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.”

ILLINOIS EXCHANGE: Tamms spending questioned

December 31, 2009
Chicago Tribune

TAMMS, Ill. – For almost 12 years, Illinois taxpayers have paid one of the highest per-inmate costs in the country to house what the Department of Corrections says are the 250 worst inmates in the state.

The per-year cost to operate the solitary-confinement-only Tamms Correctional Center has grown to at least $16 million — $64,000 per prisoner, according to figures provided by the state. The amount is two to three times what is spent annually to house an inmate at the three other maximum security lockups in Illinois.

However, the actual per-inmate cost of running the Tamms supermax is undoubtedly much higher, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections 2008 Annual Report. That’s because 155 inmates at a minimum security camp operated on the same grounds are included in the figures.

The combined annual cost for the supermax and the minimum security camp is $27.7 million. Using the generous per-inmate cost of $30,000 per year for a minimum security inmate, a classification that requires the least amount of guards and services, the cost of the minimum camp is $4.7 million annually. That leaves $23 million for the supermax, or $92,000 per inmate.

The annual cost of providing mental health care at Tamms — which critics, such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch, say causes mental illness by imposing years solitary confinement — is $1.2 million. Most of that expense goes into operating the Special Treatment Unit, which usually houses fewer than a dozen inmates. The Tamms staff psychiatrist is paid $288,000 per year.

Five months after a Belleville News-Democrat investigative series reported abuses at the supermax, and nearly four months after prison system director Michael Randle announced limited reforms, 48 inmates have been cleared for transfer out of Tamms.

But as Randle struggles to find ways to keep costs down statewide, prison experts and attorneys who handle prison-condition lawsuits question whether Tamms actually works.

Randle recently testified in a federal lawsuit brought by Tamms prisoners that the supermax is crucial to safety throughout the system and deterring assaults against guards because inmates fear transfer to Tamms. However, as of Wednesday, his office had not provided any data requested by the News-Democrat concerning whether assaults on guards have declined since Tamms opened.

Supermax critics challenge the idea that confining 250 or so prisoners — half of 1 percent of the entire state prison-system population — does any good. They argue it is illogical to believe isolating fewer prisoners than are held in many county jails can have any real effect on reducing violence in a large, highly transient prison system.

While DOC data show that assaults against guards dropped for about 1 1/2 years after Tamms opened in 1998, the decrease has been attributed by critics to statewide prison reforms that began in 1996.

“It is inconceivable that they support the idea that violence declined because of Tamms,” said Chicago-area lawyer Jean Maclean Snyder, who has represented Tamms inmates in federal lawsuits. “It declined because of other security changes.”

Jody L. Sundt, who co-authored a 2008 study about Tamms, said supermax prisons are not cost-effective and probably do not achieve long-term goals.

“It is primarily a symbol, a gesture of overwhelming control,” said Sundt, an assistant professor in the Division of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Portland State University in Oregon.

Sundt’s study found that violence against guards did decrease during an 18-month period following the opening of Tamms, but she said she and her fellow researchers could not determine why. The study showed the short-term decrease was not solely due to ongoing reforms that began a few years earlier. No similar decreases were found in studies of supermax prisons in other states.

Sundt said that while inmates who commit crimes in prison need to be under strict control, programming, not years of solitary confinement, is more likely to reduce violence.

“Some might say it isn’t torture because no bones are broken, but it causes pain and suffering,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, recently praised the mental health treatment inmates receive in Tamms’ Special Treatment Unit. He had earlier convened a Senate subcommittee on human rights because of his concern about Tamms inmates.

During a recent media tour, reporters saw mentally ill inmates in a treatment area. Each was confined to a separate Plexiglas booth set in a semi-circle and was playing a card game without actually touching any cards, which were handled by a $50,000-per-year activity director.

“The idea that Tamms serves as a deterrent is, on its face, nonsense,” said Stephen F. Eisenman, an art history professor at Northwestern University in Chicago with a Ph.D. from Princeton. Eisenman has published widely, including the 2007 book “The Abu Ghraib Effect,” concerning abuses at the U.S. military prison in Baghdad.

“Only a tiny fraction of those who commit any kinds of felonies in the prison system get sent to Tamms,” said Eisenman, who also contends that the supermax does little or nothing to curb violence against guards at other prisons.

“To attribute it (a decline in violence) to this one small factor, this tiny prison opened in Southern Illinois, I just think is absurd,” he said, adding, “What I think is really going on here is that the prison guards and the (guards’) union like to have a place like Tamms where they can send somebody who has attacked a guard. Guards have difficult jobs, and if one of their own is attacked, they like to be able to feel that there is some way to get back at the prisoner, like sending him to Tamms.”

Anders Lindall, the public affairs director for the guards’ union — Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — said violence against guards, according to “numerous anecdotal reports” from the union’s membership, is increasing, not decreasing. He denied that guards sought vengeance against inmates.

Chad S. Briggs, a doctoral candidate at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, who worked with Sundt on the Tamms study, said, “Conceptually, Tamms doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The way Tamms officials handle inmates sent to the lockup, especially mentally ill prisoners, by locking them in solitary with little or no social contact, is far different than the policy at what is arguably the largest lockup in the United Sates: the 10,000 prisoner Cook County Jail.

The newspaper’s Tamms series reported that mentally ill inmates reacted to being held for as long as more than a decade in solitary by mutilating themselves to the point of needing hospitalization, and by throwing feces and urine at guards and smearing bodily wastes on themselves.

Randle repeatedly said Tamms is reserved for the “worst of the worst,” although the newspaper’s findings challenged that assumption. The series reported that more than half of Tamms inmates had committed no crimes inside prison and that others were seriously mentally ill and did not receive treatment.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said during a November interview that about 250 mentally ill prisoners, including 50 who are seriously mentally ill, are treated in a special unit at the sprawling jail. There is no Hannibal Lecter treatment, he said. The jail isolates only actively psychotic inmates and even then, only for a few hours or a few days at a time. All but a few mentally ill Cook County inmates are out of their cells all day and mingle with other prisoners and staff.

As for long-term solitary confinement, Dart said, “That stuff doesn’t really work.”