Quinn announces closures – Tamms critics close ranks

 Letters to Editor


Controversial and notorious Supermax also inefficient and wasteful

CHICAGO, IL – The Quinn administration added suspense to what is shaping up to be the budget address of the century. In addition to announcing cuts in Medicaid payments, pension reform, and an overall budget reduction of nine per cent, Governor Quinn has indicated that he will propose the closing of Tamms supermax. Multiple sources have confirmed that the controversial prison – arguably the most expensive in the state and long the subject of scathing reports by human rights monitors – may soon be shuttered. 
At a yearly cost of approximately $36 million, and a per capita cost of approximately $90,000 (as determined in a 2009 exposé by the Belleville News Democrat), Tamms supermax is easily the most expensive adult prison per capita in Illinois. It is easy to see why. 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 prisoners at Tamms would appear to be the most pampered in the state. But in fact, as reform advocates, human right monitors, investigative reporters and a federal judge have revealed, the supermax subjects prisoners to sensory deprivation, and induces mental illness.
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 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.
The consequences of this regime of isolation are predictable and well documented: extreme stress, often leading to serious mental illness. Men at Tamms are known to attempt suicide, cut themselves, scream endlessly, smear feces on cell walls, and enter into deep and prolonged depressions. Prisoners released from Tamms – often without any transition services – have a difficult time adapting to life in their communities and are at an increased risk of recidivism.
News of the planned closure was welcomed by the grassroots coalition Tamms Year Ten, which has been advocating reform since 2008, the tenth anniversary of the opening of the prison.
“From the day it opened, Tamms was a financial boondoggle and a human rights catastrophe,” said Laurie Jo Reynolds, lead organizer of the coalition. “The practice of long-term solitary confinement was shunned until the 1980s. Then Illinois fell for a foolish national trend and built a vengeful and wasteful prison we didn’t need.”
“It is unbearable for the men and unbearable for their families. Our sons live in concrete tombs. They can’t even have contact visits. That is the hardest part.” said Grace Warren, whose son is in Tamms and was sentenced to life without parole as a 17 year-old. “This prison represents about 3000 years of combined suffering and enough is enough.”
Attorney Jean Snyder, who settled the lawsuit in 2002 that brought better mental health treatment to certain prisoners at Tamms, stated, “This is clearly the most logical place to make cuts. Tamms houses less than 200 men, and they can all be safely, more cheaply, and more humanely housed in regular, maximum security facilities.”
Opened in 1998, Tamms supermax was dogged by problems from the start. Built on swampy terrain, the foundation shifted, and the project went over-budget opening years late. But correctional failings quickly exceeded any construction flaws. Though the executive task force that recommended building the prison warned that “the supermax facility be required by statute to conform to… humanitarian safeguards” and not become a warehouse, prisoners have been held in cold storage for as long as 14 years. For this reason, human rights monitors, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have condemned the prison and requested official visits.
And problems at Tamms continued to mount. Though the task force also insisted upon clear standards for transfer to and from the supermax, IDOC officials instead relied upon vague criteria. A lawsuit initiated in 2000 was finally concluded in 2009 with a ruling that men at Tamms were entitled to, and had not received, due process in their transfers to Tamms. Required by a court settlement to start a mental health facility at the prison, Tamms staff rotated mentally ill prisoners in and out of the Special Treatment Unit, undercutting therapeutic progress. Even the IDOC’s own carefully constructed 10-Point Plan for reform, announced with fanfare in 2009, remains unimplemented.
One question is what downstaters will do without this economic boost at the tip of Southern Illinois. Reynolds said, “Downstaters need sustainable economic development, but the state doesn’t need Tamms.”