Former Gov. Edgar’s Demurral on Supermax closure contradicts his own recommendations

(From Tamms Year Ten Organizing)


Ex. Gov’s Task Force Issued Warnings Even Before the Prison Opened: Danger of Long-term Isolation Was Known from the Start


CHICAGO, IL – The announcement last week by Governor Quinn that he will close Tamms supermax prison prompted one of his predecessors, Republican Governor Jim Edgar, to join the fray. He cautioned that the shutdown will have to be done carefully: “I would be very nervous about taking the troublemakers and putting them back into the general prison population.” Supporters of closure point out that these men will be not be in the general population, but sent to Pontiac, a maximum-security prison where all men are held in segregation and where death row prisoners were housed.

They also say that the former governor’s remarks contradict the intent of his own Task Force on Crime and Corrections that first conceived the prison in 1993. “Governor Edgar and his Task Force did their best to insure that the supermax would not torture prisoners with long-term solitary confinement,” said Jean Maclean Snyder, an attorney with the Tamms Year Ten campaign. “Unfortunately, it quickly became the very human rights catastrophe they warned against.” The statewide coalition has sought to reform the prison since its ten-year anniversary in 2008.

The Task Force Report, authored by Anton Valukas, established several guiding provisions that were never followed: that the supermax be used only for short-term punishment; that men must be moved quickly out, as well as in; that clear criteria for transfer be specified by statute; and that the supermax should not become a warehouse for human cold-storage. “The report called for humanitarian safeguards and none were put into place. It also warned that if Tamms became a facility for long-term isolation, it would be a violation of its mission,” said Stephen F. Eisenman, a professor at Northwestern University and spokesperson for Tamms Year Ten.

The Valukas Report clearly represented the risk to prisoners of long-term solitary confinement: “Reputable human rights organizations also have expressed legitimate and serious concerns about practices in existing super-maximum security facilities. The Task Force recommends that our Super-Max facility be required by statute to conform to certain requirements concerning constitutional and humanitarian safeguards. Since these highly restrictive environments, if misused, can create conditions tantamount to long-term isolation, the Department of Corrections will have to establish clearly defined rules and regulations to govern the admission and release of inmates from the Super-Max facility and to monitor its operation and administration closely.”

In his 2010 ruling on a landmark class action suit brought by the Uptown People’s Law Center, Judge G. Patrick Murphy determined that the prison in fact had no such objective rules or practices and that the due process rights of all men sent to Tamms had been violated. He ordered that prisoners be given a hearing before being sent to Tamms, and be allowed to present evidence contesting transfer orders.

The judge also cast scorn on the length of stays at Tamms, writing that incarceration there constitutes “virtual sensory deprivation.” He wrote, “Tamms imposes drastic limitations on human contact, so much so as to inflict lasting psychological and emotional harm on inmates confined there for long periods.”

The Task Force Report of 1993 also argued that the supermax be used “without exception” only to house those who “inflicted or caused others to inflict physical harm against staff or other inmates.” Instead, many prisoners have been isolated for years, even a decade or more, on a theory of preventative detention—that they may at some time in the future cause trouble. A 2009 report by the Belleville News Democrat found that at least one-half of the men at Tamms had not committed a crime in another facility and were thus being held in preventative detention. This included supposed gang leaders, jailhouse lawyers, and people with untreated, often severe, mental illnesses. (The incarceration of people with mental illness was the subject of another lawsuit, leading to the establishment of an expensive Special Treatment Unit for about 10 prisoners with psychotic or other profound mental illnesses.)

Tamms supermax is easily the most expensive adult prison per capita in Illinois. At a yearly cost of approximately $34 million, including payments to the medical provider Wexford, and a per capita cost of about $90,000 (as determined in the 2009 exposé by the Belleville News Democrat), it is 3 or 4 times the cost of a maximum security prison. With a prisoner to guard ratio of 1.4 to 1, (compared to 4.7 to 1 at the maximum security prison Menard), and a mental health worker to prisoner ratio of 1 to 35 (compared to 1 to 1,765 at Menard), the prison is a true budget buster.

Men at Tamms are held in solitary confinement 24 hours per day for years at a stretch, and sometimes a decade or more. They receive at most an hour a day of isolated exercise in a small, concrete pen. 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 pushed through a hole in the door.

Asked to respond to Governor Edgar’s comments, Laurie Jo Reynolds, lead organizer of Tamms Year Ten stated, “I find it hard to fathom a Republican former governor criticizing a Democratic governor for cutting waste and abuse from the state budget. Tamms has been a fiscal and human rights disaster from day one, and if Edgar would re-read the warnings of his own Task Force report, he’d know why.”