Tamms Prison Project Makes Prisoners’ Dreams Come True (PHOTOS)

From: The Daily Beast, May 6, 2013:

“Photo Requests From Solitary” was one of many projects launched by Tamms Year Ten to build publicity for the campaign to close Tamms supermax. The men in Tamms were invited to request a photograph of anything in the world, real or imagined. 

See the slide show of photos, impressions, here

Former Tamms inmates on hunger strike

From the Southern Illinoisan:


SPRINGFIELD — A small group of inmates at Pontiac Correctional Center launched a hunger strike Monday, saying conditions are worse than when they resided at the now-closed super-maximum-security facility in Tamms.

The Chicago-based Uptown People’s Law Center said an estimated 10 prisoners are participating in the strike, which comes about a month after the inmates were transferred out of Tamms and into the older facility in Livingston County.

Key among their grievances is a lack of heat because of some of the retrofitting that was done in order to prepare Pontiac for the prisoners from Tamms. The prisoners are complaining that plexiglass panels installed on their cell doors block heat from entering their living areas, said Brian Nelson prison rights coordinator for the law center.

Gov. Pat Quinn closed Tamms in early January as part of a budget-cutting move. The prison had been built to house the state’s most dangerous prisoners in near-solitary confinement.

Nelson said the prisoners are upset that they don’t have televisions, radios, cleaning supplies, legal-sized envelopes and razors. In addition, he said they also are being forced to share nail clippers even though some men have illnesses.

read further here: http://thesouthern.com/news/local/former-tamms-inmates-on-hunger-strike/article_2e1ed102-6f5a-11e2-af16-001a4bcf887a.html

Last inmates leave Tamms ‘supermax’ prison

One of the more contentious episodes in the history of Illinois penitentiaries ended Friday as the last inmates held at the “supermax” prison in Tamms moved out and Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration prepares to shut it down.

The final five inmates at the high-security home for the “worst of the worst” were shipped to the Pontiac Correctional Center, a prison spokeswoman said. Among the last to leave was a convict who helped lead a prison riot in 1979 and stabbed serial killer John Wayne Gacy while on death row.

Also bused out of the southern Illinois city were four dozen residents of the adjoining minimum-security work camp, packed off to Sheridan Correctional Center in north-central Illinois.

The departures mark the end of a nearly 15-year experiment with the super maximum-security prison, which supporters say the state still needs for troublemaking convicts — particularly during a time of record inmate population. But opponents contend the prison’s practice of near-total isolation was inhumane and contributed to some inmates’ deteriorating mental health.

More than 130 inmates were moved out of the prison in just nine days, after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that legal action by a state workers’ union could no longer hold up the governor’s closure plans. The state has offered to sell the $70 million facility the federal government, but there are no solid plans for the future of the prison, often simply called Tamms.

“It’s sad for our area, but we’re never going to give up,” said Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Democrat from Harrisburg whose district includes Tamms. “We still have an overcrowding problem. That’s the deal with this. The governor has made it worse. Eventually, some of these facilities are going to have to reopen.”

But activists opposed to the prison’s isolation practices cheered Friday’s landmark moment. One organizer, Laurie Jo Reynolds, called the course to closure “a democratic process” that involved not high-priced lobbyists or powerful strategists but, “the people — truly, the people.”

Shuttering Tamms is part of Quinn’s plan to save money. The Democrat said housing an inmate at the prison cost three times what it does at general-population prisons. He has also closed three halfway houses for inmates nearing sentence completion, relocating their 159 inmates, and plans to shutter the women’s prison in Dwight. 

Read the rest here: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-last-inmates-leave-tamms-supermax-prison-20121228,0,1550702.story

Illinois planning to close Tamms Prison

From: PA Prison Report, from the Human Rights Coalition:
June 25, 2012

Illinois planning to close Tamms Prison:
Governor Pat Quinn is moving ahead with the closing of the controversial supermax Tamms Correctional Facility, slated for the end of August. As Part of Quinn’s budget plan, Tamms will close in late August to save $26 million for the state of Illinois.

According to NPR, the facility “typically holds fewer than 200 prisoners at a time, costing about $62,000 per inmate per year – about three times the statewide average.” Prisoners are isolated in their cells for 23 hours a day, allowed out only to shower or exercise alone. The prisoner population of Tamms will most likely be moved to prisons in Pontiac and Menard, and placed in single-cell segregation units.

Advocates for prison reform have long argued that the solitary confinement practices of Tamms and other supermax prisons lead to serious lasting psychological damage. Many of the prisoners housed at Tamms already suffer from existing mental illnesses, according to the Tamms Year Ten coalition group. For these individuals, the long term effects of solitary confinement are even more devastating. “By closing Tamms, Illinois will join a growing consensus, and take a critical step toward reforming the state’s prison system to the benefit of public safety, security, and the state’s fiscal health,” a 42-page report from the John Howard Association stated.

There is a slew of criticism about Governor Quinn’s monumental decision, notably from labor union officials and State Senator Dave Luechtefeld. Tamms is the largest employer in an already poverty-stricken area of Illinois. Closing this and other prisons and juvenile detention centers in the state (per Quinn’s budget plan) will cost jobs and livelihoods. There are also concerns that relocating prisoners from Tamms, Dwight, and Murphysboro (the other facilities slated to be shut down) will result in overcrowding and unsafe conditions in the existing prisons.

The closing of the Tamms Supermax provides a rich opportunity to evaluate the practices of solitary confinement. In a statement issued from the ACLU, it was noted that “recent years have seen evaluations in other states, with a reduction in the use of solitary confinement in states like Mississippi, Maine, and Colorado. These states have seen no increase in crime and they have enjoyed considerable cost savings. Illinois can follow this path.”

Two Illinois prisons to close

From: Beloit Daily News
June 20, 2012

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Gov. Pat Quinn revealed Tuesday that he is closing state prisons in Tamms and Dwight even though the budget sent to him by legislators includes money to maintain the prisons and the hundreds of jobs they create.

The administration also said it will close halfway houses in Carbondale, Chicago and Decatur, along with youth prisons in Murphysboro and Joliet.

Tamms, in far southern Illinois, is home to a “supermax” prison that houses the most dangerous inmates and employees about 300 people. The Dwight facility is a women’s prison in north-central Illinois with 350 employees. Together they house about 1,400 inmates.

Closing them will mean squeezing more inmates into the remaining prisons, which are already seriously overcrowded. The system now houses about 14,000 more inmates than it was designed to hold.

Word of the governor’s decision came in the form of a memo to state employees letting them know they would soon get information on how layoffs will be handled.

Later, Quinn spokeswoman Kelly Kraft released a statement saying the Tamms prison is only half-full and far more expensive than other facilities. Dwight is close to several other prisons, she said.
“Overall, these closures will allow the state to better live within our means and address the state’s most pressing needs,” Kraft said.

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, a Republican, warned that the move could jeopardize safety. “Overcrowded prisons pose a real danger to employees and local communities,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, was clearly angry that his region stands to lose a prison, a halfway house and a youth camp.

“The governor says he’s a jobs governor. I don’t know if I can believe that anymore when he’s cutting 500 jobs in southern Illinois,” Phelps said.

Sen. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga, said much the same about closing Dwight, calling it “reckless.”
Most of the closures will take effect Aug. 31. The Joliet youth camp will stay open until Oct. 31.

Quinn’s decision “elated” activists with Tamms Year Ten, a volunteer campaign to reform or close the supermax prison. Tamms inmates are kept isolated in their cells 23 hours a day for years at a time, a practice that some view as cruel and harmful for the prisoners.

Organizer Laurie Jo Reynolds said the prisoners’ “family members, especially the mothers, are relieved and grateful that the long nightmare at Tamms has ended.”

Read the rest here: http://www.beloitdailynews.com/news/two-illinois-prisons-to-close/article_88bc9780-baf5-11e1-b7bc-001a4bcf887a.html

Illinois Inmate Says Years of Solitary Confinement Caused Mental Illness, Self-Mutilation

Reblogged from: SolitaryWatch
Jean Casella and James Ridgeway
Sept 2nd 2011

“Dear America” wrote Anthony Gay, who is being held in solitary confinement in Tamms supermax prison in Illinois, “It is like this place is designed to psychologically kill you. How could America be so cruel to its own people?… Is there a need to psychologically kill prisoners?” In Gay’s case, his lawyers claim, a seven-year term in isolation has damaged their client’s psyche to the point that he routinely mutilates himself, and at one point cut off one of his testicles and hung it from a string on his cell door. Originally sentenced to seven years for assault, Gay is now serving 99 years for throwing urine and feces at guards from his isolatoin cell.

The story of Anthony Gay, which appeared earlier this week in southwest Illinois’s Belleville News-Democrat, reads like a primer on what is wrong with solitary confinement, including how it drives prisoners mad, and how it can turn a relatively brief prison stint into an effective life sentence. It also documents a novel attempt by Gay’s lawyers to apply a recent Supreme Court ruling to the case of a prisoner suffering mental breakdown as a result of prolonged isolation. The story was written by George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer, whose award-winning 2010 investigative series “Trapped in Tamms” exposed the suffering of prisoners–especially prisoners with mental illness–in the Illinois state supermax. Read the full story on BND’s site, or here

Judge Rules Procedures at Tamms Supermax Violate Constitution

Reblogged from: Solitarywatch
July 21, 2010

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

A federal judge yesterday ruled that current procedures for sending prisoners to the Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois–and keeping them there indefinitely–is in violation of the 14th Amendment to U.S. Constitution, which guarantees due process of law. The judge ordered that significant changes be made at the notorious state supermax.

George Pawlaczyk, whose award-winning coverage last year exposed abuses at Tamms, reports in the Belleville News-Democrat:

A federal judge has ruled that even inmates termed the “worst of the worst” by state prison system officials have a constitutional right to a hearing before they are sent to what many consider the harshest prison in Illinois — the solitary-only Tamms Correctional Center.
U.S. District Court Judge G. Patrick Murphy, sitting in federal court in East St. Louis, has ruled that all inmates transferred to Tamms, the state’s only supermax prison, must be given a swift hearing and told why they are being sent to the lockup, where most prisoners spend 23 hours a day in their cells and are let out only to walk alone in a steel cage.
And all inmates currently at the prison must be given the same type of hearing, which must allow them an opportunity to challenge their transfer. Tamms inmates also must be given 48 hours notice of the hearing after being sent to Tamms, so that they can have an opportunity to prepare to challenge their transfer.

The decision follows a ten-year legal effort by the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, which brought suit on behalf of several dozen Tamms prisoners, and a trial in federal court that ended last December. Pawlaczyk quotes Uptown’s Legal Director Alan S. Mills, who called the judge’s ruling a “significant victory”:

“Everybody who has been sent there (Tamms) up until now, have had their constitutional rights violated and has a right to a hearing, a new hearing, to see whether or not they should have ever been sent there in the first place,” said Mills…
Mills said that inmates can now challenge prison system claims that they violated disciplinary rules at other prisons or any administration claim that warrants being sent to Tamms. And they can require prison officials to state a reason for transfer. They also may challenge department claims that they are members of a gang and that is why they were sent to the lockup.
“Many of these inmates have never been told why they were sent to Tamms,” Mills said. He said these inmates include one plaintiff in the lawsuit who had been at Tamms since it opened more than 12 years ago but was never told why.
Murphy also ordered that inmates who have been at Tamms the longest, and many have been there for more than 10 years, will be placed at the head of the list for the hearings. The judge’s order noted that some inmates were not told why they were sent to Tamms until years later…

Judge Murphy made clear that his ruling “is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the 14th Amendment due process rights of IDOC [Illinois Department of Corrections] inmates placed at Tamms, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the federal rights of such inmates.” He stated that “the supermax prison at Tamms is clean, excellently administered, and well staffed.” This despite the fact that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have challenged conditions at Tamms, as has a local activist group, Tamms Year Ten.

New attention was focused on the prison last year, after reporting by George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer found nightmarish conditions at Tamms, which is in many cases used as a de facto asylum for prisoners suffering from serious mental illness. [You can read the original series here.] As Pawlaczyk wrote yesterday:

The treatment of Tamms inmates, especially those who were mentally ill, was the subject of a News-Democrat investigative series in August titled “Trapped in Tamms,” which was followed by more than a dozen follow-up stories. The articles challenged the prison system’s claims that Tamms inmates were the worst of the worst, and reported that more than half of the inmate population had not committed any new crimes since entering prison.
The newspaper reported that many mentally ill inmates were sent to Tamms after throwing urine and feces at guards, assaults that are often handled administratively at other prisons. This behavior, according to mental health experts who study incarceration, can often be a sign of mental illness made worse by solitary confinement.

Mud stencil on Chicago sidewalk, by Tamms Year Ten

It remains to be seen how much the new ruling will help such inmates. The court stated that during the newly mandated hearings, prison officials can consider ”the safety and security of the facility, the public, or any person, [and] an inmate’s disciplinary and behavioral history,” in deciding whether an inmate needs to be held at Tamms. Clearly, an inmate’s “behavioral history” can be affected by untreated mental illness.

However, the prisoners in Tamms have more going for them that many of the of other 25,000-odd inmates held in U.S. supermax prisons: They have local muckraking journalists to expose their living conditions; local and international human rights groups taking up their cause; and excellent pro bono legal representation from the Uptown People’s Law Center. All of these watchdogs will, no doubt, be waiting to see what happens at Tamms when the judge’s order goes into effect.