Reform advocates call on the Guard’s Union to acknowledge human rights catastrophe at the Supermax

Advocates ask AFSCME to  “Stop the Lies, Reject Torture, and Join Our Effort to Reduce Prison Numbers” 


Prison reformers, human rights advocates and family members held a sit-in at AFSCME headquarters today, objecting to the campaign of scare tactics waged by the guards’ union to try to keep all the prisons open. The crowd called on AFSCME to acknowledge the human rights catastrophe at Tamms, desist from fear-mongering, and support the governor in reducing the bloated prison population. Protesters sang civil rights anthems, prayed for prisoners and guards, and staged a mock award ceremony, naming the union “Most Likely to File a Lawsuit About Overcrowding But Not Support a Bill to Reduce Overcrowding” and “Union Most Likely to Behave Like a Private Prison.” 

The challenge was led by Tamms Year Ten, the grassroots organization that for five years has worked to reform or close the supermax, and comes near the eve of the prison’s closure, slated for August 31. 

Brenda Smith, the mother of a man at Tamms said, “My son has been there for twelve years and he has started cutting himself since he has been there. I will never understand why this union wants to damage people in state custody. Right now, they have to answer to the taxpayers. Later, they will answer to God.” Her son has been in for Tamms 12 years. “We are here to remind AFSCME that the issue is not jobs, it is human dignity,” she said. The union has never once acknowledged the harm that comes from long-term solitary confinement.

Another mother, Rose Sifuentes said, “My son has not embraced our family or felt human touch for 7 years. He has lost more than 30 pounds in the last few months. Behind the glass walls of visitation, it is like he struggles to speak. He has a blank stare. It is like looking at your son in a glass tomb. The isolation and deprivation is slowly making these men lose their minds. It is unforgivable that AFSCME supports these policies.” 

In spite of  the persuasive human rights and economic case for closure, AFSCME has doubled-down on its defense of the supermax. Discounting published research showing that supermax prisons do not reduce aggregate levels of prison violence, the union has repeatedly claimed that Tamms is essential for the safety of officers and prisoners. Rejecting the voluminous evidence that long-term solitary 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 to 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  prison violence are false. The notion that a correctional system housing over 48,000 prisoners is sensitive to the status of a supermax housing just 175 is absurd on its face. But statistics indicate that the number of lockdowns in Illinois prisons is actually down in 2012 compared to previous years, and reported acts of violence basically unchanged.  Laurie Jo Reynolds, the lead organizer of Tamms Year Ten, said, “We are disappointed that AFSCME has failed to acknowledge the human rights catastrophe at Tamms and 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 union claimed in court documents that the closures would exacerbate prison overcrowding and put their members at risk. Reformers were disturbed but not surprised by the move. “If AFSCME were primarily concerned about prison overcrowding,” said Jean Maclean Snyder, an attorney who sued the IDOC on behalf of men at Tamms with serious mental illnesses, “they would have supported SB 2621, the bill designed to alleviate overcrowding. Instead, they are going all out to resurrect an expensive and half-empty prison that drives inmates insane.” 

Malcolm C. Young, the Director of the Program for Prison Reentry Strategies at the Northwestern University Law School, and former director of the John Howard Association, agreed. He explained that “maximum security prisons are much less overcrowded than minimum or maximum and concerns about prison overcrowding are not a sound basis for opposing the closure of Tamms.” He emphasized that overcrowding is a serious problem but endorsed the measure recently passed by the Illinois’ legislature and Governor to implement a modified good conduct credit program.  The previous MGT program was suspended at the end of calendar year 2009, leading to a sudden net increase in Illinois’ 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, inefficiency, and the need to use scarce state resources more wisely. At a cost approaching $90,000 per man per year, Tamms is the most expensive prison per capita in the state. Since it is more than 2/3 empty, but fully staffed, it is also the most wasteful and unnecessary. 

In announcing his veto, Quinn said the money saved should go to DCFS to preserve programs for neglected and abused children. “Finally, we have a governor who has his priorities straight,” said Reynolds. “Children and families come first, prison boondoggles last.” She added, “The expense of the supermax is exorbitant, and taxpayers get no return for that money except a class of prisoners who are mentally damaged before they are released back into our communities.”

Located in southern Illinois, Tamms has long been a target of human rights and mental health advocates for its regime of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. Men at Tamms are kept in isolation 24/7 for years at a time — some since the prison opened in 1998. They only leave their cells to shower or exercise in a concrete pen alone. Food is pushed through a slot in their cell doors. Many men have pre-existing mental illnesses. Those who don’t may develop them in the prison designed for sensory deprivation. Hallucinations, self-mutilation, smearing excrement and suicide attempts are common among prisoners at Tamms.

Reform advocate Stephen F. Eisenman wondered how AFSCME’s legendary leader Jerome Wurf would have felt about current union policy. Wurf marched with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis in 1968, and shared the civil rights leader’s commitment to non-violence and universal human rights. “Wurf would be ashamed to see AFSCME facilitate the mass incarceration that characterizes the US penal system today. And he would have never sanctioned his union’s support of a prison condemned by international human rights monitors.” Speakers referred to the crisis of mass incarceration and the overuse of solitary confinement as the great civil rights issues of our time. Reynolds said, “A prison that leads men to compulsively attempt suicide, smear excrement and self-mutilate is one that a progressive union should reject.”




1. Most of the men at Tamms are no different than those at other maximum security prisons. Even the IDOC recently admitted that only 25 men require heightened security protocols. More than half of the men at Tamms did not commit a crime while in prison. Of those who did, their offenses were often associated with the symptoms of mental illnesses, such as throwing feces or resisting handcuffs.[i]  Moreover, in 2010, a federal district judge found that all the men at Tamms had been transferred there in violation of their 14th amendment right to due process.[ii] For example, Andre Davis who was recently exonerated by DNA evidence and released, was in isolation at Tamms the entire 14 years it has been open. Like many, he was never told why he was there.[iii] It is telling that after Tamms, many men are transferred to medium security prisons.[iv] In fact, men with indeterminate sentences have even been granted parole directly from the supermax or shortly after they left.
2. Tamms is a dumping ground for men with mental illness and it causes mental breakdowns in previously healthy men. These are two reasons why Tamms has been publicly condemned by international human rights monitors, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the John Howard Association.[v] Prisoners with pre-existing mental illness are more likely to be disruptive and be sent to the supermax. Once there, they succumb to the common effects of isolation: hallucinations, psychosis, self-mutilation and compulsion to suicide.[vi] There are men covered in knots of scar tissue from self-cutting and on constant suicide watch.[vii]
3. It is safer to close Tamms than to keep it open. Supermax prisons make outcomes worse. That’s because isolation exacerbates mental illnesses, increases tension, and worsens bad behavior. States that have recently closed supermaxes or sharply curtailed their use – such Mississippi and Maine – have seen prison violence plummet.[viii] Peer reviewed research from Illinois and other states indicates that supermax prisons do not deter or decrease violence system-wide.[ix] A Washington State study showed that placement in long-term solitary confinement actually increases rates of violent recidivism.[x]
4. One-third of the men housed at Tamms in 2008 will be returning to our communities by 2018. Hundreds of men from Tamms have been or will be released—all the worse for their years in Tamms. We do not want men returned to our communities or other prisons with mental impairments. The state of Illinois should not undermine a person’s chances for successful reentry.
5. Tamms supermax is the right choice for closure. It is inefficient, expensive and redundant. The supermax is fully staffed but 2/3 empty,  and costs over $90,000 per capita — more than four times the IDOC average of $21,405.[xi] Illinois already has an all-segregation prison, Pontiac, where the former death row was housed. It is certainly secure enough for the state’s 25 most dangerous prisoners.
6. No one will lose a job because of Tamms’ closure, and transferring staff will make the entire system safer.  Every worker affected by the closures will be offered a job in corrections. At least 118 of the 302 Tamms employees will be transferred to chronically understaffed prisons within 90 miles. The rest can fill open jobs in other southern Illinois facilities. This will save the state overtime costs and make the system safer and more efficient. (Some staff with salaries of $55,000 are making over $100,000 because of overtime pay.[xii]) Dispersing the large staff and small prison population to other facilities is a smart use of scarce resources.[xiii]
7. Closing Tamms supermax will not increase overcrowding.  The redistribution of 175 men among a population of 48,000 will have no effect on overcrowding. In fact, almost that number of prisoners are released from IDOC custody every day. The 200 men in the Tamms minimum security camp will be candidates for home electronic monitoring and for earned sentence credits.
8. The way to address overcrowding is to reduce the prison population, not to bankroll an expensive and destructive prison. The Illinois prison census spiked by 4000 when good time credits were suspended in 2009. Thankfully, the legislature just passed a bill (SB2621) to relieve overcrowding by reinstating these credits. AFSCME should support the governor in his efforts to alleviate overcrowding by reducing the prison population. (AFSCME and most of their downstate legislative allies did not support the bill.)
9. The claim that “Tamms saves lives” is false. Reductions in prison violence in Illinois during the 1990s were achieved the old fashioned way: sound corrections policy and hard work. Under Governor Jim Edgar’s administration (1990-98), gangs were allowed to rule the prisons. They made cell assignments and job assignments. They both called hits and were called on to keep the peace. This ended after the Richard Speck tapes became public in 1996, leading to a complete IDOC overhaul including 30 systemic reforms to take back the prisons and cut corruption. The transformation led to an immediate reduction in violence that declined steadily afterwards. Tamms had nothing to do with it – it was opened two years later. The supermax also can’t be said to protect staff – the last death of an IDOC employee was nine years before Tamms opened. These claims are scare tactics made by AFSCME and the governors and wardens who built Tamms. Independent research shows that supermax prisons play no role in reducing aggregate prison violence.
10. AFSCME prides itself on being a progressive union, and boasts of their civil rights past with Martin Luther King, Jr. but they have dishonored their proud legacy.  The union stood shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King in Memphis during the sanitation workers strike in 1968 with the vision that workers rights and human rights are inseparable. AFSCME later agreed to the shuttering of large and poorly run mental hospitals in New York City and Long Island – despite the loss of some union jobs – because these institutions harmed patients. But in the last two decades, AFSCME has embraced the transformation of the United States into what has been called a “penal state” with more people in prison than any other country on earth. They act as though every single union job – even if it is cruel and destructive – is worth preserving. Mass incarceration and solitary confinement are the human rights issues of our time, but ending them are also practical needs. The state can’t spend scarce resources on a bloated prison system. Guards and communities would be safer with prisons that rehabilitate instead of torture. Begging for prisons is unbecoming for the union and for legislators.
Downstaters need real, sustainable, and humane economic development.

[i] George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer, Trapped in Tamms, Investigative Series, Belleville News Democrat, August 2-3, 2009.
[ii] Westefer v. Snyder, 725 F.Supp.2d 735, 2010.  
[iv] Many men at Tamms are transferred out to prisons like Hill, Big Muddy, Danville, Illinois River, Lawrence, Western, and Pickneyville.
[v] See for example, the public statement by Amnesty International, Feb. 23, 2012.
[vi] Bruce A. Arrigo and Jennifer Leslie Bullock, “Supermax Units: Reviewing What we Know and Recommending What should Change,” International Journal of  Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminolology, 52, 2008, p. 627. Lorna A. Rhodes, “Taxonomic Anxieties: Axis I and Axis II in Prison,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 14, No. 3, Sep., 2000, pp. 346-373.
[vii] George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer, “Supporters of Tamms inmate: Solitary should not be dumping ground for mentally ill,” Belleville News Democrat, October 23, 2011,
[viii] Alex Barber, “Less Restriction Equals Less Violence at Maine State Prison,” Bangor Daily News, June 15, 2012,; James Patterson, “Prison’s Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity,” The New York Times, March 10, 2012,; Lance Tapley, “Reducing Solitary Confinement,” The Portland Phoenix, November 2, 2011,; Lance Tapley, “Maine – A Model for Solitary Confinement Reform,” The Portland Phoenix, July 3, 2012,
[ix] Jody Sundt, Thomas C. Castellano and Chad Briggs, “Case Study of Supermax and Its Effect in Illinois. The Sociopolitical Context of Prison Violence and Its Control,” The Prison Journal, Vol. 88, No. 1, 94-122, 2008, p. 111. The Illinois data upon which Sundt and her colleagues study was based was limited to just 15 months, from March 1998 to July 1999, and the recorded reduction in assaults against guards was limited to the single month following the opening of Tamms, after which rates of violence against staff began to increase, eventually negating the prior gains. Data from the 2000 IDOC annual report shows that overall inmate-on-staff assaults actually increased from 1998 to 1999, from 681 to 686. In addition, the 2002 IDOC annual report indicates that although overall assaults committed on staff and inmates with a weapon decreased from 1998 to 2002, they significantly increased again from 2001 to 2002, from 33 to 53. The insignificance of Tamms supermax prison for any reduction of aggregate prison violence in Illinois has been remarked by Chad Briggs. In a correspondence from 2009 he re-stated his published conclusion: “Despite claims from prison officials that these types of prison facilities have had highly desirable impacts on levels of prison violence and safety, to date relevant empirical evaluations have been largely non-existent … [In Illinois and elsewhere] there appears to have been little effort to analyze the potential effectiveness of the policy. Its utility was assumed self-evident.” (E-mail correspondence with the Dr. Stephen F. Eisenman, April 23, 2008.) Indeed, in an earlier article, Sundt and her colleagues noted that:  “The implementation of a supermax had no effect on levels of inmate-on-staff assaults in Minnesota, [and] temporarily increased staff injuries in Arizona.” Chas S. Briggs, Jody L. Sundt, and Thomas C. Castellano, “The Effect of Supermaximum Security Prisons on Aggregate Levels of Institutional Violence,” Criminology, vol. 41, no. 4, November 2003, p. 1341. Also see: Stephen F. Eisenman, “The Resistable Rise and Predictable Fall of the U.S. Supermax,” Monthly Review, vol. 61, no. 6, November 2009,
[x] David Lovell and Clark Johnson, “Felony and Violent Recidivism Among Supermax Prison Inmates in Washington State: A Pilot Study,” Department of Psychosocial & Community Health, University of Washington, p. ii. 
[xi] This estimate is from the 2009 exposé by the Belleville News Democrat for the cost to keep a man in the supermax. The IDOC’s lower estimate of $64,805 represents an average of the per capita cost of the supermax with the cost of the adjacent boot camp.
[xii] Patrick Yeagle, “Illinois Prisons: Standing room only Overcrowding is costly and dangerous,” Illinois Times, March 4, 2010