PI Original Angela Caputo Monday March 30th, 2009, 11:06am

Amnesty International Urges Tamms Reforms

In February, the Tribune's Gary Marx took a rare look
inside Tamms Correctional Center, Illinois' lone supermax prison.
Tyrone Dorn, who is serving time for carjacking, told the reporter that
his five years at the in there has felt "like being buried
alive.&quot...

In February, the Tribune's Gary Marx took a rare look inside Tamms Correctional Center, Illinois' lone supermax prison. Tyrone Dorn, who is serving time for carjacking, told the reporter that his five years at the in there has felt "like being buried alive." Tamms -- which keeps inmates in solitary confinement for 23 or 24 hours a day -- was originally intended to house the state's most dangerous inmates, but its since become a receptacle for troublemakers from other prisons across the state (regardless of the nature of their crimes or length of their sentence).  Indeed, the Tribune notes that a fourth of the Tamms prisoners are scheduled to be released in the next decade.  Critics worry that the mentally abusive conditions make these inmates more of a danger to their community upon release.

In this vein, Amnesty International last week issued a rebuke to the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) for operating the "unnecessarily punitive" system in which the ongoing lack of accountability and oversight amounts to a potential "breach of international standards for humane treatment." From a statement:

Amnesty International is concerned by the reported secrecy and lack of transparency in current procedures for transferring prisoners to and from Tamms, and the absence of any external oversight of such decisions. According to prison monitoring bodies, many prisoners are unaware of why they have been denied requests to transfer out of Tamms. More than 80 prisoners (around a third of the total) are believed to have been held in the facility for at least ten years, many since it opened in 1998, without any reasonable means of gaining release from their indefinite solitary confinement [...]

[Amnesty International] is concerned that the current conditions at Tamms, taken cumulatively and applied over a prolonged period, are incompatible with the USA’s obligations to provide humane treatment for all prisoners.

Amnesty is throwing its support behind State Rep. Julie Hamos' HB 2633 -- the revived bill we've been following that would force IDOC to begin quickly reviewing prisoner status and set both specific detention criteria and hearing dates for those held longer than a year.  The organizatios calls Hamos' measure "an important step" toward increasing accountability at the downstate facility. As we noted before, AFSCME Local 31, which represents the state's prison guards, is trying to beat back the legislation. But activists with the Tamms Year Ten coalition has launched a counter campaign and is leading a petition drive to raise support and visibility for moving HB 2633 forward this year.  

On a related note, in most recent issue of The New Yorker, Atul Gawande examines whether the solitary confinement used in our supermax prisons amounts to torture.  Gawande's conclusions lend credence to Amnesty's interpretation that, under international human rights laws, the long-term practice may be unlawful. He even cites the experience of a former Tamms inmate -- both in the prison and after his release -- to illustrate the point.

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