New bill calls for justice at Tamms

In supermax on December 10, 2008 at 4:03 am

Katie Drews


After a 370-mile trek to the southern tip of Illinois, members of the Tamms Year Ten campaign met with the Illinois Department of Corrections on Oct. 23 for a tour of Tamms, a closed maximum security prison. It was a step toward greater transparency — or so they thought.

Upon arrival at the prison, IDOC officials, members of Tamms Year Ten, a reform group dedicated to the oversight of Tamms, and Ill. Rep. Eddie Washington were escorted into a conference room. After brief introductions, IDOC executive chief Sergio Molina asked the prison staff to leave the room and then delivered the surprising news: “We will not be able to allow a tour today.”

Built in 1998 as a supermax facility, Tamms keeps prisoners in solitary confinement for 24 hours a day with no human contact. The original design of the prison was for short-term incarceration, but one third of the inmates have been there since it opened ten years ago and 100 men have been held there since April of 1999. The Tamms Year Ten campaign is promoting a bill, HB6651, which calls for clear criteria to determine which men are sent to Tamms and guidelines on how inmates can leave. The bill also prohibits sending the mentally ill to the facility.

For Tamms Year Ten, the tour of the prison was a step forward in communicating with the IDOC, but after hearing Molina’s announcement in the conference room, every member was left stunned. Molina explained that he received the order from IDOC Director Roger E. Walker Jr. the day before because “this institution is in the crosshairs” with pending litigation. However, the lawsuit has been in contingency for years and other organizations have since visited inside the prison.

“People took two days off work and spent a lot of time and money to get here,” said Laurie Jo Reynolds, a leader of Tamms Year Ten. “This lawsuit has been going on for years. This visit has been planned for weeks. Why couldn’t you have told us last Thursday, last Friday, last Monday, last Tuesday, or yesterday? No phone call yesterday to tell us?”

Tim McLean, IDOC chief of intergovernmental relations, said they didn’t know who to call and Molina added that they figured “the train had already left the station.” Despite the decision, Washington and Malcolm Young, executive director of the John Howard Association, an Illinois prison monitoring group, were permitted to take the tour, but both refused since Tamms Year Ten members were denied.

“I was delighted to hear [that this tour was taking place],” Young said to Molina. “There is a value to letting people in. It’s terrible that the opportunity was missed and missed in this way.”

McLean later said there was a reason that the tour was canceled, but he could not disclose the reason why.

After a request from Washington for an abbreviated tour, Molina left to call Walker for permission. But he reported back that they had to maintain their position: “Our direction is to not allow [the tour].” A Power Point presentation was ready instead.

No presentation was given. Washington and Young decided to go ahead and utilize the opportunity to visit prisoners. From 11 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. without stopping for lunch, the two spoke with each of the 18 inmates on a list provided by Tamms Year Ten. Meanwhile, the excluded advocates engaged in hours of discussion about conditions at the facility and the proposed bill supported by Tamms Year Ten.

Revealing the results

Young and Washington disclosed the results of their visit during a roundtable discussion with legislators on Nov. 20 in Springfield, Ill. Others present at the meeting included the Tamms Year Ten organization, attorneys and former prisoners all articulating the need for legislation regulating the prison. The Department of Corrections was scheduled to join in the discussion, but it canceled the day before.

The John Howard Association released a report which disclosed the information Washington and Young learned on their visit with inmates. The report made strong recommendations to take legislative action.

“Cumulatively, you get the clear impression that [the prisoners] don’t know why they’re there and they don’t know the steps to get out,” Young said. “This is an overwhelming situation for a human to be in.”

The report drew on past investigations to show the long history of both procedural and mental health concerns at Tamms. In 2001, after two years of the prison’s operation, the John Howard Association reported concern because no inmates had been released, even though many were noted for good behavior, and because the original sentences were not to exceed two years.

“We were very distressed at two years after Tamms opened, and now to go back eight years later and talk to prisoners who were there eight, nine, ten years to find a substantial number, one third of the population [still there] was shocking,” Young said. “If we were concerned after two years, what would we be after eight, nine, ten?”

Young, as well as other proponents of the bill, are so concerned about prison oversight because the conditions enforced by the supermax system are severe. The United Nations Committee Against Torture questioned the use of prolonged isolation in U.S. supermax prisons in 2000 and 2006 calling it an “extremely harsh regime” which could “constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Living in isolation

Darrell Cannon knows the effects of solitary confinement firsthand ¾ he was held in isolation for nine years at Tamms. Cannon spent every day inside a 10 feet by 12 feet colorless cell with gray, cement floors, ceilings and walls.

“Some of your closets are probably bigger than my cell,” Cannon said. “If you’re not strong, being in that cell every single day will get to you. The color scheme will give you headaches and hurt your eyes. It’s designed to do that ¾ to drive you crazy. It’s not for human beings.”

According to an article in Time Magazine, a few days of solitary confinement can affect a person’s brainwaves, leading to the state of “stupor and delirium.” With the addition of sensory deprivation, the research shows that a person can “descend into a hallucinatory state in as little as 48 hours.”

“I’d wake up and start shaking,” Cannon said. “[I’d tell myself], ‘No, no, no. Do not let this happen. Do not let them break you. I’m not going to let this happen. I’m going to walk out of here sane.’ Thank God I would do that.”

Other prisoners are not as lucky. Some resort to self-mutilation and attempt suicide. Some defecate their cells, causing the smell to infiltrate through the ventilation system. Some yell all day long, and some continuously kick on the steel doors. Cannon said the sound “drives you up the wall,” so he made his own earplugs out of toilet paper.

During the night, the guards hit the master light switch every half an hour to turn on the bright fluorescent lights. Also in the night, doors would slam every time the guards left a wing. It was all difficult to sleep through, according to Cannon.

“It’s designed for mental torture designed so you don’t get seven or eight hours of sleep,” Cannon said. “…Everything about Tamms is to break you mentally, physically and spiritually.”

Insomnia is one of the most universal symptoms for those in solitary confinement. The IDOC says it offers Sleep Hygiene counseling for prisoners who complain of sleep problems, even though the guards cause regular sleep disruption in the night.

Cannon would often make the time go by through exercise in his cell, trying to race with the clock during his routines. He said he was eventually able to do 500 push-ups in the span of an hour and a half. Prisoners have the option of spending an hour alone outside in the yard, which is similar to a concrete box the size of a classroom. Otherwise they remain in their cells, even for meals, which are served through a small slot in the door called the chuck hole.

“Meals were measured by spoon,” Cannon said. “Everything was generic, nothing real. Lord have mercy, it was rough.”

Akkeem Berry, who was a prisoner at Tamms for eight years, said he was 240 pounds coming into the prison but dropped to less than 170 by the time he left.

Since there were no communal activities, the prisoners found other ways to interact with one another while still facing a concrete wall.

“People learn ingeniously how to play chess or cards,” Cannon said. “Or [we would] take thread from sheets to pass magazines to each other.”

But that is the extent of human contact. There is no human touch even with the guards because the guards always wear thick gloves. Keeping in touch with family members is difficult. Phone calls are not allowed, and visitation rules are strict. When family or friends do make an appointment, they are non-contact visits. The John Howard Association report says, “inmates are separated from their visitors by very solid partitions made of thick glass and steel, and communication is by way of a microphone and speakers.” Berry also described a concrete stump that he leaned on, while his feet were shackled in the back.

“You are already in a fiberglass cubicle there’s nowhere to go,” Berry said. “And they’re talking about safety?”

Although released from Tamms, Cannon says he can never forget about the years he spent there in confinement.

“Every day, for every night I think about what has been done to me,” Cannon said. “That’s a kind of torture. Will the time come when I won’t think about it? I doubt it. … I’m not a robot you can’t put me on erase. I can never forget and I can never forgive.”

Getting in and getting out

When the Illinois Task Force on Crime and Corrections outlined the construction of a supermax prison in 1993, the report stated: “The Super-Max institution should be used without exception to house only those inmates who have in their current incarceration inflicted or caused others to inflict physical harm against staff or other inmates.”

No prisoner is moved to Tamms based on the crime they committed on the outside. But over half of the men at Tamms are sent there not because of violent behavior at another prison, but because they are held in “administrative segregation status.” While this is not clearly defined, it usually relates to allegations of gang leadership and affiliation.

“Everybody was placed here for a reason,” Sergio Molina, IDOC executive chief, said. “We have information. It’s a judgment call, by all means, but we need to know if they’ll join a gang again.”

Attorney Alan Mills says this is like sending someone to Tamms not for what they’ve done, but for what they might do in the future. Both former prisoners Cannon and Berry believe that they were wrongly sent to Tamms under this procedure.

“They said I was a gang leader and a threat to security,” Cannon said. “Because I was intelligent, if I chose to get violent [than] others would follow.”

Cannon and Berry never committed a violent act to send them to Tamms, and both did not get a chance to defend themselves against the allegation of gang leadership.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a prisoner,” Berry said. “I would consider myself a hostage because I was taken there without a hearing and without due process.”

“Essentially you are woken up in the middle of the night, put on a bus and arrive at Tamms,” Mills said. “You will never get a hearing in terms of the right to defend yourself.”

Mills said that generally prisoners are allowed a hearing if the facility they are being transferred to is “atypically and significantly worse than other places in the prison system.” The question is then whether or not Tamms is worse. The IDOC believes the answer is no, it is not worse.

“It doesn’t matter what you compare it to, Tamms is worse,” Mills said.

Once prisoners are in Tamms, they often do not know when they are going to leave. But the Illinois Task Force also said that part of the supermax’s purpose is to transfer out prisoners based on outlined standards. The report states: “Since these highly restrictive environments, if misused, can create conditions tantamount to long-term isolation, the Department of Corrections will have to establish clearly defined rules and regulations to govern the admission and release of inmates from the Super-Max facility and to monitor its operation and administration closely.”

The IDOC’s position against the bill was detailed in a memo addressed to Rep. Washington: they oppose any limit on their ability to place inmates in any facility. At the roundtable, Rep. Hamos, the sponsor of the bill, expressed frustration at the IDOC’s refusal to cooperate with legislators, provide information to the committee or settle the pending lawsuit.

“The bottom line is [the IDOC] want[s] no legislation and ultimate discretion,” Hamos said.

Other supermax facilities in the country have changed their policies to bring the system back to its original intended use. The Ohio supermax offers prisoners due process and it also has defined criteria for placement into its prison. The Mississippi supermax declared specific guidelines for transfers and excludes any reason based solely on gang membership. It also has stipulated a procedure for moving prisoners out.

Time for change

Back in the conference room in Springfield, Washington told the other legislators that we have to be able to ask the administration for accountability and standards, and then he asked to see the hands of anyone in the room who disagreed. No one raised their hand.

“We are not asking for major changes in the prison system,” Washington said. “We’re talking about transparency and accountability. This is not really hard to do.”

With the proposed bill in legislation, Tamms would be required to create guidelines and bring the supermax back to serve its original purpose.

“I am going to work the floor today to get people on this,” Washington said. “It’s not a political issue, it’s a humane issue. I think we’re going to have some change here.”


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