Tamms CMAX Super-Maximum Security Prison

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Imagine being in solitary isolation twenty-four hours a
day, seven days a week. Imagine no telephone calls. Imagine
limited visits with loved ones. Imagine the few visits
that are allowed to take place happening with no physical
contact. Imagine the near constant loud moans of the
mentally ill and having to scream as a means of communication.
Imagine being in this horrific place and not even
knowing how long you will stay or what you can do to end
your confinement. This place is not myth. For 260 people,
this is their daily reality. This is what life is like inside the
Tamms CMAX super-maximum security prison in southern
Located in rural Tamms, Illinois, the Tamms CMAX
was created in 1998 by the Illinois Department of Corrections
(IDOC). According to George DeTella of IDOC, “The
Tamms Correctional Center and its mission and its original
concept was to be a relatively short term incarceration
for inmates placed there… In addition, the object of
Tamms is to place an inmate at that location and then
always transition him back to general population at either
Menard or Statesville Correctional Centers.” However,
since its controversial inception, the Tamms CMAX prison
has faced serious problems that should cause people to
question its existence.
The Illinois Department of Corrections designed
Tamms to keep men in short-term incarceration. However,
ten years later, 88 of the original prisoners are still languishing
at Tamms CMAX. The 200+ inmates at Tamms
have endured the conditions for years beyond the scope of
IDOC’s original founding concepts. The Illinois Department
of Corrections has violated their statements about
how Tamms was going to be used.
The living conditions at Tamms make the horrors of
long-term incarceration more brutal. Each day, a prisoner’s
routine is the same. Prisoners are confined to their 8-by-
12 foot cell 23 to 24 hours per day. All meals are served to
the inmates through slots in cell doors. All prisoner movement
is done one-on-one to prevent any social contact.
Almost all contact that the prisoners have with staff is
done via speakers or through slots in cell doors. There are
no phone calls. All visits take place through speakers with
a barrier between inmate and visitor. There are no religious
or educational programs/activities. Reading materials,
television, and radio are severely restricted. Clearly,
these inmates are severely socially isolated. They have
almost no human contact, even with other inmates or
prison staff.
The goal of prisons is to rehabilitate prisoners so they
can become productive citizens upon their release. Supermaximum
security prisons like Tamms CMAX not only
fail in this goal; they tremendously undercut efforts to
rehabilitate the inmates. As Pizzarro and Stenius argued
in Supermax Prisons: Their Rise, Current Practices and
Effect on Inmates: “An additional question arises as to
whether it is worthwhile to place someone in a supermax
facility for the sake of reducing violence and disturbances
within prisons (which research suggests is not accomplished),
only to release that individual into society as less
capable of normal social functioning than when he or she
was sent into prison.”
Super-maximum security prisons like Tamms CMAX
are not about rehabilitation that will assist these community
members to become effective, law-abiding citizens in
the future. The severe sensory deprivation and social isolation
are a combination that is psychological torture. So
many inmates have developed mental illnesses as a result
of Tamms’ practices that Tamms was forced to open an
entire mental health wing. These methods of psychological
torture and retribution fly in the face of peoples’ beliefs
about prison and also cause severe harm to those unfortunate
members of our community to endure such inhumane
Tamms CMAX prisoners have supposedly earned their
way into these tortuous conditions by their behavior and
inability to live in a general prison population. But, over
half of the 260 men housed at Tamms are there for undefined
‘administrative segregation’ rather than any noted
behavioral problem. Likewise, in their years at Tamms, the
vast majority of prisoners have never received a disciplinary
report or had rules infractions. Most of the inmates at
Tamms endure these terrifying conditions with the knowledge
that they have no idea how long their sentences will
last, even if they are well behaved. Tamms CMAX and the
Illinois Department of Corrections have only released
fourteen men to a general prison population in the ten
years that Tamms has been open.
If these egregious abuses of human rights were not
enough, Tamms CMAX is also a waste of money. According
to the Illinois Department of Corrections, housing a
prisoner at Tamms costs two or three times as much as any
other adult prison in Illinois. Menard’s annual cost per
prisoner is $19,190. Pontiac is $32,121. Statesville is
$32,121. Tamms CMAX’s annual cost is an astronomical
$58,994. When one pairs the staggeringly high economic
cost necessary to run Tamms to the deplorable human
rights conditions, it becomes quite clear that Tamms must
be closed.
However, there have been recent developments that
seek to change this status quo. The Illinois General Assembly
has recently introduced House Bill (HB) 6651, sponsored
by Rep. Julie Hamos. This bill would set forth strict
behavioral criteria to guide what constitutes eligibility for
transfer to Tamms to ensure that only violent or severely
disruptive inmates are imprisoned there. The bill also bans
the mentally ill from ever being sent to Tamms to endure
the psychological torture. HB 6651 also institutes a system
of oversight hearings for inmates—from their transfer to
the super-maximum security facility to determinations
about their eligibility once incarcerated. Ramos’s bill also
demands the immediate transfer out of Tamms for any
inmate who develops a mental illness. The measures in HB
6651 are an excellent beginning to addressing the numerous
problems at Tamms.
We must oppose this brutality. While the billboard
out in front of Tamms CMAX states that it is “a good
place to live,” we must show the world we disagree. If
you would like to get involved in the campaign to
reform or close Tamms CMAX, check out www.yearten.
org for more information.

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