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End of an Era: Gov. Quinn Confirms Tamms Closure

Posted by Admin On June - 22 - 2012

Governor’s decision applauded as principled and pragmatic

CHICAGO, IL – Governor Pat Quinn’s office confirmed that he will be closing the notorious prison in Southern Illinois, Tamms supermax. His spokesperson Kelly Kraft cited the exorbitant cost of the facility where men have been held for years – often more than a decade – in solitary confinement. But human rights concerns too must have motivated the governor’s decision. The prison has been condemned by statewide, national, and international human rights monitors.

Members of Tamms Year Ten, the coalition that launched a legislative campaign to bring the issue of solitary confinement to the attention of the governor and legislature, were elated. Attorney Jean Maclean Snyder said, “Congratulations to Gov. Quinn for making this courageous decision. For once, a needed budget cut makes moral sense.” Organizer Laurie Jo Reynolds said, “For 14 years, we have paid exorbitant costs for a prison that drives people to compulsively attempt suicide and causes lasting mental damage. By closing it, the governor is both taking responsibility for solving our budget crisis and showing himself to be a champion of human rights.”

Quinn’s announcement adds Illinois to a growing list of states, most recently Mississippi and Maine, that have ended or drastically curtailed the use of long-term solitary confinement in favor of increased mental health treatment and rehabilitative programming. Those states saved millions and saw prison violence plummet.

The governor also rejected a last-minute proposal to turn the prison into a medium-security facility. It was a final effort by downstate legislators to preserve funding for Tamms in the budget — made because so many other House and Senate members supported Quinn’s plan to shutter the supermax. The idea was to spend $8 to $16 million to “repurpose” Tamms supermax so it was suitable for humane confinement.

The proposal was never endorsed by the governor’s office, which held firm that the state needed the $26 million for other essential needs within IDOC. With the prison population at last beginning to decline, it is likely that administrators simply did not want to be saddled with an unnecessary new facility. The Illinois prison census spiked with the termination of Meritorious Good Time in 2010, but diminished by 1000 in the past year. All national trend lines point downward, and further declines in the Illinois prison population are a near certainty.

Before the announcement, mental health and prison reform advocates wrote a letter urging Quinn to reject the conversion plan and close Tamms outright. They called this decision a “test of priorities” and opposed dumping millions of dollars into prison-building. The governor was urged to reduce the prison population through cost-effective means — court diversion, parole reform, earned sentence credits and programs that lower recidivism. The authors also argued that the plan was unrealistic because Tamms was designed to inhibit prisoner movement and impose sensory deprivation and isolation. Tamms has no communal spaces and would require a yard, library, cafeteria, classroom and contact visitation in order to function as a regular prison.

Tamms has been controversial since before it was built. Warnings about constitutional and humanitarian concerns were highlighted in Governor Edgar’s 1993 Task Force report and have been borne out since its opening in 1998. In fact, Juan E. Mendez, the Special Rapporteur on Torture for the United Nations recently disclosed that staff in Geneva, Switzerland may investigate the Illinois supermax to see if it meets the international definition of torture.

Men at Tamms are held in indefinite isolation 24 hours per day. They can only leave the cell to shower or for an hour of solitary exercise in a small, concrete yard. Cell doors are made of solid steel, perforated with small holes, making communication difficult if not impossible. The cells are designed so that each faces a bare concrete wall, and all meals are delivered through a hole in the door. Many men at Tamms suffer from serious mental illnesses, some induced from the physical environment of the supermax. Self-mutilation, smearing of feces and compulsive suicide attempts are an expected consequence of long-term isolation and are common at Tamms. Many have been in the relatively small 180-prisoner lockup for more than a decade, some since the prison opened in 1998.

Although the prison was designed to house men who are violent or disruptive, a 2009 expose by the Belleville News Democrat indicated that most of the men at Tamms had not been charged with a crime in a regular prison, and at least half of those who did had thrown feces or urine, often signs of untreated mental illness. In general, people with mental illness are far more likely to end up in segregation and isolation because they can’t manage their behavior in the stress of a prison setting.

Tragically, many of these same men — damaged almost beyond repair by years of isolation — complete their sentences at Tamms and are then released to Illinois towns and cities without treatment or counseling. At a hastily called news conference Wednesday, State Senator Gary Forby, standing beside Representatives Brandon Phelps and Mike Bost, fulminated that “they ought to just release the men at Tamms to the streets of Chicago” to teach Quinn a lesson. The Tamms Year Ten Facebook page posted a response: “But that is already what happens. They are mentally damaged at Tamms and then released to Chicago neighborhoods without any treatment or support to cope with years of isolation. That’s why we want to close Tamms.”

News of the closure reached family members Tuesday. Some have waited 14 years for the end of this long nightmare. Rose Sifuentes, whose son has been in Tamms for 7 years, was grateful:  “I am indebted to Governor Quinn. No human being should ever have to endure this type of punishment. Our state has crossed the line by imposing it. I thank you and all of the people I have met in this great crusade that have helped make this happen.” Brenda Smith, who son has been in Tamms for 12 years and started self-mutilating while at Tamms, urged the governor to be resolute, “Governor Quinn I thank my heavenly father for this news, and I pray this is all true, the men do not need to lifted up to heaven and then brought back down to hell.”

Laurie Jo Reynolds said, “From the day it opened, Tamms was a financial boondoggle and a human rights catastrophe. Illinois fell for a foolish national trend and built an isolation chamber, even though the practice of solitary confinement had been shunned for a hundred years. It’s time to stop throwing good money after bad.”

The news came in the wake of Congressional hearings held Tuesday, led by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights to discuss the human rights, fiscal and public safety consequences of solitary confinement. The practice of isolation was condemned by experts on the panel. The commissioner of the Mississippi prison system testified that closing their their supermax had been beneficial to the prison system. Tamms came up several times during the hearing.

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