hurt
by conditions at Tamms, anti-torture advocates, the union determined to
keep its jobs and the state legislature struggling to contain costs
continues to rage.
The story of Tamms is the story of something positive that may have
come out of a recession, about what may be the last throes of the
supermax movement, and what a campaign against torture accomplished in
less than four years.
Behind the Walls of Tamms
first supermax prison in the United States was the infamous Alcatraz,
opened in 1934. Since then, tough-on-crime policies have led to the
opening of more than 55 correctional facilities devoted, entirely or
partly, to housing "the worst of the worst" across the country. This
was the logic behind the opening of Tamms in 1998.
For the first ten years of its operation, the prison was mostly
silent to the public ear. When the Tamms Year Ten campaign
ten years after the prison was first opened, it became clear that much
of the silence was due to the prolonged solitary confinement that most
of its inmates were kept in for years.
"We wanted to create a set of demands around the crisis of
isolation," said Laurie Jo Reynolds with the Tamms Year Ten campaign.
"The prison was started with the concept of short-term isolation, but
ten years later, no one had heard anything from inside Tamms."
The group, made up of former prisoners, prisoners' families,
artists, writers, lawyers and others, believes that long-term solitary
confinement is a form of torture punishment that should be curtailed,
if not banned altogether.
When they finally began hearing word from Tamms, the group
discovered that most inmates are held in concrete cells 24 hours a day,
are not allowed phone calls, and rarely see or speak to another human
being. In addition, what little counseling was available was wholly
inadequate, and reading material and family photographs were strictly
inmate, Brian Nelson, described the feeling of being in Tamms
doors are like a rust-red color with thousands of perforated holes. And
you look outside, and you don't see nothing but a gray wall. My biggest
fear is that this is all happening in my head, and I am going to wake
up and I'm in that cell. And that scares the s--- out of me."
Supermax inmates frequently suffer from mental illness. At Tamms,
this often manifests itself in inmates cutting themselves, a practice
staff tries but is unable to prevent. While Tamms has implemented some
policies intended to lessen the harshness of life within its walls, it
also has some practices certain to increase inmate discomfort....
The prison is intentionally devoid of color or other visual
stimulation. Inmates are usually unable to talk with one another. At
best, they spend 23 hours a day alone within their cells. At worst,
they can be confined to their cells 24 hours a day for three months as
a disciplinary measure. Like its counterparts around the nation, Tamms
is frequently criticized for maltreatment of inmates. There are 23
pending federal lawsuits against Tamms, according to prison management.
Earlier this year a federal judge ruled that inmates sent to Tamms
could challenge their transfer to the prison. The judge concluded that
conditions at the prison endanger the psychiatric well being of
Reynolds says that a large majority of the prisoners have
pre-existing mental health conditions, creating a cruel cycle. "When
those people are in a regular prison, they can't follow all the rules,
but when they are placed in isolation, their mental health gets worse."
But for those whose loved ones spend every day in Tamms, the pain
Brenda Smith, whose son Herman has been in isolation in Tamms for
more than ten years, says, "The letters that he writes me are
The only way she copes is by "trying not to think about what he is
"I am the only person he can write the letters to, and he doesn't
tell me everything he is going through," says Smith.
Smith's son is one of the inmates at Tamms whose distress has led
him to self-mutilate.
"It's like he's dead, in a sense. You can't touch him; you can't hug
him. It's hard."
The Roots of a Campaign Take Hold
Reynolds first met two mothers of prisoners at Tamms when she was
working on a campaign against the high cost of phone calls in jails.
The prison opened in 1998, and it was 2008 when Reynolds says that
one-third of the more than 250 inmates in Tamms had been in solitary
confinement for ten years.
She kept in touch with them, and then, in 2000, she joined several
mothers and anti-prison activists on the Tamms Committee. From there,
they launched the Tamms Poetry Committee, "By sending a poem or a
letter to every person at Tamms," said Reynolds, "we gave them
much-needed human contact."
One of the prisoners sent a poem back, and then, more prisoners sent
poems back. And then they started asking something else, says Reynolds:
"This is great, but could you please tell the government what is going
That was in 2007.
"It prompted us into launching a campaign," said Reynolds. "I
thought, if I find this so appalling and reprehensible, if we take this
issue to the public, they will agree with us. It was the prisoners who
prompted us to go further."
And when they did, in 2008, "We held a series of events to prepare
for the hearing, and then packed the room," said Reynolds.
Riding the momentum from the hearing, Tamms Year Ten decided to push
for reform legislation that Reynolds says would "go back to the
original legislative intent" of the facility.
A key complaint of the men in the prison was that many of them were
not aware why they were in the supermax facility, or what they needed
to do to get out. The result was HB
, introduced in the spring 2008 session to establish standards
for which prisoners could be transferred to Tamms and to set the limits
of their stay.
The legislation didn't make it into law, but a new director, Michael
Randle, was appointed to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC),
with the top priority of reviewing
. He met with Tamms Year Ten and legislators and began
looking into the conditions in the prison. This was in May 2009.
Tamms Year Ten continued to send letters and poetry to prisoners and
to organize screenings, marches, music concerts and art campaigns.
Eisenman, in an op-ed
in The Chicago Sun-Times
, argued that, while their efforts were
welcomed, "neither Judge Murphy nor the John Howard Association got to
the heart of the matter."
The problem with Tamms is not that guards are insensitive, food is
poor, educational programming - apart from a few GED classes - is
nonexistent or rules for visitation are maddeningly complex. It is that
terms of isolation are unconscionably long and that there is a lack of
transparency concerning the reasons prisoners are sent to Tamms. Forty
of the 206 men now at Tamms have been there since the facility opened
in 1998, and criteria for being sent to the prison (and held there) are
vague in the extreme.... [Legislators and Illinois Department of
Corrections officials] should remember that the Ten-Point Plan at Tamms
remains an incomplete project and that fundamental change at the
Supermax is essential for the sake of economic health, public safety
and basic humanity."
On September 2, 2010, the group lost its sympathetic director when Randle
resigned following a scandal in which prisoners let out on an
early-release initiative he championed re-offended soon after their
Tamms Year Ten has continued to testify every year to the House and
Senate Appropriations Committees when the IDOC budget is being argued.
"The financial argument itself is so striking, it would be easy to
close the facility on that only," said Reynolds.
The Straw That Broke the Camel's Back
On June 19, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced that Tamms would be
closing by the end of August.
Quinn said in a statement: "We have the responsibility to manage the
state's limited resources as efficiently as possible and make the
difficult decisions necessary to restore fiscal stability to Illinois.
The growing costs of pension and Medicaid make up 39% of state general
revenue spending. While we were able to enact more than $2 billion in
Medicaid reforms with bi-partisan support, we still must reform our
public pension systems to alleviate this squeeze on general revenue
The Tamms Year Ten campaign celebrates the decision, says Reynolds.
"It was a pragmatic decision, but I think Quinn is also principled and
cares about the issue."
Reynolds says that the new IDOC director says only 25 individuals in
Tamms are in need of maximum security. Some prisoner transfers
have already begun
For Smith, whose son remains in Tamms, the news of the closure "is
something to give them hope."
"They would have a lot less problems if they were giving them any
hope, but they see no way out," said Smith. "If you cage an animal up
and mistreat him, he will bite you."
Downstate legislators and the prison union have come down hard
against the closing of the prison. It is the main
in Tamms, Illinois, a town with a population of 632.
Legislators, including some Democrats, have continued to put money
to run Tamms into the Department of Corrections budget, which Governor
Quinn has then vetoed as a line item.
Illinois Rep. Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg), one of the Democratic
legislators leading the push to keep Tamms open, was not available for
Prison guards, led by American Federation of State County and
Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 31, are suing Governor Quinn for his
plans to close the facility, arguing that bringing Tamms residents to
other prisons will increase overcrowding and bring unsafe working
Reynolds, in response, says that guards from Tamms could be used to
staff other overcrowded and understaffed prisons. "The union has gone
entirely ballistic with a campaign of outright lies, half-truths and
fearmongering," she said.
AFSCME Local 31 did not respond to requests for comment.
Eric Fink, a labor lawyer, professor and former legal attorney for
AFSCME prison guards in Pennsylvania, says that the tension between a
union's immediate employment interests and a wider social justice
agenda is not unheard of.
"The union's main function is to advocate for the interest of its
members, and it isn't normally in the business of saying we support
eliminating the jobs of our members."
However, says Fink, "the ideal solution might be to say, for reasons
of social justice, that we agree with reigning back the prison complex,
but we want that to be coupled with shifting to other jobs and the
necessary training so correctional officers can be trained to do other
The End of Supermax?
Despite the roadblocks, Reynolds says she is "confident the closure
of Tamms - a really difficult project, but also a really inspiring
project - will be completed."
And with it, says Reynolds, another leg will be kicked out from
under the supermax model. States including California and Kansas have
closed or downgraded their maximum-security prisons.
However, the battle continues. On August 17, Quinn is expected to
announce the results of his discussions with AFSCME, and as the Tamms
issue continues, he is under fire for not letting reporters into two
other Illinois prisons where, inmates say, conditions are poor.
For Reynolds, "the moral of the story is, it really does matter if a
bunch of people band together and say, You can't do this."