PI Original Angela Caputo Friday September 18th, 2009, 4:41pm

Does Randle's Tamms Plan Pass The Test?

For years, human rights advocates have been pressing Illinois officials to clean up one of the state's dirtiest secrets: the human rights abuses taking place inside Tamms Correctional Center, the state's lone supermax facility. The prison has become notorious for locking ...

For years, human rights advocates have been pressing Illinois officials to clean up one of the state's dirtiest secrets: the human rights abuses taking place inside Tamms Correctional Center, the state's lone supermax facility. The prison has become notorious for locking scores of prisoners away in solitary confinement, some for more than a decade. Moreover, Tamms inmates have no access to a review process or adequate mental health evaluations. Worst of all, many of those same prisoners are ultimately released back into their communities with exacerbated psychological problems.

Today, the Department of Correction's interim director Michael Randle took an important step in acknowledging the problems at Tamms. But does his ten-point plan (PDF) go far enough?

The most vocal critics of the prison -- members of the Tamms Year Ten coalition -- don't think so. This afternoon, they put out this statement along with their own critique of Randle's plan:

We applaud the IDOC for moving in the right direction, as some of these reforms could mitigate the psychological damage caused by long-term isolation. However, the new plan presents no significant change for mentally ill prisoners. Tamms Year Ten, along with other human rights organizations, urges Gov. Quinn to institute independent monitoring of mental health diagnosis and treatment at Tamms to prevent the same neglect and abuse of prisoners documented in the Belleville News-Democrat expose.

Illinois Issue's Bethany Jaeger has a good examination of the proposed reforms and we took a close look as well. One particular weakness is the loose wording of some of the commitments. For instance, the pledge to hold a "review hearing" for inmates recently transferred to Tamms begins this way:

"Whenever possible, a transfer review hearing shall be conducted."

Whenever possible? Based on the open-ended language, Tamms Year Ten's Laurie Jo Reynolds tells Illinois Issues the reforms “could end up being really superficial or they could end up being profound, depending on how they’re implemented."

What is clear is that Randle's prescriptions are no substitute for the clear-cut guidelines laid out in Rep. Julie Hamos' legislative proposal (HB 2633). Hamos' bill would mandate that prisoners who have been housed at Tamms for over a year be granted a hearing on their status. Furthermore, she called for the establishment of "specified criteria" for sending inmates to Tamms in the first place.  Not only are these policies absent from Randle's plan, but there's no mechanism for enforcing the reforms that have been included.  From the Tamms Year Ten critique:

These reforms, and future reforms, should be established by law or administrative code. Changes to the current system were needed because without safeguards, the supermax has become a warehouse of long-term isolation, used explicitly against its original design. It has been especially detrimental to mentally ill prisoners. Writing protections into the law or administrative code will insure [sic] the longevity of these changes, even in the event of a change of administration.

Randle's plan is indeed a move "in the right direction."  But a stronger commitment is needed.

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