What is Tamms? By Joe Dole

·        Tamms Super Maximum Correctional Center, which opened in March 1998, is Illinois’ only “Supermax” prison.  It is located at the southern tip of Illinois, originally opened under the guise of being for short-term incarceration.


·        There is no bus service to the prison.  There’s no way for family or friends to get to Tamms without a car.  Visits hardly ever happen, and visitors only see inmates through a Plexiglas wall.  Inmates in disciplinary segregation are additionally hand-cuffed, shackled, and chained to a cement stump throughout the entire visit.


·        Tamms inmates are not allowed to make any phone calls unless there is a death in the family, and even then may have to go on a hunger strike to get it.  Even at Florence ADX, the federal supermax prison where convicted al-Qaeda terrorists are imprisoned, inmates are allowed to make one phone call each month.


·        No one is sent to Tamms for the crime they were incarcerated for.  Criteria for placement at Tamms are currently so vague that every prisoner in the Illinois Department of Corrections is eligible.  Decisions to send men to Tamms are secret and not open to review.  Men are not given placement forms and many do not know why they are there.  A number of men have life without parole sentences and don’t know if they will ever be released from Tamms to general population.


·        Every man at Tamms Supermax is kept in solitary confinement.  Men never leave their cell except to shower and exercise in a concrete room.  Meals come through a slot in their cell door.  Men at Tamms eat alone, pray alone, and walk the yard alone.  Tamms keeps strict limits on the amount of personal property men can keep.  This includes family photos, letters and Christmas cards.


·        Long-term solitary confinement causes mental illness.  Suicide attempts, self-mutilation, smearing of feces, and severe psychological illnesses are common at Tamms.


·        Just 3 months in solitary confinement has detrimental effects.  Yet one hundred men have been there since April of 1999.  The other men at Tamms have been there for years and years on end.  When proposing the creation of Tamms the Illinois legislature was told that it would be used solely as a sort of shock treatment for periods of one year for the “worst of the worst.”


·        Taxpayers pay about $90,000 per year to keep a man at Tamms – over four times the cost of other state prisons.  There is no clear benefit for this expense.  Nor for the court costs incurred to defend against the numerous lawsuits for violations of these inmates’ constitutional rights.


Joseph Dole is an inmate in Tamms.

Video Tour of Tamms

Almost everything is concrete; including the bed and desk.

The cell door has no bars; another way to isolate.

2 minute video:

17 minute video:

Judge Rules Procedures at Tamms Supermax Violate Constitution

by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

A federal judge yesterday ruled that current procedures for sending prisoners to the Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois–and keeping them there indefinitely–is in violation of the 14th Amendment to U.S. Constitution, which guarantees due process of law. The judge ordered that significant changes be made at the notorious state supermax.

George Pawlaczyk, whose award-winning coverage last year exposed abuses at Tamms, reports in the Belleville News-Democrat:

A federal judge has ruled that even inmates termed the “worst of the worst” by state prison system officials have a constitutional right to a hearing before they are sent to what many consider the harshest prison in Illinois — the solitary-only Tamms Correctional Center.

U.S. District Court Judge G. Patrick Murphy, sitting in federal court in East St. Louis, has ruled that all inmates transferred to Tamms, the state’s only supermax prison, must be given a swift hearing and told why they are being sent to the lockup, where most prisoners spend 23 hours a day in their cells and are let out only to walk alone in a steel cage.

And all inmates currently at the prison must be given the same type of hearing, which must allow them an opportunity to challenge their transfer. Tamms inmates also must be given 48 hours notice of the hearing after being sent to Tamms, so that they can have an opportunity to prepare to challenge their transfer.

The decision follows a ten-year legal effort by the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, which brought suit on behalf of several dozen Tamms prisoners, and a trial in federal court that ended last December. Pawlaczyk quotes Uptown’s Legal Director Alan S. Mills, who called the judge’s ruling a “significant victory”:

“Everybody who has been sent there (Tamms) up until now, have had their constitutional rights violated and has a right to a hearing, a new hearing, to see whether or not they should have ever been sent there in the first place,” said Mills…

Mills said that inmates can now challenge prison system claims that they violated disciplinary rules at other prisons or any administration claim that warrants being sent to Tamms. And they can require prison officials to state a reason for transfer. They also may challenge department claims that they are members of a gang and that is why they were sent to the lockup.

“Many of these inmates have never been told why they were sent to Tamms,” Mills said. He said these inmates include one plaintiff in the lawsuit who had been at Tamms since it opened more than 12 years ago but was never told why.

Murphy also ordered that inmates who have been at Tamms the longest, and many have been there for more than 10 years, will be placed at the head of the list for the hearings. The judge’s order noted that some inmates were not told why they were sent to Tamms until years later…

Judge Murphy made clear that his ruling “is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the 14th Amendment due process rights of IDOC [Illinois Department of Corrections] inmates placed at Tamms, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the federal rights of such inmates.” He stated that “the supermax prison at Tamms is clean, excellently administered, and well staffed.” This despite the fact that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have challenged conditions at Tamms, as has a local activist group, Tamms Year Ten.

New attention was focused on the prison last year, after reporting by George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer found nightmarish conditions at Tamms, which is in many cases used as a de facto asylum for prisoners suffering from serious mental illness. [You can read the original series here.] As Pawlaczyk wrote yesterday:

The treatment of Tamms inmates, especially those who were mentally ill, was the subject of a News-Democrat investigative series in August titled “Trapped in Tamms,” which was followed by more than a dozen follow-up stories. The articles challenged the prison system’s claims that Tamms inmates were the worst of the worst, and reported that more than half of the inmate population had not committed any new crimes since entering prison.

The newspaper reported that many mentally ill inmates were sent to Tamms after throwing urine and feces at guards, assaults that are often handled administratively at other prisons. This behavior, according to mental health experts who study incarceration, can often be a sign of mental illness made worse by solitary confinement.

Mud stencil on Chicago sidewalk, by Tamms Year Ten

It remains to be seen how much the new ruling will help such inmates. The court stated that during the newly mandated hearings, prison officials can consider ”the safety and security of the facility, the public, or any person, [and] an inmate’s disciplinary and behavioral history,” in deciding whether an inmate needs to be held at Tamms. Clearly, an inmate’s “behavioral history” can be affected by untreated mental illness.

However, the prisoners in Tamms have more going for them that many of the of other 25,000-odd inmates held in U.S. supermax prisons: They have local muckraking journalists to expose their living conditions; local and international human rights groups taking up their cause; and excellent pro bono legal representation from the Uptown People’s Law Center. All of these watchdogs will, no doubt, be waiting to see what happens at Tamms when the judge’s order goes into effect.


NYC Bar Assoc. Issues Report on “The Brutality of Supermax"

by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

The New York City Bar Association’s Committee on International Human Rights has turned its sights on the American prison system, and produced a concise, well-documented, and important report on solitary confinement in the United States. As the report’s authors write:

The policy of supermax confinement, on the scale which it is currently being implemented in the United States, violates basic human rights. We believe that in many cases supermax confinement constitutes torture under international law according to international jurisprudence and cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution. The time has come to critically review and reform the widespread practice of supermax confinement.

This Report first describes supermax confinement in the United States, then surveys the surprisingly limited role of courts in reviewing that practice and concludes with a number of recommendations that suggest the outlines of the reforms we believe are needed. These reforms should encompass not just the administration of supermax confinement in state and federal prisons, but also the legal framework within which this practice is reviewed by courts.

Courts in recent years have largely deferred to prison administrators with regard to the implementation and expansion of supermax confinement, stretching the limits of constitutionality so that supermax is largely immunized from judicial review. Indeed, as long as a prisoner receives adequate food and shelter, the extreme sensory deprivation that characterizes supermax confinement will, under current case law, almost always be considered within the bounds of permissible treatment.


The report takes a stand for all prisoners in long-term solitary confinement, arguing that the practice is both inhumane and unconstitutional:

The unmitigated suffering caused by supermax confinement, however, cannot be justified by the argument that it is an effective means to deal with difficult prisoners. The issue, we believe, is not whether supermax achieves its purposes or is effective at controlling and punishing unruly inmates. Instead, the question is whether the vast archipelago of American supermax facilities, in which some prisoners are kept isolated indefinitely for years, should be tolerated as consistent with fundamental principles of justice. Even prisoners who have committed horrific crimes and atrocities possess basic rights to humane treatment under national and international law. Although the Constitution “does not mandate comfortable prisons,”it does require humane prisons that comport with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against punishments that are “incompatible with ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” or which “involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.” More recently, the Supreme Court stated that “[p]risoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.” Supermax confinement as extensively implemented in the United States falls short of this standard and must be substantially reformed.

While acknowledging that “Supermax confinement has become so embedded in the culture of prison administration that it will take a significant effort to reverse this abhorrent practice,” the report ends with a series of recommendations for immediate reforms.

(For more background on solitary confinement and the law, see our new fact sheet on the subject.)


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