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Reform inhumane, expensive TAMMS

A cell block Tamms Correctional Center Downstate Tamms. The Supermax prisopened 1998.  |   AP file photo

A cell block at the Tamms Correctional Center in Downstate Tamms. The Supermax prison opened in 1998. | AP file photo

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Updated: April 19, 2011 5:03AM

The election is over and the fall legislative session in Springfield has begun. Some issues will prove tougher than others, but one can be settled right now: reform of the inhumane and extraordinarily expensive Tamms supermax prison.

Everyone agrees that changes must be made, so why has it taken so long?

In the summer of 2009, the newly appointed Department of Corrections Director Michael Randle undertook a review of the state’s only Supermax — the forbidding facility in southern Illinois to which men who violate rules at other state prisons are sent and placed in complete solitary confinement, often at the cost of their physical and mental health.

Randle learned that the illnesses wrought by the harsh conditions, complaints from legislators and human rights groups, and its steep price tag — $92,000 per man per year — made Tamms the least efficient and most controversial prison in the state, and that reforms were called for.

In September, Randle issued a Ten-Point Plan for improvement, including better mental health screening, limited phone calls, group religious services and some out-of-cell time for men who earned the privilege. After all, Randle reasoned, a large percentage of the men would one day be released to the streets of Illinois’ towns and cities, and no one would benefit if the men were in worse mental and physical condition when they got out than when they went in.

By late spring 2010, newly mandated prisoner reviews at Tamms led to the transfer of nearly 40 inmates to other facilities, and the establishment of a GED program allowed prisoners who had dropped out of school to earn their certificates.

But then some unexpected wrinkles appeared. In late July, U.S. District Judge J. Patrick Murphy ruled in favor of several dozen plaintiffs from Tamms that they had a legal right to a hearing before being sent there, and that they must be allowed to present evidence contesting the legitimacy of the transfer order. The judge also stated that incarceration at Tamms constitutes “virtual sensory deprivation” and exacts an especially hard toll on illiterate prisoners and on those whose families from Chicago cannot afford the long trip down to southern Illinois to visit them.

The ruling affirms what local reform advocates such as Tamms Year Ten and international monitors such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have long argued: that supermax imprisonment and the stifling solitude it engenders is a form of cruel and degrading punishment, or torture, and that for 12 years the IDOC has acted in reckless disregard for human health and safety.

But the ink was hardly dry on Judge Murphy’s edict when director Randle resigned, the victim of election year politicking about a supposed plan to release some prisoners earlier than their sentences mandated. His implementation of the judge’s decision and of the Ten-Point Plan was halted in midstream.

Then last week, still another testament was added to the growing Tamms dossier: A report by the prison watchdog group, the John Howard Association. It decried the lack of follow-through on many of the reforms, (phone calls, out-of-cell activity), and specifically condemned the imposition of crushing punishments to prisoners who commit minor infractions, such as possessing an ink pen or withholding a food tray from staff or guards. One such punishment is to force men to wear nearly transparent paper gowns for long periods of time (shades of Abu Ghraib!) while denying them blankets or any other covering. Another is to repeatedly feed them a nearly tasteless “meal loaf” in place of their already bland rations.

But neither Judge Murphy nor the John Howard Association got to the heart of the matter. The problem with Tamms is not that guards are insensitive, food is poor, educational programming — apart from a few GED classes — is nonexistent or rules for visitation are maddeningly complex. It is that terms of isolation are unconscionably long and that there is a lack of transparency concerning the reasons prisoners are sent to Tamms. Forty of the 206 men now at Tamms have been there since the facility opened in 1998, and criteria for being sent to the prison (and held there) are vague in the extreme.

What is the rationale for keeping a man in isolation for years — even decades — after he committed the infraction that sent him there, and then releasing him directly to the streets? What is the sense or the fiscal logic of treating a prisoner for a serious mental illness in a $1.2 million-per-year Special Treatment Unit that long isolation — the very raison d’etre of Tamms — has itself induced?

The current IDOC director, Gladys Taylor, inherited from Randle an unwieldy agency with an annual budget of more than $1.2 billion and a host of problems. She has her work cut out for her. But as legislators and IDOC officials sit down this fall and discuss cost containment and reform, they should remember that the Ten-Point Plan at Tamms remains an incomplete project and that fundamental change at the Supermax is essential for the sake of economic health, public safety and basic humanity.

Stephen F. Eisenman, a professor of art history at Northwestern University, is the author of seven books, including

The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion/U. of C. Press, 2007).

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