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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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Illinois Lost Its Head

In 1998, Illinois opened a prison without a yard, cafeteria, classrooms or chapel. Tamms Supermax was designed for just one purpose: sensory deprivation. No phone calls, communal activities or contact visits were allowed. Men could only leave their cells to shower or exercise alone in a concrete pen. Food was pushed through a slot in the door. The  consequences of isolation were predictable: many men fell into severe depression, experienced hallucinations, compulsively cut their bodies or attempted suicide.

The first men at Tamms were transferred there from other prisons around the state for a one-year shock treatment intended to break down disruptive prisoners and make them more compliant. But the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) left them there indefinitely. A decade later, more than a third of the men at Tamms had been there since it opened, and for no apparent reason.

Research has shown that supermax prisons don’t reduce prison violence or rehabilitate prisoners. On the contrary, isolation induces or exacerbates mental illness, creates stress and tension, worsens behavior and undermines the ability of people to function once they get out.

Despite its uselessness as a form of correction, Tamms had many strong supporters: the powerful union to which the prison guards belonged, the nearby towns that welcomed the well-paid jobs, and state officials who thrived on tough-on-crime politics. They all deployed a single phrase meant to paralyze any possible dissenters: the worst of the worst. This slogan was applied to the men at Tamms to suggest they deserved the worst possible treatment—long-term solitary confinement that human rights monitors uniformly describe as cruel, inhuman and degrading, if not outright  torture. Challenging this label and this punishment became the project of Tamms Year Ten, a campaign launched in 2008, a decade after the supermax opened.

Punching Above Our Weight

Two years earlier, a group of Chicago artists, poets and musicians formed the Tamms Poetry Committee. Two of them, Laurie Jo Reynolds included, had been members of  a group that had protested plans to construct the supermax. Following the practice of two women who sent holiday cards to the prison, we sent letters and poems to every man at Tamms to provide them with some social contact. Their replies demonstrated the necessity of this project: “Hi Committee, is this for real? I can’t believe someone cares enough to send a pick-me-up to the worst-of-the-worst. Well, if nobody else has said it, I will: THANK YOU.” But we quickly found ourselves deluged with pleas for help: “Hey, this poetry is great, but could you please tell the governor what they’re doing to us down here?”

By 2008, we had connected with men on the outside who had spent years in Tamms and family members of current prisoners. Together, we launched the  Tamms Year Ten campaign. Our goal was to educate the public about Tamms and hold the IDOC, legislators and then-Governor Blagojevich accountable for the use of long-term isolation. Prison reform is hard enough, but getting people to stand up for “the worst of the worst” was considered hopeless. Attorneys and veteran prisoner advocates warned that this campaign could endanger the men and increase support for the prison. But we believed that recent controversy over solitary confinement and torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib opened a new space for debate. And in any case, after a decade of isolation with no end in sight, the men in Tamms didn’t have much to lose.

Outrage Properly Directed

It was hard to know where to begin. Not many people had even heard of Tamms, located at the southern tip of Illinois, 360 miles from Chicago. Our members consulted with legislators from all over the state and sought advice from every quarter. A turning point was meeting Julie Hamos, an Evanston legislator known as a problem-solver. Her moral outrage was gratifying: “Ten years? This is unacceptable.” She felt that the best strategy was to force the IDOC to publicly justify itself. But that meant we had to have enough information to stand up to intransigent prison officials and  law-and-order politicians. So we read, researched, filed Freedom of Information Act requests, extracted data from the public record and gathered statements from prisoners and their family members.