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Ex-inmate on controversial prison: ‘Tamms never leaves my head’

Brian Nelswas 13th inmate be sent Tamms Correctional Center Tamms Illinois. Nelsspent 23 hours day isolatiduring this time he copied

Brian Nelson, was the 13th inmate to be sent to Tamms Correctional Center in Tamms, Illinois. Nelson spent 23 hours a day in isolation and during this time he copied the Bible. Nelson, who now works as a a law clerk at Uptown people's Law Center, shows his completed Bible he transcribed onto paper in long hand on Friday, February 24, 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 27, 2012 8:24AM

SPRINGFIELD — When Gov. Pat Quinn announced plans to shut down Illinois’ super-maximum-security prison in Downstate Tamms last week, Brian Nelson flashed back to his dozen years in continuous solitary confinement there for 23 hours a day.

Now paroled and working as a paralegal in Chicago, the Lake County resident said he paced in his Tamms cell for 15 to 20 hours a day until his feet bled, engaged in a 48-day hunger strike to protest conditions and even took to copying down every verse of the Bible, eventually winding up with 4,200 pages of writing.

“It took me a year, nine months and two days,” Nelson said of his boredom-induced copying. “Tamms never leaves my head. I can close my eyes, and I can see that cell. I walk in a room, and I start counting things because that’s one of the coping mechanisms you develop. You count the holes in the door.

“It screws my head up going back there,” he said.

With Quinn’s move, Tamms faces an uncertain future despite being the most modern prison in use in Illinois — and the only one to employ smothering isolation tactics on a wide scale.

Its planned August closure headlined a list of 59 state facilities the governor wants to mothball as “hard but necessary” steps toward confronting Illinois’ unrelenting budget crisis.

Tamms opened under former Gov. Jim Edgar’s administration in 1998 as a place to house the “worst of the worst” of Illinois’ prison inmates. It contained a state-of-the-art execution chamber that was used one time when DuPage County serial killer Andrew Kokoraleis was put to death.

The prison’s advocates call it a “safety valve” that segregated violent and disruptive inmates from the rest of the state’s general prison population, helping keep order in Illinois’ other penitentiaries. Human-rights advocates describe Tamms as a “vessel of human suffering.”

Today, 389 inmates reside there, including notorious “I-57 Killer” Henry Brisbon, who ordered a young couple engaged to be married to lie on the ground near the interstate and take a “last kiss” together as he shot them both in their necks. Brisbon, who is serving a life sentence, later stabbed another inmate to death and was a ringleader in a 1979 Stateville Correctional Center prison riot.

Gangster Disciple leader Michael “Paradise” Johnson is at Tamms. He is serving life for murder and kidnapping and ordered the 1987 murder of Pontiac Correctional Center Supt. Robert Taylor.

Also there is Countryside serial child rapist John Spires, who preyed on girls as young as 11 and abducted and raped a female prison psychologist in 2006 while an inmate at Dixon Correctional Center. He is serving a life sentence.

“It has served a purpose no other prison could do,” Edgar told the Sun-Times. “The supermax was intended to take those real troublemakers and isolate them there. Just the threat of going to supermax changed attitudes.”

If it happens, Quinn’s move to close it is expected to save at least $21.6 million in the next fiscal year and $26.6 million annually thereafter. That’s because the cost of housing inmates at Tamms — $64,805 a year— is three times the state average in other prisons.

But its closure is not a done deal. The plan is triggering an outcry from the prison’s local legislative delegation and major pushback from the union representing 300 of Tamms’ staff, AFSCME Council 31, which characterizes the institution as “irreplaceable.”

“Inmates don’t come off the street and end up in Tamms because we want to place them there. They either have violent inmate-on-inmate assaults or inmate-on-staff assaults,” said Toby Oliver, a Tamms supervisor and president of the union local at the prison.

“I have an inmate who stabbed an officer 18 times. That’s the caliber of inmate we have here at Tamms. They can’t be housed at other institutions because that hasn’t worked,” said Oliver.

Tamms’ critics are many. The harsh conditions and extreme isolation have led to a flood of inmate lawsuits and complaints from human rights groups like Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Conditions at Tamms also have raised questions about the capacity of the state to respond to a litany of mental illnesses that flourish among the facility’s prisoners.

One inmate, Anthony Gay, has repeatedly mutilated his genitals to draw attention to himself. Last week, Gay lost his bid in federal court challenging the quality of medical care he was receiving at the prison. Other mentally ill Tamms’ inmates have eaten their own feces.

“Tamms, on its face, when you first walk in, is not a horrible place. There’s not that kind of feeling you get in some prisons that this place is filthy, dirty. It’s clean. It’s modern. It looks nice,” said Alan Mills, a lawyer with the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, which employs Nelson and has waged legal battles on behalf of Tamms’ inmates.

“But that’s not the problem at Tamms. It’s the length of time you’re there forever in isolation. Guys will tell you the first 30 days they’re there that it’s great. It’s a vacation. The cells are bigger. It’s clean. They don’t have to worry about getting stabbed on the way to the cafeteria. But after they’re there a year, they become really lonely. And after they’re there for five years, it begins to play with your mind.”

The ACLU has been on a drive to convince states to move away from the type of solitary confinement employed at Tamms, which the group describes as “fundamentally inhumane.”

“Shutting down the vessel of human suffering and sinkhole for taxpayer dollars that is Tamms would be an important step toward ending the use of solitary confinement across the nation,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

Former Tamms inmate Robert Felton, a Danville resident convicted of armed robbery who did seven-and-a-half years at the prison because of disciplinary problems, called Tamms a “scar Illinois has.” He said the solitary confinement drives sane people insane.

“If someone was at your house or that you knew who lived next door, and he’s cutting his scrotum open, there’s something going on you need to be treated for. I’m not saying a guy is crazy or not crazy, but it ain’t what we do as far as normal people in society,” Felton told the Sun-Times.

Felton said, in his own case, he engaged in self-mutilation and a suicide attempt to cope with his setting. “Other ways I dealt with the isolation when I was there was insects, spiders. That was the only social interaction I had. I’d catch spiders and keep them. And when I’d go to the concrete recreation yard, I’d find other bugs and bring them in and feed them to the spider so I could keep the spider longer.”

The prison’s supporters argue that prison life, particularly at Tamms, is not meant to be nurturing for inmates, whose bad behavior elsewhere earned them a cell in the supermax prison.

“These people, if they hadn’t done what they done, they wouldn’t be there in the first place,” said state Sen. Gary Forby (D-Benton), whose district takes in Tamms. “These people are the worst of the worst. You talk about torture? These prisoners have tortured people.”

Under the governor’s proposal, the 197 super-maximum security inmates will be transferred to Pontiac Correctional Center, while the 192 minimum-security inmates there will be disbursed elsewhere in the state prison system.

Edgar, another backer of Tamms, said he hopes the Quinn administration has thought out that plan well because it could carry dire consequences. (Quinn’s chief of staff, Jack Lavin, told reporters the closure could occur without compromising safety in other prisons or to the general public.)

“One of the things I thought about the day I walked out of the governor’s office for the last time was how I was relieved I didn’t have a prison riot while I was there,” said Edgar, who served from 1991 to 1999. “Tamms, we felt, was one of the reasons we were able to keep reasonable order in the prisons because you could isolate the troublemakers.”

Nelson, the 47-year-old paralegal and ex-Tamms inmate, understands he participated in a crime as a teen-ager: being with a friend who shot and killed a man in a 1982 dispute in Lake View. Nelson wound up with a murder and armed robbery convictions and a 26-year sentence on his rap sheet.

What he doesn’t get is how if prison is supposed to rehabilitate people, he left Tamms in 2010 with an array of mental illnesses he didn’t have going in – depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and an anxiety disorder.

“I’d prefer you to beat me up with a stick than to leave me in Tamms. I don’t understand what happened to me when I was alone in that cell,” he said. “I had a debt to pay, but I came out of it so screwed up.

“I can’t understand how as Americans, we do this to our own.”

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