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Is This America's Worst Prison? The Inspirational Campaign to Close Tamms Supermax

Tamms Supermax was designed for just one purpose: sensory deprivation.

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On April 28, 2008, our friend, the late Representative Eddie Washington from Waukegan, chaired public hearings on Tamms to focus legislators’ attention on the issue. We were supported by  attorneys who had litigated on behalf of men at Tamms with mental illness. The testimony was often wrenching, but the IDOC was unmoved. Nevertheless, the sheer size of the audience—more than a hundred people came out—catapulted our legislative campaign. Through forums, lobby days, press conferences, rallies, prayer vigils and parsley-eating contests, we gained the support of 70 organizations and 27 legislators for a reform bill sponsored by Hamos. She also initiated roundtable discussions between Tamms Year Ten, the IDOC and legislators. The highlight of these meetings was seeing the real experts—the men recently released from Tamms—confront their former captors.

When Opportunities Are Seized, They Multiply

In 2009, the stars began to align. Amnesty International issued  a statement condemning the conditions at Tamms as “harsh,” “unnecessarily punitive” and “incompatible with the USA’s obligations to provide humane treatment for all prisoners.” The organization contacted Illinois state officials, urging them to support our reform legislation. So did Human Rights Watch. Then Representative Luis Arroyo encouraged us to present our case to the House Appropriations Committee during its annual review of the IDOC budget. He opened the session with remarks about how international human rights monitors—and his own constituents—wanted the torture at Tamms to end. The hearing became a referendum on the supermax.

A month later, and just a year after the campaign went public, our new governor, Pat Quinn, announced he was replacing the IDOC chief with a reform-minded director whose first task was to  review the supermax. This was followed by  a Belleville News Democrat exposé that described men at Tamms with untreated schizophrenia and knots of scar tissue from self-mutilation. It also documented cases in which men entered Tamms with short sentences but wound up with life terms because of their mental illnesses. Their investigation revealed that more than half the men at Tamms had never even committed an offense in another prison. Amnesty released another, more strongly worded  statement asserting that “the conditions at the supermax flout international standards for humane treatment.” In September 2009, the IDOC director announced a  10-point plan for reform that included an improvement in conditions, meaningful due process hearings and an administrative review of each man in Tamms. We had cracked the nut.

Torture Is a Crime, Not a Career

By 2011, the promised reforms were stalled, in spite of a new  federal court ruling that men at Tamms had been deprived of their due process rights. But at just this point, Representative Arroyo became Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and pushed not for the reform, but for the closure of Tamms. And in February 2012, Governor Quinn  followed suit due to the state’s budget crisis and human rights concerns. In response, downstate legislators and the guards’ union (AFSCME) orchestrated a scare campaign, falsely asserting that closing Tamms would make the prison system more dangerous. Family members, outraged by the union’s shamelessness, responded:  “Torture is a crime, it shouldn’t be a career.” The battle played out in the media, the courtroom and especially the budgeting process. Last year was considered “one of the most contentious episodes in the history of Illinois penitentiaries” and the mothers, sisters, nieces, children and spouses of Tamms prisoners were at the forefront of the struggle to shut the supermax down. They lobbied legislators weekly in Springfield and led  marches and rallies in Chicago.

Illinois has no private prisons and a Democratic supermajority in both chambers, yet it is notoriously difficult to close any state facility. We don’t have 50,000 people in prison because of an amorphous “prison industrial complex” hell-bent on selling uniforms, steel doors and honey buns. This state’s mass incarceration can be explained by  a powerful guards union, Democratic legislators beholden to it, downstate legislators zealous to protect jobs in their districts, and mass media that promote fear-based policies. It takes guts to close a prison anywhere, but it is especially hard in Illinois. Yet Governor Quinn exemplified true leadership and  closed Tamms on January 4, 2013. He chose fiscal prudence over pork-barrel spending; evidence-based policies over myth and fear; and human rights over vengeance.