On September 4th, Alexander County Circuit Court Judge Charles Cavaness temporarily halted Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s plan to close the Tamms supermax prison, where hundreds of inmates have been held in solitary confinement. The ruling came days after an arbitrator ruled that the Governors plan was in violation of union contracts. Prison union employees with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees filed a lawsuit to block the closure of Tamms. The AFSCME has argued that closing the supermax facility would “destabilize the entire prison system, worsen dangerous overcrowding and put the safety of employees, inmates, youth and the public at risk.”
Critics have countered that Tamms currently holds only about 180 inmates, and that many of them would be more accurately described as “the sickest of the sick” in terms of their mental health rather than “the worst of the worst.”
Governor Quinn has cited budgetary concerns as chief among his reasons for closing down Tamms. Despite only housing approximately 400 inmates (half of whom in the supermax unit), Tamms has cost taxpayers over $20 million annually to operate.
One former Tamms inmate, Brian Nelson, described his experience at Tamms this way,
I spent 12 years in solitary confinement and I was never told why I was placed in solitary. I am a human being and every day I still struggle with the trauma being held in that gray box. I wake screaming at night. I can’ get it out of my head some days. Solitary confinement in my opinion is worse than being beaten. That I spent twelve years in such conditions in America is appalling.
On August 8th, Tamms inmates, represented by Alan Mills and Nicole Schult of the Uptown People’s Law Center, filed a motion urging the court to allow inmates to present evidence of the negative psychological impact of supermax incarceration.
An article on Truthout discusses the damage that supermax facilities can have on both inmates and their families,
More generally, Illinois correctional facilities regularly hold inmates who are mentally ill and end up in prison or jail for lack of treatment facilities that could help them avoid punishment. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart called Cook County Jail “the largest mental health provider in the state of Illinois.”
In 2012, the United Nations discussed the possibility of launching a probe to see whether the treatment of inmates at Tamms constituted torture by international human rights standards.
But for those whose loved ones spend every day in Tamms, the pain continues.
Brenda Smith, whose son Herman has been in isolation in Tamms for more than ten years, says, “The letters that he writes me are horrifying.”
The only way she copes is by “trying not to think about what he is going through.”
“I am the only person he can write the letters to, and he doesn’t tell me everything he is going through,” says Smith.
Smith’s son is one of the inmates at Tamms whose distress has led him to self-mutilate.
“It’s like he’s dead, in a sense. You can’t touch him; you can’t hug him. It’s hard.”
Solitary Watch will continue to provide updates on the battle to close Tamms prison as information becomes available. For more on the debate over the Tamms closure, click here for a review of the arguments made in an April hearing on the issue.