It snuck under the radar last week, but a ruling released by a U.S. District Court questioned the fundamental practices of Illinois' only "supermax" prison.
It snuck under the radar last week, lost among the coverage of the Blagojevich corruption case and the Senate special election controversy. But down in Southern Illinois, a federal judge unleashed a bombshell court decision on Wednesday that could have a lasting impact on the treatment of inmates at Illinois' infamous Tamms Correctional Center.
Analyzing a lawsuit filed in 2000 on behalf of dozens of inmates at Illinois' only "supermax" prison, U.S. District Court Judge G. Patrick Murphy decreed that the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) must offer a prisoner the option to challenge his transfer into the facility (which uses solitary confinement extensively) during a formal review hearing. Each inmate must be given notice of the hearing 48 hours in advance and all inmates currently in custody there will be first in line to participate.
While the court did not force the DOC to establish specific criteria for sending inmates to Tamms in the first place -- the fundamental goal of legislation penned by former State Rep. Julie Hamos in 2009 -- the hearing requirement codifies one of Department of Corrections Director Michael Randle's proposed Tamms' reforms, outlined in a 10-point plan last September.
"It's an incredible victory," Tamms Year 10 organizer Laurie Jo Reynolds told us late last week. "People who have worked long and hard on this case were finally vindicated."
Due process wasn't the only topic Murphy dealt with in his sweeping 94-page decision (PDF). Essentially, the judge verified what various prison reformers and human rights organizations have argued for years: The treatment methods employed at Tamms often constitute "virtual sensory deprivation," the "psychic toll" exacted by those prolonged stretches of solitary confinement leads to lasting mental illness, and a significant portion of inmates are being held at Tamms much longer than prison officials originally planned.
In other words, Murphy questioned the fundamental practices of the 500-bed prison.
Prison reformers lauded Murphy's broader analysis. "Never again can a prison official or legislator claim that Tamms is just like other prisons," Reynolds wrote to us over email this weekend, "or that conditions there are not uniquely isolating and psychologically devastating." Alan S. Mills of the Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago, who filed the relevant lawsuit a decade ago, was equally excited, citing what "is becoming a nationwide chorus of findings by federal judges and international human rights groups that long-term solitary confinement simply is torture."
It's still unclear whether DOC officials will appeal the transfer ruling, which would be taken up by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Sharyn Elman, a spokesperson for DOC, told us last week that the department's General Counsel is reviewing the court order and she "cannot comment further until they have completed this process." But given Randle's relationships with Tamms reformers, it's conceivable that officials won't put up much of a fight.
Murphy's prose, meanwhile, should reinforce the importance of implementing comprehensive reforms at the prison. Randle (and by extension, Gov. Pat Quinn) have won praise for acknowledging insufficient accountability and oversight at Tamms. In the coming months, the Quinn administration needs to uphold its commitment to the changes it offered last year. And members of the General Assembly should revive Hamos' bill (HB 2633) this coming session.
Before sending any more prisoners to Tamms, we Illinois residents should know the criteria being used.