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Toughest prison still grim: watchdog group's report

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The conditions at Tamms Correctional Center have been criticized by human-rights and prison-advocacy groups.

A prison watchdog group's recent report details the lives of Illinois' worst convicts, unveiling a bleak portrait where socially deprived and mentally unstable inmates stare at colorless walls, engage in self-mutilation and graze on bland meatloaf when they misbehave.

Conditions at the all-male Tamms Correctional Center 360 miles south of Chicago have been criticized by human-rights and prison-advocacy organizations since the $73 million, 500-bed facility opened in 1998.

Just last year, former state prisons director Michael Randle announced a series of reforms, including increased mental health evaluations and incentives for Tamms Supermax inmates who display good behavior.

But while some of Randle's proposals have been implemented, the treatment of Tamms' 206 inmates still "need not be this harsh," according to the 11-page assessment by the John Howard Association of Illinois.

"Ninety three percent of people who go to prison come back out again. They can come out worse, or they can come out better. Which do you prefer- " said Bob Manor, the report's author.

Most Tamms inmates spend 23 hours a day alone, where their "universe of gray" is only interrupted by a sliver of the blue sky visible from a small window above, Manor said. They're not allowed to work or mingle too much with fellow prisoners and are waiting for the state Legislature to give them the green light to place and receive phone calls.

Currently, there is only one computer from which prisoners can communicate with loved ones, the report says. It recommends painting the prison's interior with brighter colors and abolishing a tactic where unruly prisoners are dressed down in flimsy paper smocks and isolated in a barren cell with just a mattress.

Tamms is clean and well-administered, but conditions there impose "dramatic limitations on human contact, so much so as to inflict lasting psychological damage and emotional harm on inmates confined there for long periods," a federal judge in East St. Louis, Ill., wrote in a opinion last July.

Judge G. Patrick Murphy ruled in an inmates' lawsuit that the state can continue isolating prisoners at Tamms but must give them an opportunity to challenge their transfers and continued placement at the prison.

The state has appealed Murphy's ruling. But the federal judge ruled that during the appeal, Tamms must continue to provide all men transferred with due-process hearings regarding their continued placement at the prison, said Belinda Belcher, executive director of the Uptown People's Law Center, which represented 16 inmates who were plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Manor's report says only one Tamms inmate has committed suicide in the prison's 12-year history, but that hasn't meant the mental health of other inmates has been stable. One inmate who said he was diagnosed as schizophrenic admitted he was a "cutter" and often thinks about killing himself or chopping off his hand, the report said.

"I am stuck in that cell, and I have nothing to do. I put myself in that cell. I have no hope," the inmate is quoted as saying in the report.

Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sharyn Elman said IDOC has continuously worked with the John Howard Association and takes its suggestions into account when discussing improvements. However, she said the report is at times contradictory, noting that it repeatedly mentions how the inmates can barely interact with one another but then lists an account of how a punished inmate said he was "humiliated" by his peers when they made comments about his body that was barely covered by the skimpy paper gown he was forced to wear.

Elman also said tasteless meatloaf given to prisoners who have committed infractions is not unique to Tamms.

The report "has some fair points. . . . Some of it is inaccurate, and I think some of the points are unfair," she said.

Former state prisons director Odie Washington, who now works for a Utah firm involved in the private management of state and federal prisons, defended the concept of the prison he opened while in former Gov. Jim Edgar's Cabinet.

"It achieved its purpose when I was there in terms of reducing the level of violence and isolating those most disruptive in a corrections environment," said Washington, prisons chief from 1995 to 1999.

Manor acknowledged there are sociopaths, gang leaders and other "terrible" people housed at Tamms, but added, "You have to treat people like they're human. If you engage in sensory deprivation and social isolation, which Tamms does, you will make people get worse, not better."