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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tamms - the prison

Way down in the town of Tamms in the southern most part of Illinois, there's a supermax prison. It's sort of a mystery to most of us, as we rarely hear anything about it. Until now. The Illinois Times has a very interesting article this week entitled, "Tougher than Guantanamo - Illinois’ supermax prison with no way out." And by no way out, they don't necessarily mean just escape:

Tamms' location has the effect of placing its inmates — 70 percent of whom are from the Chicago area — as far away from their loved ones as possible. Any prisoner fortunate enough to have a visitor willing and able to drive to the tiny town in the southernmost toe of Illinois will be thoroughly strip-searched both before and after the visit, even though he and his guest sit in separate secure boxes, communicating via intercom through a thick glass slab, never allowed to touch. For this reason, many inmates discourage loved ones from visiting.
But that’s not the worst part. For most men at Tamms, the worst part is not knowing when, if ever, they’ll get out of this intense isolation. Many prisoners, including Johnson, have existed in solitary confinement now for more than 10 years. Many, like Johnson, appear destined to spend the rest of their lives alone in Tamms.
Tamms Correctional Center is a prison complex consisting of a 500-bed closed maximum-security, or CMAX, facility and a 200-bed minimum security unit on a 236-acre campus located just north of the town of Tamms (population approximately 750). The minimum security unit opened in 1995; the CMAX opened in March 1998.

Tamms is supposed to make the rest of us feel safer. But are we safer when we treat prisoners like this?

Study after study warns of the dangers of prolonged solitary confinement. It is proven to produce panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, insomnia, chronic lethargy, short-term memory loss, an inability to concentrate, and, ironically, an oversized anger at the intrusion of small sounds such as plumbing, footsteps, or light switches. Some prisoners respond by “acting out;” they throw food or bodily fluids at the guards, smear feces on the cell walls, cut themselves, swallow glass or razor blades, attempt suicide.

And then, someday, some of them get out of prison. Personally, I don't know if this kind of prison is right or wrong. There's a lot to think about. Read the whole thing to decide for yourself.

Posted by Marie at June 18, 2009 10:25 PM


Interesting article, Marie. I didn't know about that prison.

There is a federal supermax prison 55 mile north of Tamms at Marion, IL. that was built to replace Alcatraz. There's more on Huffington Post.

Posted by: Kath at June 19, 2009 2:06 PM

Supermax prisons are an unfortunate necessity I think. That said, there are a number of troubling things at that link.

It should be clear why someone is there and what they need to do to get back to a regular prison. Even at a place like Tamms they should have a chance to have good behavior rewarded with some kind of increased interaction or mental stimulus.

I understand the need to isolate truly dangerous people and it should not be a picnic for them. But that place comes across as too much like Devil's Island to me.

Posted by: Dave E. at June 19, 2009 10:48 PM

Kath, Thanks for the Huffington article. I've always known about Marion's existence (even before Gotti), but that article was eye-opening. I had no idea. Interesting there's something called "Communications Management Unit." It sounds like a place where inmates learn to use a switchboard and radio equipment.

Dave, When reading the article, I thought the same thing about the reasons people are sent there and informing them of same. And, I'm not at all disputing the author. I love her writing and the things she writes about. However, she does tend to be a little liberal in her writings - if you know what I mean. And, I'm pretty liberal myself.

Posted by: Marie at June 19, 2009 11:46 PM

I think Tamms is an unfortunate necessity, too. I'd like to see a more consistent application of the what-sends-you-there and what-gets-you-out criteria.

Posted by: Rob Author Profile Page at June 20, 2009 9:07 AM

I totally agree, Rob.

Posted by: Marie at June 20, 2009 3:35 PM

I think Tamms violates the Geneva Convention

Posted by: sarah at June 21, 2009 4:23 AM

nothing necessary about Tamms or the supermax system. for about 150 years, from the time that it was ended where it started (at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philly), until the time it was begun again at Marion, solitary confinement was deemed cruel and useless. studies today show it is still both. no ambiguity at all. so the right answer is close it down or convert it. doing one of those will save lives, sanity and money.

Posted by: bartelby at June 21, 2009 9:06 PM

I have to disagree with you there, bartleby. For example, what do you do with the inmate who shows no qualms about assaulting, raping, or even murdering his fellow inmates or others? It seems to me that not isolating him from the rest of the corrections population, at least for some period, is a violation of their rights and human decency. I think there is a need for facilities like Tamms, but they can and should be managed under strict criteria that do not make things even worse for the inmate and society at large. I don't think that's impossible.

Posted by: Dave E. at June 22, 2009 11:14 PM

hey Dave, we don't really disagree. sure, some prisoners must be isolated -- at least for some period of time -- from other inmates. but the complete isolation of a supermax, where prisoners hardly even SEE other prisoners, (or guards for that matter), and are constantly stripped, searched and shackled, is far beyond what is needed for security. the ONLY reason supermaxes exist is for vengeance. regular maximum security prisons have cells available for segregation, and are fully prepared to handle even the most dangerous or sociopathic prisoner. and why torture a man whose nature cannot be changed?

Posted by: bartelby at June 23, 2009 5:45 PM

I'm too tired to blog separately about this.


"The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit challenging what Rachel Meeropol, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, describes as "political prisons", including one facility located within the federal prison in Marion, Illinois...."

Posted by: Marie at June 27, 2009 1:01 AM