Supermax prison target of legislators

Eric Naing

Illinois corrections officials say the harsh conditions at Tamms Correctional Center, a “supermax” prison in southern Illinois, are a suitable punishment for the most violent inmates in the state. But critics have compared the prison to the infamous U.S. detention camps at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

One of those critics, Democratic Rep. Julie Hamos of Evanston, wants stricter rules governing who can be incarcerated at Tamms.

Tamms, the only supermaximum prison in Illinois, houses criminals who are deemed too dangerous to live with other prisoners. The nearly 250 inmates at the facility are kept in small, concrete rooms for 23 hours a day without contact with other people.

Some say the extreme conditions and isolation that inmates endure at Tamms amount to torture.

“We are perpetrating some of the same kinds of tortures that we afflicted upon people at Abu Ghraib and at Guantanamo Bay,” said Northwestern University professor Stephen Eisenman, a member of the prisoner advocacy group Tamms Year Ten.

In April, members of Tamms Year Ten, lawyers, former Tamms prisoners, and others testified before a legislative committee about the poor conditions for inmates at the facility. Hamos, a member of the committee, was inspired to draft legislation to address their concerns.

House Bill 2633 would prevent inmates with serious mental illnesses from being housed at Tamms. The bill also would put restrictions on who can be transferred in and out of the facility and make it tougher to keep inmates there for more than a year.

Hamos wants Tamms to adhere to its original goal of being a short-term incarceration facility.

“Hundreds of people reside there and live there for long after the one year they are supposed to be there – sometimes as long as 10 years, under very extreme conditions in total isolation,” she said.

Chicago lawyer Jean Maclean Snyder, who helped draft Hamos’ legislation and filed a lawsuit challenging the treatment of the mentally ill at Tamms, said the prison creates and worsens serious mental illnesses in prisoners.

“When you have a prison that is as isolating and as harsh as this, sometimes people (mentally) decompose and become seriously mentally ill,” she said.

Hamos introduced a similar measure last year that failed to make it out of the legislature, and she is not sure how successful her efforts will be this year

“People here are afraid of any kind of criminal justice reform, because they’re afraid of how it will impact them politically,” Hamos said.

Rep. Eddie Washington, D-Waukegan, is optimistic that the bill will pass this year because of what he sees as a previously “unseen flexibility with the Department of Corrections on this issue.”

Washington is the chairman of the legislative committee that could vote, as early as Tuesday on whether the bill should advance.

Not everyone thinks Hamos’ ideas would be good for Tamms.

Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Derek Schnapp said Tamms plays a necessary role in the Illinois prison system. He said the facility houses only the most disruptive and violent inmates, people who have “earned their way there.”

“We should be able to make the determination on who is sent to Tamms,” he said. “We deal with this inmate population on a daily basis, and we feel like we know them better than anybody else.”

Democratic Rep. Brandon Phelps of Harrisburg, whose district includes Tamms, said the measure would lead to fewer inmates and fewer guards at the prison.

“I don’t appreciate anybody pushing a bill that affects jobs in my area,” Phelps said.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the state employees' union has problems with Hamos' legislation.

He rejected the idea that the bill would affect jobs at Tamms, but said the bill might make conditions more dangerous for employees at all state prisons.

“Tamms plays an important role in ensuring the safety of the prison system,” Lindall said.

Lawyer and Tamms activist Alan Mills, another architect of the bill, thinks the regulations in the bill are reasonable.

“The Department of Corrections thinks Tamms is their facility. It’s not,” Mills said. “The taxpayers paid for it, and I think it’s quite reasonable that the taxpayers’ representatives have some input as to who gets to go there.”

Hamos agreed.

“From what I can tell, the Department of Corrections’ entire reason to be opposed is that they don’t want to be told what to do,” she said.

Eric Naing can be reached ateric.naing@sj-r.com.