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?”