I understand why most people don’t want to have to think about issues related to prison conditions.
Those of us with any sense of compassion get squeamish at the thought of some of the things that happen in the places where people supposedly are being rehabilitated, while some of us have a twisted enough sense that we enjoy the thought of an inmate suffering somewhat.
BUT THE CONDITIONS at the Tamms Correctional Center (the place where inmates who misbehave in maximum-security prisons are sent as punishment) are severe enough that we as a society probably do need to have a serious discussion about what is appropriate when it comes to inmate discipline.
For the record, I have only been to Tamms once (about 10 years ago as a reporter-type person). I still remember walking through the halls of the facility thinking it was unlike any prison or jail facility I had ever been inside before.
The only other person I saw was the corrections officer who was escorting me to the spot where I was to meet Corrections Department officials. There was none of the rambling noise or clamor of a prison.
No obscenities being shouted me by inmates. But the excess control of movement made for a more tense vibe than I had ever felt inside a prison, or just about any place no matter how intense the security is.
THE “GIMMICK” ABOUT Tamms is that it is a “control unit” facility (although the TV types generally prefer to call it “Supermax”), which means that inmates are kept in their cells for 23 hours per day, and are isolated to such a heavy degree that they never come into contact with each other.
And when it comes to cells, we’re not talking about anything with iron bars and windows. We’re talking closed-off rooms with iron doors.
We’re talking about total isolation from human contact – except to the degree that a guard will have to drop off a meal at the inmate’s cell or escort the inmate to a fenced-in area for an hour’s worth of physical stretching or other exercise per day.
Now if this were truly a case where an inmate was shipped to Tamms for a few weeks of isolation, then sent back to their more conventional (and usually much older) prison facility, there might not be the controversy.
AFTER ALL, PRISONS have usually had a “segregation” unit to keep problem inmates separate from others – sometimes for the isolated inmate’s own safety.
But we’re talking about inmates spending months and months being isolated from any human contact, which can have the effect of messing mentally with those individuals.
We’re talking about some problem inmates who caused so much havoc in the Illinois Department of Corrections that they were shipped to Tamms (the land where one is closer physically and in spirit to Jackson, Miss., than to Chicago) when the facility opened in 1998 – and remain there to this day.
Perhaps it is no great loss that Henry Brisbon (the I-57 Killer of 1970s fame who has since killed another inmate and once attacked notorious serial killer John Gacy when they were at the state prison in Pontiac) is being kept under such conditions, as prison officials believe he is beyond control except under the most extreme circumstances.
BUT IT WOULD seem that the Illinois Department of Corrections is becoming too comfortable with the thought of leaving inmates in Tamms for extended time periods.
There is a reason that Amnesty International, the group that monitors conditions around the world looking for instances of torture and abuse, thinks that the concept of “control unit” prison facilities is just as much torture as anything done in a Cuban facility controlled by the Castro Brothers.
Part of torture is breaking people down mentally.
And whether one wants to accept it or not, forced isolation can cause just about anyone to crack.
IT CAN LITERALLY get to the point where one spends so much time cut off from the rest of the world that they lose what little ability they ever had to interact with other people. Whether that makes them more likely to lash out, or become the victim of such people, varies from person to person.
This is a situation that cannot carry on the status quo.
Just because this particular facility has been built in the most isolated end of Illinois does not give the Illinois public the excuse to ignore the situation.
So it would be nice if Corrections Director Michael Randle were to be successful in implementing portions of a 10-point plan he has concocted in response to the studies that trash the “control-unit” concept.
PROBABLY THE MOST significant of those changes is that inmates will have to be given a serious guess at how long they will be held at the facility. It also would restrict stays at Tamms to no more than a year, unless state officials can justify longer incarceration periods.
These ideas only make sense because prison officials have always defended the concept of prisons like Tamms by saying they are designed for discipline of problem inmates, not their permanent incarceration.
So if the intent is that inmates will eventually be returned to other prisons, we should probably give up on policies meant to mollify that portion of the population that is deluded enough to think that “throwing away the key” accomplishes anything.