Gov. Quinn applauded for closing Tamms Supermax: “The right decision for Illinois”

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Community Leaders Praise Quinn for Fiscal Discipline and Commitment to Human Rights

CHICAGO, IL – More than 45 religious, legal, health and human rights organizations have sent Governor Pat Quinn an open letter of appreciation for his decision to close Tamms. They applauded him for choosing ”prudence over pork-barrel spending” and “human rights over vengeance.” They also thanked him for closing Tamms outright and not succumbing to pressure from Southern Illinois legislators to keep the facility open. The letter signers called this the right decision for Illinois and praised the governor for his fiscal discipline and adherence to evidence-based policies.

Governor Quinn’s announcement last week that the supermax would be shuttered by August 31 was welcome after a four-year educational, legal, and legislative campaign by Tamms Year Ten and dozens of other organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Uptown People’s Law Office and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Quinn’s spokesperson Kelly Kraft cited the exorbitant cost of the facility as the main reason for the closure.

But opponents and proponents alike are sure that human rights concerns also motivated the governor to close the supermax. Tamms is now synonymous nationwide and even internationally with sensory deprivation and prison cruelty. The letter signers organizations had pressured Quinn to close the supermax and were relieved by the news. Laurie Jo Reynolds, organizer of Tamms Year Ten said, ”Faith-based, community and civic organizations pushed for this decision, and are thrilled that the governor did the right thing. The internet is buzzing with support for Quinn. We are proud of our governor for remaining steadfast.”

The open letter to Governor Quinn specifically rejected the ad-hoc conversion plan to change Tamms to a medium-security facility. The signers argued that there exist more effective and economical ways to relieve overcrowding — such as diversion programs, supervised release, and the granting of good time credits to responsible men and women in prison. They further note that  low-level offenders are less likely to commit new crimes if they receive community supervision instead of imprisonment. Nearly 70% of Illinois prisoners are convicted of non-violent crimes.

The closure of Tamms comes in the face of a last-ditch effort by downstate legislators to preserve Tamms, despite widespread opposition to the prison by many House and Senate legislators. The idea was to spend $8 to $16 million to “repurpose” Tamms supermax to make it 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 services.

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, and trend lines are expected to point downward with other initiatives to reduce the Illinois prison population. The letter urged the governor to utilize safe and cost-effective methods of decreasing the prison population, which will ultimately safe the state millions of dollars by reducing the tremendous burden of corrections costs.

Tamms has been controversial from before it was even built. Warnings about potential constitutional and humanitarian violations were highlighted by Governor Jim Edgar’s 1993 Task Force that proposed the prison, and soon after it in 1998, law suits alleged due process violations  and cruel treatment of men with serious mental illnesses. Challenges to the prison continue even now: Juan E. Mendez, the Special Rapporteur on Torture for the United Nations, recently disclosed that his staff in Geneva, Switzerland might investigate the Illinois supermax to see if it met 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.

Quinn’s announcement that he will close Tamms 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. 

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