ILLINOIS OPENS "SUPERMAX" CONTROL UNIT PRISON IN TAMMSby CEML (Committee to End the Marion Lockdown)
As the trend towards imprisonment, and state sponsored torture sweeps the nation, the people of Illinois are not left unscathed. Despite CEMLs resistance, the State of Illinois led by Governor Jim Edgar has proudly built its own Super Max prison in Tamms, Illinois, known as "Tamms C-Max." The institution was opened on March 8, 1998 and before the DOC has even filled all 500 cells, there are already reports of atrocities stemming from extreme sensory deprivation, which is causing inmates to smear feces and urine on themselves, engage in acts of self-mutilation, and attempt suicide.
The Creation of Tamms
In 1992, Governor Edgar created the Illinois Task Force on Crime and Corrections to solve the overcrowding crisis in Illinois prisons. The Task Force was created to propose solutions that both protected public safety and did so in a manner the tax-payers in Illinois could afford. The Task Force consisted primarily of white males from law enforcement backgrounds. Although the meetings were open to spectators, speakers had to be invited by Task Force members. The Task Force recommended the extension of good time to prisoners and increasing drug, educational, and work programs for inmates. However, the crux of their recommendations was to build a state control unit prison and an additional 5,000 cells in the state (including transforming a high school in virtually all-Black East St. Louis into a prison).
When CEML learned the Task Force was considering a control unit prison, it requested to speak to the Task Force and present evidence criticizing the nature of and function of control unit prisons. The Task Force refused to allow CEML the opportunity to present any evidence, or open up their process to receive accurate information in opposition to control unit prisons.
CEML then took its message to the streets, holding a protest outside the Task Forces meeting and distributing a formal response to the Task Forces recommendations. CEML members also traveled to Tamms to speak with members of the community regarding the evils of control unit prisons. CEMLs response to the Task Force proposals exposed the hypocrisy of their recommendation. Demonstrating that the building of a control unit and additional prison cells would fail to decrease crime in the public or prison population. Such construction would only serve to create human rights abuses, primarily against people of color, and expend precious financial resources better spent on schools and social programs throughout the state.
The Task Force and Governor proceeded full steam ahead, disregarding the overwhelming evidence against control unit prisons, and the State legislature passed the Task Forces recommendation to build a control unit. Towns and cities in desperate need for jobs began a bidding war to be the location for the control unit prison. Eventually, the state selected Tamms as the site of the new control unit prison, in the southern tip of the state.
The Structure of Tamms
The structure and purpose of Tamms was patterned after control unit models sweeping the nation. In fact, Warden George Welborn proudly boasts he toured the infamous S.H.U.- Pelican Bay State Prison in California before designing Tamms. According to Welbourne, "Tamms is not about rehabilitation, its about punishment . . . some people may never leave."
Not surprisingly, prisoners at Tamms are forced to spend 24 hours a day, close to seven days a week in their single 8' x 10' concrete cement cells, which contain concrete beds, and stainless steel sinks, toilets, and mirrors. Although each cell has a window, the windows cannot be opened and the only way to look out of them is to stand on the bed. The doors to each cell, similar to the doors at Pelican Bays S.H.U., are made of metal wire mesh which make it difficult to look out. Although the doors allow sounds to travel inside and outside the cell, a large echoing effect is created making communication difficult and painful. Further, guards have plexiglass shields which can be placed over the doors which completely isolate the prisoner inside his cell.
Tamms consists of a series of tunnels with electronically controlled doors. The majority of prisoners movements outside of their cell are controlled by these electric doors which cut down on any contact they have with other prisoners or guards.
Tamms consists of several units with glass control centers which are flanked by 3 pods. The units are designed to provide all services and needs to the prisoners to keep them inside the unit. Each unit has its own medical station and a small inadequate law library (prisoners report the library is lacking many necessary forms and books) which cuts down on the prisoners opportunity to leave the unit.
The yard is a 12 x 30 enclosed, empty box with concrete cement walls and floor. The ceiling is composed partially of steel slates and wire mesh which allows a minimal amount of fresh air and sunshine. Prisoners report that the yard is overbearingly hot on summer days, and during yard time prisoners are not allowed to have any water. (If the prisoner needs water during yard his time is terminated.)
All visits, legal or personal, are non-contact visits conducted in glass boxes through a glass window with a voice activated system. During these visits, the prisoners are handcuffed to their chairs. Without any rational explanation, the prisoners are strip searched and their rectums are probed both before and after each non-contact visit.
In fact, whenever a prisoner leaves his cell (not including yard and shower) he is strip searched, probed, and shackled. When a prisoner is shackled, his wrists are handcuffed through the slot in his door, he is forced to his knees, where he must bend over while the guards apply chains to his legs. Guards search the prisoner's cell every time he is out of it, and routinely guards handcuff prisoners to a "slave hook" in the cell while searching it when he is present. It is a common practice for guards to use pepper spay on prisoners and conduct cell extractions in full riot gear.
Who Is At Tamms
Tamms classifies prisoners as either disciplinary segregation candidates or as administrative detainees. The disciplinary candidates allegedly have recent infractions in other state institutions. The definition of who constitutes an administrative detainee is broad enough as to be meaningless. It is not only the catch-all of the institutional security, but also institutional "integrity"-- and they can be anyone whom the IDOC determines to be a gang member.
Administrative detainees receive notice of their transfer and a hearing within 10 days of arrival, but many prisoners report that they never received any notice regarding their transfer to Tamms, and were not provided a hearing to present evidence or challenge the alleged reason for theit transfer (rather they have a short meeting with a prison official and social worker). They are not allowed to challenge the evidence (often "secret" evidence) used to brand them as dangerous gang members or escapees.
In one case, a prisoner at Tamms was transferred to the institution as an administrative detainee for his alleged status in a gang. This prisoner renounced his gang status and involvement two years prior to his transfer, and at his prior institution worked in the officers kitchen. At his former institution, the prisoner lived in the general population and apparently posed no risks to the institution. However, according to DOC intelligence, this prisoner was deemed to be part of a gang, and he could not challenge the secret evidence or uncover the source of information used to support his transfer to Tamms. Many suspect it was the prisoners successful suits against the DOC which bought him his one way ticket to Tamms.
The Illinois DOC does not have any policies regarding the admission and transfer of administrative detainees. It is unclear what kind of proof, if any, is needed for the DOC to brand an individual a gang member or threat to the security of the institution. Many prisoners report that previous infractions stemming from 15 year old incidents were used to support their transfer to Tamms, even though they already served time in segregation for these incidents at their previous facilities.
Regardless of whether a prisoner is transferred to Tamms as a disciplinary candidate or administrative detainee, the prisoner has a mandatory minimum sentence of one year there. One year of extreme isolation.
Shut Tamms Down
Currently, a variety of grassroot and legal organizations are gathering information regarding the conditions at Tamms and investigating potential channels to pursue in shutting this control unit down. Tamms is of no help to the prisoners or to the communities which most of them will return. It must be closed.Back to Control Prison page