PI Original David Milton Brent Tuesday March 6th, 2012, 2:13pm

Lessons To Be Learned By The Potential Closing Of Tamms Supermax Prison

In his recent budget speech, Gov. Pat Quinn proposed closing Illinois’ Tamms “Supermax” prison. The facility’s 14-year history serves as an apt symbol of how the state’s incarceration system has lost its way.

In his recent budget speech, Gov. Pat Quinn proposed closing Illinois’ Tamms “Supermax” prison. The facility’s 14-year history serves as an apt symbol of how the state’s incarceration system has lost its way.

Tamms was built in 1998, following the recommendations of then-Governor Jim Edgar’s Task Force on Crime and Corrections. It was intended as a temporary incarceration facility to separate out particularly violent criminals from the general prison population. The Task Force’s final report laid out in clear terms Tamm’s stated objectives, as well as several crucial rules and regulations to prevent the facility’s misuse.

Edgar’s Task Force, for instance, made clear that prisoners were only supposed to be housed in Tamms temporarily: “The


The primary purpose mentioned above was to rehabilitate those causing trouble in other prisons. Thus, the Task Force’s report argued, prisoners must be allowed to earn their way out of Tamms based on good behavior: “Inmates would be required to earn their way to progressively less restrictive levels [of confinement], and eventually back into the general prison population... Reviews of inmate behavior would be made every 30 days.”

Additionally, the Task Force acknowledged that supermax facilities in general contain “highly
 environments,” which, “if
 can create
 isolation.” At Tamms, for example, such restrictions include keeping prisoners in solitary confinement with sensory deprivation for 23 hours each day. Imprisoning men in such conditions for a substantial amount of time, the Task Force made clear, would engender “legitimate and serious concerns” of prisoner abuse. To ensure that such misuse would not occur, the report recommended “that 

As advocacy group Tamms Year Ten has pointed out, these regulations were either never put in place or never followed. (The group’s flier on the subject, from which the above quotes were culled, is available here.)

Prisoners have been housed at the Tamms facility indefinitely -- they have been moved “in” but not “out.” A third of the current inmates have been incarcerated at the supermax prison since 1998, according to Tamms Year Ten. Some of these prisoners have long since reached the highest good behavior “level” described by the Task Force; and yet they have not been returned to the general prison population. Instead, they remain imprisoned in exactly the sort of “long-term isolation” the Task Force warned against.   

Even as Tamms has failed to fulfill the obligations -- both legal and moral -- laid out by Governor Edgar’s Task Force, the supermax facility has continued to cost state taxpayers millions of dollars each year. Due in part to its extremely high guard-to-prisoner ratio, Tamms costs about three times as much to operate per inmate as an average prison: over $30 million annually, or roughly $64,000 for each prisoner. Governor Quinn’s office has estimated that closing the facility will cut more than $20 million from the budget annually.
In its extreme treatment of prisoners, Tamms is unique among Illinois’ prison facilities. Yet the supermax facility’s troubles elucidates the failures of the state’s incarceration system more generally.

Just as Tamms was intended to be a facility that rehabilitated violent criminals in order to incorporate them back into the general prison population, Illinois’ prison system as a whole is intended to rehabilitate criminals so that they may be reincorporated into the general civilian population. Aside from the most violent criminals (like the ones at Tamms), prisoners in general are supposed to be incarcerated temporarily; they are also supposed to be able to earn their way out of confinement based on good behavior. Prisoners in general, just like those at Tamms, are supposed to be protected by “constitutional and humanitarian safeguards.”

Unfortunately, just like its Tamms facility, the prison system in general has often failed to meet its objectives. Illinois currently incarcerates more than 48,000 adult prisoners -- nine times as many as it held 40 years ago, and 14,000 more than the system is currently designed to hold. As with Tamms, the system as a whole has done a poor job of moving prisoners “out” of its facilities. In 2010, for instance, Governor Quinn suspended the Meritorious Good Time (MGT) program, which allowed low-level offenders to earn their way out of prison with good behavior.

Instead, prisoners remain incarcerated in facilities which, in their own way, approach Tamms for their inhumanity. According to John Maki, who’s organization monitors state prison conditions, overcrowding has forced some prisons to keep inmates “in flooded basements and vermin-infested dormitories with broken windows, leaking pipes and dilapidated roofs.” If these conditions do not improve, Illinois may face legal consequences: last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that found overcrowding and poor conditions in California’s state penal system broke the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Finally, as with Tamms, concerns for Illinois’ prison system in general are not merely moral and legal, but also fiscal. At a time when Illinois is cutting funding for health care and other social services, the state currently spends more than a $1 billion on its prisons.

Governor Quinn is correct to say that closing Tamms makes fiscal sense. But it will do little to alleviate the problems inherent in our state’s incarceration system more generally. Indeed, Maki worries that the closure will lead to further overcrowding in existing facilities, making conditions even worse. A real solution to the state’s long-term budget problems -- and to more immediate moral and legal concerns -- would focus on moving less prisoners in and more prisoners out of the penal system in a timely manner. In this way, Illinois can learn from the lessons of Tamms.

Image: AP


Tamm was uniquely devised to subject prisoners to isolation and sensory deprivation. And those two treatments are uniquely capable -- indeed were precisely devised -- to drive a sane person crazy and to shatter the structure of the ego. This was what the Chinese did late in the Korean War -- we called it "brain washing." It is what the US did with internees at Guantanamo Bay, when we were not water boarding them. Another word for it is torture. The only humane solution to the problem of Tamms is to shut it down.


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