Advocates askÂ AFSCME toÂ Â “Stop the Lies, Reject Torture, and Join Our Effort to Reduce Prison Numbers”Â
Prison reformers, human rights advocates and family members held a sit-in at AFSCME headquartersÂ today, objecting to the campaign of scare tactics waged by the guards’ union to try to keep all theÂ prisons open. The crowd called on AFSCME to acknowledge the human rights catastrophe at Tamms,Â desist from fear-mongering, and support the governor in reducing the bloated prison population.Â Protesters sang civil rights anthems, prayed for prisoners and guards, and staged a mock awardÂ ceremony, naming the union “Most Likely to File a Lawsuit About Overcrowding But Not Support a BillÂ to Reduce Overcrowding” and “Union Most Likely to Behave Like a Private Prison.”Â
The challenge was led by Tamms Year Ten, the grassroots organization that for five years has workedÂ to reform or close the supermax, and comes near the eve of the prison’s closure, slated for August 31.Â
Brenda Smith, the mother of a man at Tamms said, “My son has been there for twelve years and he hasÂ started cutting himself since he has been there. I will never understand why this union wants toÂ damage people in state custody. Right now, they have to answer to the taxpayers. Later, they willÂ answer to God.” Her son has been in for Tamms 12 years. “We are here to remind AFSCME that theÂ issue is not jobs, it is human dignity,” she said. The union has never once acknowledged the harm that comesÂ from long-term solitary confinement.
Another mother, Rose Sifuentes said, “My son has not embraced our family or felt human touch for 7Â years. He has lost more than 30 pounds in the last few months.Â Behind the glass walls of visitation, it is like heÂ struggles to speak. He has a blank stare. It is like looking at your son in a glass tomb. The isolation and deprivationÂ is slowly making these men lose their minds. It is unforgivable that AFSCME supports these policies.”Â
In spite of Â the persuasive human rights and economic case for closure, AFSCME has doubled-downÂ on its defense of the supermax. Discounting published research showing that supermax prisons do notÂ reduce aggregate levels of prison violence, the union has repeatedly claimed that Tamms is essentialÂ for the safety of officers and prisoners. Rejecting the voluminous evidence that long-term solitaryÂ confinement causes severe mental illness, AFSCME has insisted that the Tamms regime is necessary.
And despite the budget crisis facing the state, it has insisted that spending over $26 million per year toÂ house just 175 prisoners is justifiable because the prison sits in an economically depressed area.
Claims by AFSCME that the announced closure of Tamms has caused a spike in overall Â prisonÂ violence are false. The notion that a correctional system housing over 48,000 prisoners is sensitive toÂ the status of a supermax housing just 175 is absurd on its face. But statistics indicate that the number ofÂ lockdowns in Illinois prisons is actually down in 2012 compared to previous years, and reported acts ofÂ violence basically unchanged. Â Laurie Jo Reynolds, the lead organizer of Tamms Year Ten, said, “WeÂ are disappointed that AFSCME has failed to acknowledge the human rights catastrophe at Tamms andÂ has instead perpetuated a PR campaign of fear-mongering and misinformation.”
AFSCME filed suit last Thursday in Alexander County as a last-ditch effort to halt the closure. The unionÂ claimed in court documents that the closures would exacerbate prison overcrowding and put theirÂ members at risk. Reformers were disturbed but not surprised by the move. “If AFSCME were primarilyÂ concerned about prison overcrowding,” said Jean Maclean Snyder, an attorney who sued the IDOC onÂ behalf of men at Tamms with serious mental illnesses, “they would have supported SB 2621, the billÂ designed to alleviate overcrowding. Instead, they are going all out to resurrect an expensive and half-empty prison that drives inmates insane.”Â
Malcolm C. Young, the Director of the Program for Prison Reentry Strategies at theÂ Northwestern University Law School, and former director of the John Howard Association, agreed. HeÂ explained that “maximum security prisons are much less overcrowded than minimum or maximum andÂ concerns about prison overcrowding are notÂ a sound basis for opposing the closure of Tamms.” HeÂ emphasized that overcrowding is a serious problem but endorsed the measure recently passed by theÂ Illinoisâ€™ legislature and Governor to implement a modified good conduct credit program. Â The previous MGT program was suspended at the end of calendar year 2009, leading to a sudden net increase inÂ Illinoisâ€™ prison population of close to 4000, which has since been reduced by 1000.
In July, Governor Pat Quinn used his veto pen to eliminate funding for the prison, citing its high cost,Â inefficiency, and the need to use scarce state resources more wisely. At a cost approaching $90,000Â per man per year, Tamms is the most expensive prison per capita in the state. Since it is more than 2/3Â empty, but fully staffed, it is also the most wasteful and unnecessary.Â
In announcing his veto, Quinn said the money saved should go to DCFS to preserve programs forÂ neglected and abused children. “Finally, we have a governor who has his priorities straight,” saidÂ Reynolds. “Children and families come first, prison boondoggles last.” She added, “The expense of the supermax isÂ exorbitant, and taxpayers get no return for that money except a class of prisoners who are mentallyÂ damaged before they are released back into our communities.”
Located in southern Illinois, Tamms has long been a target of human rights and mental healthÂ advocates for its regime of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. Men at Tamms are kept inÂ isolation 24/7 for years at a time — some since the prison opened in 1998. They only leave their cells toÂ shower or exercise in a concrete pen alone. Food is pushed through a slot in their cell doors. ManyÂ men have pre-existing mental illnesses. Those who don’t may develop them in the prison designed forÂ sensory deprivation. Hallucinations, self-mutilation, smearing excrement and suicide attempts areÂ common among prisoners at Tamms.
Reform advocate Stephen F. Eisenman wondered how AFSCME’s legendary leader Jerome WurfÂ would have felt about current union policy. Wurf marched with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King inÂ Memphis in 1968, and shared the civil rights leader’s commitment to non-violence and universalÂ human rights. “Wurf would be ashamed to see AFSCME facilitate the mass incarceration thatÂ characterizes the US penal system today. And he would have never sanctioned his union’s support ofÂ a prison condemned by international human rights monitors.” Speakers referred to the crisis of massÂ incarceration and the overuse of solitary confinement as the great civil rights issues of our time.Â Reynolds said, “A prison that leads men to compulsively attempt suicide, smear excrement and self-mutilate is one that a progressive union should reject.”
TEN THINGS AFSCME WONâ€™T TELL YOUÂ ABOUT THE CLOSURE OF TAMMS SUPERMAX
1. Most of the men at Tamms are no different thanÂ those at other maximum security prisons. EvenÂ the IDOC recently admitted thatÂ only 25 men require heightened security protocols.Â MoreÂ than halfÂ of the men at Tamms did not commit a crime while in prison. Of those whoÂ did,Â their offenses were often associated with the symptoms of mental illnesses,Â such asÂ throwing feces or resisting handcuffs.[i]Â Moreover,Â in 2010, a federal district judge foundÂ that all the men at Tamms had been transferredÂ there in violation of their 14th amendmentÂ right to due process.[ii]Â For example, Andre Davis who was recently exonerated by DNAÂ evidence andÂ released, was in isolation at Tamms the entire 14 years it has been open. LikeÂ many,Â he was never told why he was there.[iii]Â It is telling that after Tamms, many men areÂ transferred toÂ mediumÂ securityÂ prisons.[iv]Â In fact, men with indeterminate sentences haveÂ even been granted paroleÂ directly from the supermax or shortly after they left.
2. Tamms isÂ a dumping ground for men with mental illness and it causes mentalÂ breakdowns inÂ previously healthy men.Â These are two reasons why Tamms has beenÂ publicly condemnedÂ by international human rights monitors, including AmnestyÂ International, HumanÂ Rights Watch and the John Howard Association.[v]Â Prisoners with pre-existing mental illness are more likely to be disruptive andÂ be sent to the supermax. OnceÂ there, they succumb to the common effects ofÂ isolation: hallucinations, psychosis, self-mutilation and compulsion toÂ suicide.[vi]Â There are men covered in knots of scar tissue fromÂ self-cutting and on constantÂ suicide watch.[vii]
3. It isÂ safer to close Tamms than to keep it open. Supermax prisons make outcomesÂ worse.Â Thatâ€™s because isolation exacerbates mental illnesses, increasesÂ tension, and worsensÂ bad behavior. States that have recently closed supermaxesÂ or sharply curtailed their use â€“Â such Mississippi and Maine â€“ have seen prisonÂ violence plummet.[viii]Â PeerÂ reviewedÂ research from Illinois and other states indicates that supermaxÂ prisons do not deter orÂ decrease violence system-wide.[ix]Â A WashingtonÂ State study showed that placement inÂ long-term solitary confinement actuallyÂ increases rates of violent recidivism.[x]
4. One-thirdÂ of the men housed at Tamms in 2008 will be returning to our communities byÂ 2018.Â Hundreds of men from Tamms have been or will be releasedâ€”all the worseÂ for theirÂ years in Tamms. We do not want men returned to our communities orÂ other prisons withÂ mental impairments. The state of Illinois should notÂ undermine a personâ€™s chances forÂ successful reentry.
5. TammsÂ supermax is the right choice for closure. It is inefficient, expensive andÂ redundant.Â The supermax is fully staffed but 2/3 empty,Â Â and costs over $90,000 per capitaÂ â€” more than four times theÂ IDOC average of $21,405.[xi]Â Illinois already has an all-segregation prison, Pontiac, where the former deathÂ row was housed. It is certainly secureÂ enough for the stateâ€™s 25 most dangerousÂ prisoners.
6. No oneÂ will lose a job because of Tammsâ€™ closure, and transferring staff will make theÂ entire system safer.Â Â Every workerÂ affected by the closures will be offered a job inÂ corrections. At least 118 ofÂ the 302 Tamms employees will be transferred to chronicallyÂ understaffed prisonsÂ within 90 miles. The rest can fill open jobs in other southern IllinoisÂ facilities. This will save the state overtime costs and make the system saferÂ and moreÂ efficient. (Some staff with salaries of $55,000 are making overÂ $100,000 because ofÂ overtime pay.[xii])Â Dispersing the large staff and small prison population to other facilities is aÂ smart use of scarce resources.[xiii]
7.Â Closing Tamms supermax will not increase overcrowding.Â Â The redistribution of 175 menÂ among aÂ population of 48,000 will have no effect on overcrowding. In fact, almost thatÂ number of prisoners are released from IDOC custody every day. The 200 men inÂ the TammsÂ minimum security camp will be candidates for home electronicÂ monitoring and for earnedÂ sentence credits.
8. TheÂ way to address overcrowding is to reduce the prison population, not to bankrollÂ anÂ expensive and destructive prison.Â The Illinois prison census spiked byÂ 4000 when good timeÂ credits were suspended in 2009. Thankfully, the legislatureÂ just passed a bill (SB2621) toÂ relieve overcrowding by reinstating these credits.Â AFSCME should support the governor inÂ his efforts to alleviate overcrowding byÂ reducing the prison population. (AFSCME and mostÂ of their downstate legislativeÂ allies did not support the bill.)
9. TheÂ claim that â€œTamms saves livesâ€ is false.Â Reductions in prison violence inÂ Illinois duringÂ the 1990s were achieved the old fashioned way: soundÂ corrections policy and hard work.Â Under Governor Jim Edgarâ€™s administrationÂ (1990-98), gangs were allowed to rule theÂ prisons. They made cell assignmentsÂ and job assignments. They both called hits and wereÂ called on to keep theÂ peace. This ended after the Richard Speck tapes became public in 1996,Â leadingÂ to a complete IDOC overhaul including 30 systemic reforms to take back the prisonsÂ and cut corruption. The transformation led to an immediate reduction inÂ violence thatÂ declined steadily afterwards. Tamms had nothing to do with it â€“Â it was opened two yearsÂ later. The supermax also canâ€™t be said to protect staffÂ â€“ the last death of an IDOC employeeÂ was nine years before Tamms opened. TheseÂ claims are scare tactics made by AFSCME andÂ the governors and wardens who builtÂ Tamms. Independent research shows that supermaxÂ prisons play no role inÂ reducing aggregate prison violence.
10.Â AFSCME prides itself on being a progressive union, and boasts of their civilÂ rights pastÂ with Martin Luther King, Jr. but they have dishonored their proudÂ legacy.Â Â The union stoodÂ shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King in Memphis during the sanitationÂ workersÂ strike in 1968 with the vision that workers rights and human rights areÂ inseparable. AFSCMEÂ later agreed to the shuttering of large and poorly runÂ mental hospitals in New York City andÂ Long Island â€“ despite the loss of someÂ union jobs â€“ because these institutions harmedÂ patients. But in the last twoÂ decades, AFSCME has embraced the transformation of theÂ United States into whatÂ has been called a â€œpenal stateâ€ with more people in prison than anyÂ otherÂ country on earth. They act as though every single union job â€“ even if it isÂ cruel andÂ destructive â€“ is worth preserving. Mass incarceration and solitaryÂ confinement are theÂ human rights issues of our time, but ending them are alsoÂ practical needs. The state canâ€™tÂ spend scarce resources on a bloated prison system.Â Guards and communities would be saferÂ with prisons that rehabilitate instead ofÂ torture. Begging for prisons is unbecoming for theÂ union and for legislators.
Downstaters need real, sustainable, and humane economicÂ development.
[i]Â GeorgeÂ Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer,Â Trapped in Tamms,Â Investigative Series,Â Belleville News Democrat,Â August 2-3,Â 2009.
[ii]Â Westefer v. Snyder, 725 F.Supp.2dÂ 735, 2010. Â
[iv]Â Many men at Tamms are transferredÂ out to prisons like Hill, Big Muddy, Danville, Illinois River, Lawrence,Â Western, andÂ Pickneyville.
[v]Â See for example, theÂ public statement by Amnesty International, Feb. 23, 2012.
[vi]Â Bruce A. Arrigo and Jennifer LeslieÂ Bullock, â€œSupermax Units: Reviewing What we Know and Recommending WhatÂ shouldÂ Change,â€Â International Journal ofÂ Â Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminolology,Â 52, 2008, p. 627. Lorna A.Â Rhodes,Â â€œTaxonomic Anxieties: Axis I and Axis II in Prison,â€Â Medical AnthropologyÂ Quarterly,Â NewÂ Series, Vol. 14, No. 3,Â Sep., 2000, pp. 346-373.
[vii]Â George Pawlaczyk andÂ Beth Hundsdorfer, â€œSupporters of Tamms inmate: Solitary should not be dumpingÂ ground forÂ mentally ill,â€Â Belleville News Democrat,Â October 23, 2011,Â http://www.bnd.com/2011/10/23/1912016/groups-join-inmates-effort-to.html
[viii]Â Alex Barber, â€œLess Restriction Equals Less Violence atÂ Maine State Prison,â€Â Bangor Daily News,Â June 15, 2012,Â http://bangordailynews.com/2012/06/15/news/state/less-restriction-equals-less-violence-at-maine-state-prison/;Â JamesÂ Patterson, â€œPrisonâ€™s Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity,â€Â TheÂ New York Times,Â March 10, 2012,Â http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/us/rethinking-solitary-confinement.html;Â Lance Tapley, â€œReducing SolitaryÂ Confinement,â€Â The Portland Phoenix, November 2, 2011,Â http://portland.thephoenix.com/news/129316-reducing-solitary-confinement/;Â Lance Tapley, â€œMaine â€“ A Model for Solitary Confinement Reform,â€Â TheÂ Portland Phoenix,Â July 3,Â 2012,Â http://portland.thephoenix.com/news/140908-maine-a-model-for-solitary-confinement-reform/
[ix]Â JodyÂ Sundt, Thomas C. Castellano and Chad Briggs, â€œCase Study of Supermax and ItsÂ Effect in Illinois. The SociopoliticalÂ Context of Prison Violence and ItsÂ Control,â€ The Prison Journal, Vol. 88, No. 1, 94-122, 2008, p. 111. TheÂ Illinois data uponÂ which Sundt and her colleagues study was based was limitedÂ to just 15 months, from March 1998 to July 1999, and theÂ recorded reduction inÂ assaults against guards was limited to the single month following the openingÂ of Tamms, after whichÂ rates of violence against staff began to increase,Â eventually negating the prior gains. Data from the 2000 IDOC annual reportÂ shows that overall inmate-on-staff assaults actually increased from 1998Â to 1999, from 681 to 686. In addition, the 2002Â IDOC annual report indicatesÂ that although overall assaults committed on staff and inmates with a weapon decreasedÂ fromÂ 1998 to 2002, they significantly increased again from 2001 to 2002, fromÂ 33 to 53. The insignificance of Tamms supermaxÂ prison for any reduction ofÂ aggregate prison violence in Illinois has been remarked by Chad Briggs. In aÂ correspondence fromÂ 2009 he re-stated his published conclusion: â€œDespite claimsÂ from prison officials that these types of prison facilities haveÂ had highlyÂ desirable impacts on levels of prison violence and safety, to date relevantÂ empirical evaluations have been largelyÂ non-existent â€¦ [In Illinois andÂ elsewhere] there appears to have been little effort to analyze the potentialÂ effectiveness of theÂ policy. Its utility was assumed self-evident.”Â (E-mail correspondence with the Dr. Stephen F. Eisenman, April 23, 2008.)Â Indeed,Â in an earlier article, Sundt and her colleagues noted that:Â Â â€œThe implementation of a supermax hadÂ no effect on levelsÂ of inmate-on-staff assaults in Minnesota, [and] temporarilyÂ increased staff injuries in Arizona.â€ Chas S. Briggs, Jody L. Sundt,Â and ThomasÂ C. Castellano, â€œThe Effect of Supermaximum Security Prisons on Aggregate LevelsÂ of Institutional Violence,â€Â Criminology,Â vol. 41, no. 4, NovemberÂ 2003, p. 1341. Also see: Stephen F. Eisenman, â€œThe Resistable Rise andÂ PredictableÂ Fall of the U.S. Supermax,â€Â Monthly Review, vol. 61,Â no. 6, November 2009,Â http://monthlyreview.org/2009/11/01/the-resistable-rise-and-predictable-fall-of-the-u-s-supermax
[x]Â David LovellÂ and Clark Johnson, â€œFelony and Violent Recidivism Among Supermax Prison InmatesÂ in Washington State: AÂ Pilot Study,â€Â Department of Psychosocial &Â Community Health,Â University of Washington, p. ii.Â
[xi]Â ThisÂ estimate is from theÂ 2009 exposÃ© by theÂ Belleville News DemocratÂ for the cost to keep a man in theÂ supermax.Â TheÂ IDOCâ€™s lower estimate ofÂ $64,805Â represents an average of the per capita cost of the supermax with the cost ofÂ the adjacentÂ boot camp.
[xii]Â Patrick Yeagle,Â â€œIllinois Prisons: Standing room only Overcrowding is costly and dangerous,â€Â IllinoisÂ Times, March 4,Â 2010