Mary Murray

The supermax prison in Illinois, Tamms Correctional Facility, was built in 1998 in Tamms, Illinois a small town in southern Illinois. The emergence of Supermax prisons is a relatively new movement in Correction Departments across the country, the goal of these facilities is to house the “worst of the worst” or the most dangerous inmates.  Many of these supermax facilities were built in response to particular instances of attacks whether they were inmate-to-inmate, inmate-to-staff, or threats made against staff or other inmates. Much of the focus of this violence has centered on gang violence within the general population in maximum-security prisons.   Inmate placement into a supermax facility has come under the microscope in order to examine how prison administrators decide which inmates qualify for this placement.

In addition to the situation here in Illinois the case at the Ohio supermax prison, the Ohio State Penitentiary, is a great example of how prison administrators, legislation, and judicial action has evolved in dealing with supermax prisons.  There are a few court cases in Ohio that have tackled the vague language of the placement criteria and the handling of inmates in Ohio’s supermax.   Before exploring how prison administrators and the courts have dealt with placement into the supermax, it is important to know how the Ohio State Penitentiary came into existence.  In 1993 at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Ohio, one of the worst prison riots in United States history took place. This riot lasted for ten days, nine inmates were killed and an inmate strangled a correction guard to death. The inmates took eight guards hostage during these ten days and caused over forty million dollars in damage at the prison before finally surrendering.  Following this riot, Ohio moved quickly and spent millions of dollars to improve the prison system, including building the supermax, Ohio State Penitentiary in 1998.  The story in Ohio is similar to the development of Tamms in Illinois (both were built in 1998), and is consistent with the emergence of supermax prisons across the country.

In order to shape the arguments that have appeared in Ohio regarding placement at Ohio State Penenintiary it is important to understand court cases that have established what legal rights inmates have within the prison setting.  The U.S. Supreme Court in Sandin v. Conner (1995) ruled that the state creates a “liberty interest” in avoiding certain prison conditions only where those conditions constitute an, “atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.”  Inmates argued this liberty interest exists under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Wilkinson v. Austin (2003), the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio used this legal precedent in Sandin v. Conner to rule that the conditions at the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) did constitute a “significant and atypical hardship” therefore inmates had the right to avoid placement there. The courts compared the conditions at the OSP to the most severe conditions at Ohio’s maximum security prisons, mainly the segregated units, and found that the extreme isolation, lack of outdoor recreation, limitations on personal property, telephone usage, outside counsel, and the ineligibility of parole resulted in the “significant and atypical hardship.”   The officials from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) appealed this decision by claiming the court erred by comparing the conditions at the OSP to the conditions at Ohio maximum-security prisons rather than to other supermax prisons across the country.  The court rejected this appeal stating that the ODRC could not determine the baseline for comparison since it has no affect on the liberty interest that is inherent in the ruling.

Once the courts established a liberty interest was present in avoiding placement at the OSP, the courts then had to determine what process is due to protect this interest. In Wilkinson v. Austin (2003), the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio did order modifications to Ohio’s substantive prison regulations. An example of one such modification was to specify a quantity of contraband an inmate must possess in order to place an inmate at OSP. Prior to the courts activity, any amount of contraband could land an inmate at OSP. Ultimately, however, the substantive modifications set forward by the district court failed because The United States Courts of Appeals for the Sixth District was powerless to modify substantive procedures governed by the state.   The federal court could not order the ODRC to alter the rules for governing placement and retention at the OSP. The United States Courts of Appeals for the Sixth District ruled, however, that the procedural modifications set forth by the district court were necessary to protect the liberty interest. The first procedural recommendation by the district court involved presenting an exhaustive list of reasons and evidence to an inmate when considering placement at OSP.  The inmate may also present witnesses and documentary evidence at classification hearings. A record of the proceedings must be made, and if the ODRC relies on confidential witnesses, the department must disclose as much testimony as possible. Finally, the inmates have a right to appeal the recommendation and none of the original members of the classification committee are allowed to take part in the appeal decision by the Bureau of Classification or the warden.  These recommendations were to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) policy 111-07, which controls inmate classification.  On the eve of the trial in the district court, the ODRC modified policy 111-07, but the court still found several missing factors, identified earlier with the procedural and substantive modifications. In 2005 The United States Supreme Court reviewed the Sixth Circuit’s decision. The court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment gave rise to a liberty interest to not be placed in a supermax facility, and that Ohio’s procedure for placement satisfied the requirements of due process.  The opinion of the court found that the procedural modifications made to Ohio’s placement process afforded inmates a rebuttal to the placement, which is favored over Ohio’s former procedures.  The safeguards gained by the inmates in the circuit court balanced with the state’s interest to maintain safe facilities allowed the court to rule that the due process requirements were satisfied.

This process in Ohio is an example of checks and balances at work in a democracy with a living constitution. Given the relatively recent birth of supermax prisons across the country it is encouraging to review case law throughout the United States to explore how the courts have interrupted the language and processes involved in supermax placement.  In these courts terms such as “liberty interest” and “atypical hardships” were cited in order to weigh decisions of placement, further emphasizing the vagueness that is present in the supermax debate.  How do we define “atypical” versus “typical” prisons conditions?  We as citizens are left with no choice but to leave this interpretation to the justices that deliver their opinions in the courts, this is the way our country works and this is how its always been done. We put our trust in judges in to interpret this vague language, which is not unique to the prison system, but rather to all statues that govern our freedom.  In a broad sense we are all prisoners to legislation and judicial interpretation, the only way we can have an influence and make our voices heard in these decisions is to seize the opportunity the American people had on November 4th, to go out and vote so each individual can make their mark on this complex process we call the United States government.     




Fareeha Zahid                                                                                      

Twenty three hours a day secluded from any physical contact in a small cell that is no bigger than a small bathroom. This is what the day in the life of a prisoner being held in solitary confinement faces. Solitary Confinement used to be a temporary form of punishment for a prisoner who broke the rules, that lasted from a few days to some months. Unfortunately, today there are prisons that hold prisoners contempt in isolation for years with no reason. “We’re very sensitive in terms of who we are releasing,” said Division of Parole Chairman George Alexander, “But we’re bound by law to consider certain factors.” One of the factors that is clearly neglected is the impact of long term isolation or solitary confinement on an individuals mental health.  The effects of solitary confinement are substantial enough to cause long term mental illness. Isolation beyond short term punishment is a degradation to humanity.

An inside look at the a super maximum security prison depicts the images of dehumanization and evaporation of cognitive perceptions. The prisoners are to remain in their cells twenty three hours of a day, without any physical contact. Their food is delivered to them through small portals in the metal doors from the guards. They are allowed to come out for an hour to maintain their hygiene and for recreational activities. Most inmates in isolation have only one way of contacting somebody outside the prison, through the United States mail service. The amount of letters that they send are also limited depending on the prison and the prisoner. After stripping prisoners of all other forms of contact, the only one they have left, correspondence through mail, is even limited solely to demonstrate the power the guards have over prisoners. The prisoners aren’t allowed any other form of contact such as visits, phone calls or recreational activities with other inmates throughout the 23 hour day.

Although the Illinois Department of Corrections refers to most of their prisons as “correctional facilities”, it remains unclear how these facilities actually ‘correct’ any problems an inmate may have. Another explanation for the use of solitary confinement is that it helps regulate the prisoners and prevent gangs within the prison. They claim that the prisoners would end up killing themselves without temporary isolation. With advanced technology and mental research, there must be other forms of seclusion that aren’t as harsh as solitary confinement to solve this problem. The mission statement on the Illinois Department of Corrections reads “The mission of the Department of Corrections is to protect the public from criminal offenders through a system of incarceration and supervision which securely segregates offenders from society, assures offenders of their constitutional rights and maintains programs to enhance the success of offenders’ reentry into society.” The intention is an essential to an ideal prison system, but with consequences such as solitary confinement, the primary goal of assisting in offender’s reentry into society becomes unreachable.

Prisoners that have endured painful years of solitary confinement at maximum security prisons have severe mental problems that include hallucinations, insomnia, paranoia, increased thoughts of suicide and other psychiatric problems that force them to think differently than a normal prisoner. A key example to this is the story of Timothy Joe Souders. Timothy suffered from mental illness’ that were caused by the effects of long term isolation he faced in prison. His illness’ included bipolar disorder, depression, hyperactivity disorder and suicide attempts. Unfortunately, he eventually died of hyperthermia while held in a closed confinement cell. Timothy’s story shows that the justice system isn’t serving its purpose as a correctional facility, but is contributing to the destruction and sickness’ of inmates rather than rehabilitation. Although the inmates seek ways to keep busy and remain diligent in their effort to reinstate their status as a regular prisoner, most of them can’t help but be consumed with the isolation. A man named Jason, being held in isolation at Pelican Bay Prison says “It breaks you psychologically, right? People do develop phobias. You start thinking people are talking about you when they’re not.” Jason discusses the mental illness’ that appear when a prisoner is held in isolation and claims that when a prisoner doesn’t respond well to isolation, he is then placed in psychiatric care, which is worse.  

Assistant Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) Director Sergio Molina told AlterNet that sending a prisoner to a super maximum security prison such as Tamms is done with a “case by case” basis. Unfortunately, some of the prisoners sent to Tamms have been there since its opening a decade ago. A decade with 23 hour confined to a small, dark, dingy cell with no chance to speak, touch or interact with another human seems unprecedented in our country. The treatment at Tamm’s does not resonate with American ideologies of opportunity, instead it’s a torturous process with no beneficial result on either end.  With no physical contact, no verbal contact with anyone and limited mail correspondence, it is clear why most inmates that are in solitary confinement resort to animalistic behavior that leads to more punishment and longer confinement. The theory of solitary confinement as a punishment is a never ending vicious circle.



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