Monday, February 27, 2012

What purpose does Tamms really serve? Is Illinois better off without it?

It has been nearly 13 years since the one time I ventured to deep Southern Illinois to see the prison commonly labeled “supermax” – and the one that Gov. Pat Quinn says he’d like to close down as part of his plans to get a grasp on Illinois government’s struggling finances.

The Tamms Correctional Center (officially classified as a “Closed Maximum” unit because of the extreme isolation to which its inmates are subjected) has long been a controversial topic.
What will become of this state facility at 200 E. Supermax Dr., in Tamms, Ill. Photograph provided by U.S. Census Bureau

THERE ARE THOSE human rights activists who think the existence of such a facility in Illinois shows that we’re just as capable as any penny-ante dictator of subjecting our citizenry to abuse.

Others are more than willing to dismiss such claims because they want to believe that extreme measures are justified when it comes to dealing with crime, and punishment.

I’m not so sure where I come down on that particular issue, although a part of me reacted to learning last week of Quinn’s proposed cut by thinking that this particular suggestion could be a short-sighted one.

That facility is one of the newest in the Illinois Department of Corrections system (it opened in 1998). It seems like a waste to shutter it at a time when we really don’t have adequate space for all the inmates our state is expected to care for and supervise.

PERHAPS A RECLASSIFICATION to make it more like a typical prison might be a better use for the place, since it is the extreme security measures that cause it to be so expensive to run.

But then, I recall my own impression of the place – one that has lasted all these years since that date in March, 1999 when I ventured down there as a reporter-type person to see the execution by lethal injection of Andrew Kokoraleis.

It seems wasteful, financially, that they went to the cost of installing a special execution chamber designed specifically for lethal injection – then only used it for that one event. Since it was shortly after that event that then-Gov. George Ryan imposed the death penalty moratorium that last year morphed into an abolition of capital punishment in our state.

But that impression, which recurred to me when I learned of Quinn’s proposed cut, is one of an eerie silence.

YOU DON’T HEAR anything from inmates, who are confined to their cells all but one hour per day and are moved about the place in ways so that inmates never encounter other inmates.

Any inmate who shouts out obscenities is heard only by himself. The only people they see are their jailers. And even then, that is just for brief glimpses.

Which is unlike other prisons, where there is a certain vibe that goes along with a dull roar of noise from the inmates itself. It is a constant reminder that all it would take would be one little spark, and the inmates would outnumber the state officials.

Who’s really in charge?

EVEN THE GUARDS who work at Tamms (I recall) spoke in low, even tones that you had to struggle to hear. Think of the voice of actor Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, in those moments before he tells you that your liver would make a nice supper, if served with “fava beans and a nice chianti.”

Definitely no barking of orders that might give the place an authoritarian vibe.

It almost felt like officials regarded their work there as dealing with people who were mentally disturbed. Which is ironic, because the human rights activists claim it is the constant isolation that turns the Tamms inmates into people with potential for serious mental problems in their future.

Is Quinn, inadvertently, sparing Illinois the cost of future lawsuits from inmates who will claim the state drove them mad, by doing away with the concept of “C-max?” Or is he just overburdening the prisons to whom the roughly 100 Tamms inmates will be transferred to – because they all have incidents in their prison records that indicate they are disciplinary cases.

WHICH HAS ALWAYS been the rhetoric used by state officials to justify such harsh, borderline draconian, conditions.

People sentenced to a prison term don’t get sent to Tamms unless they show themselves to be among the worst, most uncontrollable, of the prison population. Likewise, they have said, inmates who show at Tamms that they can behave can get themselves transferred elsewhere.

Except there are moments when we hear the same lists of inmates who are assigned there, and it seems that the state attitude toward transfer is all too common to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board attitude toward parole – the answer is “No!” unless you can come up with an exceptional reason to justify it.

So when the prison closes in August (assuming the General Assembly goes along with it, and it is very likely that Southern Illinois legislators will hate the idea of closing a place that provides some of their residents with employment), we’ll have to see whether the governor gets credit for closing a potential embarrassment for Illinois, or blame for being too short-sighted!



Anonymous said...

"Any inmate who shouts out obscenities is heard only by himself. The only people they see are their jailers. And even then, that is just for brief glimpses."

If you are going to write a article and make statements about conditions at Tamms it might be responsible to know what you are talking about. I am so sorry tired of reading articles about the conditions of Tamms that are far from the truth. Inmates at times are not isolated from each other. They are single celled on wings with nine other inmates. They constantly talk and play games with each other. The most common being chess. If you can play a game of chess against a gut three cells away, How isolated is that? They talk all night to each other about the sports game that they are watching or listening to. All this from the comforts of their clean air conditioned cell. Receiving quality health care and food. Correctional Officers make rounds every 30 minutes and have contact with the inmates as well. And do not forget the reason why these inmates are sent to Tamms, and the simply fact is the place works. I ask that you please look into the facts and correct the numerous errors in your post. Thank you.

Ishmael said...

Anonymous seems oblivious to some of the basic facts of Tamms:

1. More than half the prisoners there have not committed a violent act against other prisoners or a guard. They are sent for preventive detention without any clear criteria for placement.

2. Many prisoners are driven mad by the isolation -- some develop PTSD, cut themselves, and grow dangerously depressed, even suicidal.

3. The mental health therapy consists of about an hour a week of group therapy or individual therapy in which seriously mentally ill prisoners are put inside a glass phone booth and given advice or allowed to play a board game -- without actually touching the pieces!

4. The place does not work. Nobody is improved by Tamms. Evidence shows that recidivism increases after placement in a supermax.

5. Prisoners are without human contact -- apart from shouting through their perforated steel doors -- 24/7. Even their exercise is done alone (one hour a day at most) in a small, concrete yard.

Please don't insult readers intelligence by speaking of prisoner's air conditioned cells and health care as if this were a vacation home! This is a prison condemned by every human rights organization in the country. Supermax prisons are being closed all over the country because they are expensive, don't work, and drive prisoners crazy.

I am very sorry if the writer or his friends may lose their jobs at Tamms. But I would ask him -- for the sake of prisoners, their families, justice and their own souls -please accept alternative employment offered by the IDOC!