IDOC – Cruel and usual punishment

Attention is focused upon problems with IDOC’s operation of the Tamms Maximum Security Unit, located at the tip of Southern Illinois. It is used to house the state’s worst inmates, but the harsh conditions and the solitary confinement used there are cited as excessive and many of it’s operational policies as questionable. Under Director Randle, IDOC announced the following Ten-Point Plan to begin to address the problems identified at Tamms.

Tamms Closed Maximum Security Unit: Ten-Point Plan Brief

Point 1: Allow each inmate placed at Tamms CMAX to have a Transfer Review Hearing. Specific timelines to conduct Transfer Review Hearings are being designated. Inmates will be given an opportunity to refute information and/or offer evidence that may impact the transfer decision to “supermax,” with an opportunity to appeal their placement to the Chief
Legal Counsel of the IDOC. An audio recording of all Tamms CMAX placement hearings will be maintained.

Point 2: Each inmate will be informed of an estimated length of stay and how privileges can be earned to provide for eventual transfer from Tamms CMAX. Based on the offense the inmate committed, staff will use professional correctional judgment to inform the inmate of a range of time he should expect to serve given their reason for being at Tamms CMAX.

Point 3: Promote the medical and mental health evaluation process conducted prior to and after placement, for each inmate sent to Tamms CMAX. Mental health services provided at Tamms CMAX exceed those provided at other prisons. From now on, full mental health evaluations will be conducted by a clinical mental health staff
within 30 days of placement. Mental health staff will make weekly rounds in all housing units to identify any inmate that may be decompensating as a result of transfer to the facility.

Point 4: Increase inmate privileges throughout the Behavioral Level System to incentivize positive behavior at Tamms CMAX. The amount of out-of-cell recreation time, commissary, and frequency of showers will be increased, and telephone privileges also will be added.

Point 5: Begin offering General Educational Development (GED) testing at Tamms CMAX. Two action-oriented options have been developed for inmates to take the GED examination while at Tamms CMAX. The facility recently was designated as an approved GED testing site.

Point 6: Implement congregate religious services for inmates at Tamms CMAX.

Point 7: Rescind some of the printed materials restrictions for inmates at Tamms CMAX.

Point 8: Develop a plan for beginning a Reassignment Unit at Tamms CMAX to compliment the ADRMP operated at other step-down sites.
A Reassignment Unit will be introduced as an intermediate step for inmates who present the most risk if transferred from Tamms CMAX, awaiting potential transfer to ADRMP step-down sites.

Point 9: Plan a media, legislative, and public outreach strategy that includes hosting a day-long visit to Tamms CC. The Department will emphasize the many mental health and program services available to
Tamms CMAX inmates through a new outreach approach.

Point 10: Reexamine the cohort of inmates having served extensive time at Tamms CMAX for transfer eligibility. A review of inmates held at Tamms CMAX from program inception in 1998 through 2004 has
determined that 48 of 133 cases reviewed were deemed eligible for release through ADRMP or the proposed Reassignment Unit.

Guidelines issued
September 10, 2009

The actual in-depth report on Tamms operation, policies, structure and nature of confinement and facility problems can be read at the IDOC website You have to click on the fourth tab down,”Tamms Overview and Ten-Point Plan,” on the left side of the page under “Agency Links”, but the overview is well worth reading. All this is to address the culmulative problems many have cited at the prison, such as shown in the article below:

Thursday, June 18,2009
Tougher than Guantanamo
Illinois supermax prison with no way out
By Dusty Rhodes
Tamms inmate Damien Terry, right, has his shackles removed before being placed in his cell, Feb. 13, 2009, in Tamms, Illinois. The officers never let go of their prisoner, no matter what happens, until he is in his cell. – PHOTO BY JOHN SMIERCIAK/MCT

On paper, Michael Johnson fits the profile of dangerous inmate. Reputedly a high-ranking El Rukn gang leader, he was a few months into a 35-year sentence for kidnapping and murder when he was indicted in 1987 for ordering a hit on Pontiac Correctional Center superintendent Robert Taylor. Johnson was eventually convicted and moved to Menard Correctional Center, were he mingled with the general population, taking college courses and becoming president of the Afrikan American Culture Coalition.

Six years later, in the wee hours of March 31, 1998, Johnson was rousted from his bunk by a captain and three correctional officers and taken to a holding cell where he was joined by three other inmates. The next morning, the four men were transported by van about 85 miles south to Illinois’ then-brand-new “supermax” prison, Tamms Correctional Center.

In a booklet published by his mother later that year, Johnson described his arrival at Tamms: “Eight C/Os [correctional officers] in black, bulletproof vests took us from the van, one at a time. Hands-on, they escorted us through the glass doors. They told us to put both feet on the yellow line and to face the wall,” he wrote. “As soon as a man walks through these glass doors, the psychological torture begins.”

After a brief introduction to the Tamms curtsy — a ritual in which the guards count to three, drop the inmate to his knees, apply (or remove) handcuffs and shackles, then count to three again and bring the prisoner up to a standing position — each man was put into a small cell and ordered to remove all clothing, Johnson wrote. “Then they searched me — fingers through my hair, opened my mouth, they said lift your tongue, top lip, bottom, behind the ears, lift your arms, wiggle your fingers, turn around, raise your left foot, your right foot, and ‘spread ’em.’ ”

By now, a decade later, Johnson has undoubtedly grown accustomed to these rites of humiliation. At Tamms, every prisoner must undergo this kneeling, cuffing, poking, prodding genuflection every time he leaves his 7-by-12-foot cell for anything other than his shower (five times a week if he’s had good behavior, twice a week if he hasn’t) or, if he’s earned the privilege, his private hour-long visit to the mesh-topped barren concrete enclosure euphemistically called “the yard.”

The rest of the time, Tamms inmates live in solitary confinement. They have no telephone privileges. They have no religious services. They have no communal functions of any kind. Reading materials, family photographs and art supplies are limited — an inmate can have 20 magazines, 15 photos and the flexible plastic tube of ink from the inside of a ballpoint pen. They receive each meal on a tray through a slit in their cell doors — an event one former inmate describes as the “activity of the day.”
Seventy percent of Tamms inmates are from Chicago, 370 miles away. The distance is one of several factors making family visits difficult. –

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.

Designed to house the Illinois Department of Corrections’ “most disruptive, violent and problematic inmates,” Tamms CMAX isn’t supposed to be a nice place to live. “Inmates approved for placement at CMAX have demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to conform to the requirements of a general population prison,” according to the IDOC Web site.

It’s not their crimes in the free world that have sent these men to Tamms; nobody ever goes straight to CMAX. Instead, inmates are transferred to Tamms because of infractions they have committed while incarcerated in another IDOC prison, or “for having influence in activities of a gang or other unauthorized organization,” according to state administrative code.

“They’ve earned their way there,” says IDOC spokesman Derek Schnapp.

Under current state code, a prisoner can be assigned to Tamms CMAX if IDOC has determined that he has or plans to attempt escape, assault staff or inmates, influence gang activities, engage in non-consensual sex, or possess weapons — “among other matters.” That phrase leaves it wide open.

Tamms was conceived in the wake of chaos and riots that rocked IDOC in the early 1980s and ’90s and led to the revelation that IDOC’s lax policies were allowing gangs to run amuck (for example, Larry Hoover, chief of the Gangster Disciples, ruled a drug ring that made $100 million per year, from inside prison walls).

Embarrassed by such scandals, Illinois jumped on the supermax trend begun by California’s Pelican Bay prison and in 1993 passed legislation to create Tamms. By the time it opened five years later, IDOC had instituted reforms that had the gang problem under control. Yet what IDOC had built, it needed to fill.

To date, Tamms has never been full. Schnapp puts the average occupancy of this 500-bed prison at 250; it’s currently 244.

The main complaint among former inmates, family members, and human rights activists is the lack of any clear criteria for inmates to earn their way out, back into a traditional facility. Under the prison’s charter, inmates demonstrating cooperative behavior at Tamms for a year or two could return to the general prison population at Pontiac, Menard, or Stateville. In practice, though, such “step down” transfers are rare — only 72 since 2005, Schnapp says — and the criteria for securing a transfer are foggy. At least 80 inmates, like Johnson, have been marooned at Tamms ever since it opened, more than 11 years ago.
Laurie Jo Reynolds, organizer of Tamms Year Ten, hosted a picnic for activists promoting prison reform last week in Chicago’s Humboldt Park. – PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

Tamms’ open-ended solitary segregation has drawn criticism from scores of prison watchdog groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Catholic Relief Service, National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Illinois Psychiatric Society. In fact, when the same brand of indefinite isolation was instituted at Guantanamo Bay, the Pentagon determined that such seclusion jeopardized prisoner safety and failed to meet the humane treatment terms of the Geneva Convention. Consequently, suspected terrorists at Gitmo are now allowed social interaction and phone calls, while inmates at Tamms are not.

In May 2008, State Rep. Julie Hamos, D-Evanston, introduced HB2633, known as the Supermax Accountability Bill.

“I have not approached this from the perspective that we don’t need Tamms. What concerns me is keeping people in this very extreme environment for extended periods of time,” Hamos says. “That’s what, to me, comes very close to a human rights concern. I think it’s inhumane to treat anybody that way.”

Instead, her bill would simply restore the policies promised by IDOC when Tamms was built — providing inmates with an explanation of why they’re sent to Tamms, making one year the standard stay for inmates who become cooperative, and establishing criteria for inmates to earn their way out of CMAX. Though the bill attracted a strong group of 24 cosponsors, Hamos this month agreed to pull the legislation back from consideration long enough to give Gov. Pat Quinn’s newly-appointed IDOC director, Michael Randle, the opportunity to take action.

“Our new director has already been to Tamms,” says Schnapp. “He plans on going there again soon, and he’s working on a review of that facility.”

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.

Inmates can request counseling services, but Schnapp says it’s up to the mental health workers to decide whether to provide a private counseling session. For the most severely mentally ill inmates, Tamms has a 60-bed section called J-Pod, in which the men get to leave their cells for four hours a day, and have a type of “group therapy” with their individual cages arranged facing a therapist. There’s also an “elevated security wing” where the walls are specially treated to be easily washed, and the cell doors are covered with plexiglass to prevent inmates from pelting the guards with excrement.

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a forensic psychiatrist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, has observed inmates in solitary in several states, and found that “incarceration in solitary caused either severe exacerbation or recurrence of preexisting [mental] illness, or the appearance of an acute mental illness in individuals who had previously been free of any such illness.”

Psychology professor Craig Haney, who studied 100 inmates at Pelican Bay, summed up the hazards of solitary segregation in a 2003 article in the journal Crime and Delinquency: “Supermax prisoners are literally at risk of losing their grasp on who they are, of how and whether they are connected to a larger social world.”

In 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons — a national bi-partisan task force — recommended tightening admissions criteria for supermax units and providing “regular and meaningful human contact” for prisoners in solitary confinement. “To the extent that safety allows, give prisoners in segregation opportunities to fully engage in treatment, work, study and other productive activities,” the task force recommended, and above all, “[transition] inmates out as quickly as possible.”

This recommendation would come as no surprise to the Illinois Task Force on Crime and Corrections, the 1993 panel that proposed construction of a supermax. In its final report, the task force emphasized: “To serve its purpose, inmates must move in and out, based on some objective classification and standards.”

If IDOC has objective standards for moving inmates in or out of Tamms, it isn’t apparent. For example, Michael Johnson, the inmate sent to Tamms six years after being convicted of the murder of a Pontiac prison superintendent, was never accused of killing the superintendent himself; rather, he and another inmate, David Carter, were accused of recruiting inmates Ike Easley and Roosevelt Lucas to carry out the killing. Easley, who stabbed superintendent Taylor six times, is currently locked up in Tamms. But an Illinois Times search of IDOC records shows that Carter, who conspired with Johnson, and Roosevelt, who beat superintendent Taylor with a lead pipe, are both at the more traditional Stateville Correctional Center.

Evan Griffith is another offender who seems to fit Tamms’ criteria. He was convicted and sent to Death Row for the 1990 fatal stabbing of a fellow inmate at Pontiac Correctional Center. Yet when former Gov. George Ryan issued a blanket commutation for all Death Row prisoners, Griffith was sent to Menard Correctional Center, not Tamms. Wilford Mackey, convicted of armed violence in the same slaying, also never went to Tamms, and is currently housed at IDOC’s high-medium security facility in Danville. Robinson Wesley was convicted of murder for the 1988 beating of a prison commissary worker at Stateville, yet he has never been sent to Tamms. Nor has Domingo Perez, convicted of killing a fellow inmate in Stateville.

Anthony Hall seems overqualified by the state code’s definition of CMAX candidates: Convicted of the 1983 stabbing to death a beloved Pontiac cafeteria supervisor named Frieda King, Hall has also punched a judge in the face and used a chair to beat an attorney. He is currently incarcerated at Menard.
Johnnie Walton was a model prisoner allowed to be employed by Illinois Correctional Industries. He spent more than three years in solitary confinement at Tamms. – PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

Johnnie Walton, on the other hand, has never killed anyone. His rap sheet includes 13 armed robberies, all committed in the 1970s, a 1986 escape and a 1987 felony charge for selling PCP (that conviction was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in March of 2004.) A former Vice Lord, 58-year-old Walton claims he gave up gang life in 1988, when his son was murdered.

In prison, he earned an associates degree in auto mechanics and was so well-behaved that he was given the privilege of working in Illinois Correctional Industries. “To qualify as an ICI worker, inmates must demonstrate good disciplinary status; have at least a GED; not be an escape risk; [and] have received a positive review by Internal Affairs,” according to IDOC’s Web site.

“We made the mattresses for Tamms. We were the good guys,” Walton says. “So when they shipped me to Tamms, that was a great surprise to me. I had been a model prisoner for 18 years.”

Schnapp says IDOC staff must have had some cause to place Walton in solitary confinement. “Every person placed at Tamms, it was reviewed by our executive staff and there was a reason for them to go there,” he says.

Walton believes he was targeted by a prison staffer who read letters he was sending home in anticipation of his release, organizing a gang prevention program called Universal Brotherhood. Prison officials deemed his letters “unauthorized gang activity.” He spent more than three years in Tamms, beginning in February 2004, one month before his conviction was reversed. He was released in 2007.

He received an annual step-down review, but says it was meaningless. “They tell you that you have to renounce the gang. I say renounce what? You have to give them information on where the gang is, what they do, and if you do that, you’re a dead man,” Walton says. He knows three men who agreed to renounce their former gangs, and provided information, only to be told the review committee didn’t believe them. Walton says two of those men are still at Tamms.
Steve worries about how his brother Mike, who has been in solitary confinement since 2000, will adjust to life when he comes home to live with him in 2012. – PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

Steve isn’t sure why his younger brother, Mike, has been in Tamms since 2000. He asked that their surname not be published, for fear of retaliation, but he provided a reporter with his brother’s prison identification number. Mike’s rap sheet shows he was convicted of a 1988 murder plus a class 3 aggravated battery while in Pontiac. His tattoos, listed below his mug shot, suggest that he was a member of a gang. Steve, a soft-spoken 41-year-old, doesn’t minimize his brother’s crimes.

“He pled guilty. He’s not upset with the system for putting him in prison. He did wrong and he knows it. That’s his sentence and he’s serving it,” Steve says. “But this is something entirely different. This is like a sentence on top of a sentence.”

Like many inmates, Mike was told upon arrival at Tamms that good behavior would earn him a transfer out after a year, but it hasn’t happened. He would be required to provide information on his gang, and Steve says Mike simply can’t. “What information does he know? He’s there. He doesn’t have any information from anybody,” Steve says. “After nine years [in Tamms], you don’t know anything.”

Mike is scheduled to be released in 2012, and when that happens, he will most likely come live with Steve and his two young children. Steve describes his brother as “very quiet, very kind, a good-hearted person who just got caught up in city life;” still, Steve frets about how his brother — or anyone who has spent a decade in solitary confinement — will function in the free world.

“My concern is that when they eventually do get out, there’s no rehabilitation in there. How are they going to adapt to society?” Steve asks. “I can’t see that those guys are going to come out, like, normal.”

Steve has joined Tamms Year Ten, a coalition of ex-prisoners, inmates’ families, educators, attorneys and other activists formed in 2008 (Tamms’ 10th year of operation) calling for reforms at the CMAX. The group has worked with legislators and IDOC officials, and has weekly meetings at a storefront office in Chicago’s Humboldt Park. The group was organized by Laurie Jo Reynolds, an adjunct professor of film and video at Columbia College. Reynolds, whose undergraduate degree is in public policy, says the perspective of people like Steve and other Tamms families is the factor that was missing during the creation of Tamms.

“People never imagine that their own children could make a mistake and end up in prison,” she says. “They only imagine their children as victims. That’s how we end up making these bad policies.”

Darrell Cannon paused just long enough to have his picture taken for this paper outside the Rainbow PUSH headquarters in Chicago. He had just wrapped up an hour-long television interview with an Indiana station, and was trying to return phone calls before heading off to a radio appearance with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Cannon, one of the first inmates incarcerated at Tamms, doesn’t miss any opportunity to educate the public about the prison.

“It’s a hellhole,” he says, during a late-night phone interview, squeezed in after his shift as an outreach worker for a gang intervention program called Ceasefire. “It’s a place designed to break you mentally, spiritually and physically, and if you’re not strong enough, it happens.”

Cannon sums up his criminal history this way: “I’ve never been an angel, nor have I been a monster.” He can’t discuss details due to a pending and hard-won suppression hearing that could set a precedent for scores of other men who had the misfortune to encounter officers from Chicago Police Department’s notorious Area Two violent crimes unit, led by Lt. Jon Burge. Cannon’s encounter came in November 1983, when he was on parole and two of Burge’s officers picked Cannon up to question him about a shooting. At his trial in 1984, Cannon told the judge that the officers drove him to a remote area, showed him what appeared to be a loaded shotgun, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger, three times. Then they stretched him across the back seat of a squad car, pulled down his pants, applied a cattle prod to his testicles, and soon obtained a confession.

Years later, Cannon’s tale of torture and scores of others much like it were confirmed by investigators and acknowledged by judges. Burge was fired, and the city of Chicago paid more than $20 million to settle claims from his victims.

Cleared for release in April 2007, Cannon was given one weekend of lockup in Stateville to transition between nine years of solitary at Tamms and the city of Chicago.

“I have tons of frustration, anger, hatred, all those things built up in me. It’s a wonder that I don’t have a bleeding ulcer,” Cannon says.

But asked if he knows anyone who deserves incarceration at Tamms, Cannon is adamant that his answer is no. “There are people who deserve to be in prison, but no one deserves to be in Tamms. Not even an animal,” he says. “They’ve created some monsters that are sitting dormant. Sooner or later they’re going to get out. Politicians better do something. They better give these men some light of day.”

Like Cannon, Michael Johnson was also brutalized by the Burge crew. Johnson’s mother, Mary L. Johnson, blames herself: she filed a complaint against officers back in 1970, when she says Michael and his friends were approached by CPD in the park, and Michael was beaten up. He was 16 at the time. Soon after his 17th birthday (when he was old enough be charged as an adult), he became a target of police, arrested 17 times within six months and charged with petty infractions like loitering or disturbing the peace. When he wore a hat with a pin in it, he was charged with possession of a deadly weapon, Mary says.
Mary L. Johnson calls Tamms “cruel,” but believes her son Michael is safer there than he was at Menard Correctional Center. “My son is not the poster boy for Tamms,” she says. – PHOTO BY DUSTY RHODES

She admits that her son wasn’t a saint. “He was really into gangs when he was a young person. He found out the police respected gangs more than they respected me,” she says. Michael’s 56 now; when he was a child, the Blackstone Rangers ruled his neighborhood, using a federal grant to hand out summer jobs for kids. The Rangers’ founder, Jeff Fort, was treated like a community organizer, and was even invited to the inauguration of President Richard Nixon.

At age 17, Michael was sent to prison on a shooting charge. Mary believes he was innocent of that charge (he was working as a porter at the Palmer House Hotel at the time), but she says he came out of prison at age 19 using drugs and primed for a life of crime. He returned to prison after his brilliant scheme to hold up a drug house went awry. Within a few months of his arrival at Pontiac, Superintendent Taylor was killed.

Mary has reams of detailed documents that she believes prove that Michael was framed for the Taylor murder. He refused four plea bargains, from 15 years down to 10 and finally, “is there any number of years that you would accept in your case?” Mary says Michael responded that he wouldn’t accept a plea bargain for 15 minutes if it meant confessing to something he didn’t do. At trial, he was given a life sentence.

Yet despite her staunch belief in her son’s actual innocence, and in the face of his probable life sentence in Tamms, she says Michael may be better off there than in a general population joint where he could be “set up” like he was with the Taylor murder.

“My son is not the poster boy for Tamms,” she says. “It’s so cruel for other people. But my son can spend the rest of his time there — if they would just let him come out periodically and hug me and his children.”

She’s a smart woman, and she smiles as she speaks. Somewhere in her soul, though, Mary L. Johnson knows that as long as her son is incarcerated at Tamms, he will never be allowed to hug her or his children.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at


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Sunday, November 22 2009 @ 06:28 PM CST

America’s Supermax Prisons Do Torture

Sunday, November 22 2009 @ 05:54 PM CST

Contributed by: angola3news

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PrisonsOne of the most egregious cases of prolonged torture is the politically-charged isolation of Hugo Pinell still held in Pelican Bay’s SHU after nearly 20 years. For his active resistance back in the 1960s and assault conviction in the San Quentin Six case (1976), my dear friend has spent a total of 40 years in hellholes – 45 of his 64 years in California prisons. (


America’s Supermax Prisons Do Torture

by Kiilu Nyasha
November 22, 2009

President Barack Obama has clearly stated, “We don’t torture.”

Oh, yes we do. Big time.

A myriad of studies have clearly shown that human beings are social creatures – making prolonged isolation torture.

The New Yorker published an article March 30, 2009 by Atul Gawande titled, Hellhole: The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?

Gawande asks, “If prolonged isolation is – as research and experience have confirmed for decades –so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?”

By 2000, some 60 supermax prisons had been opened nationwide, in addition to new isolation units in nearly all maximum-security prisons.

The first such gulag was established in 1983 in Marion, Illinois. In 1989, California opened Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border housing over 1,200 captives. It’s been the model for dozens of other states to follow. The SHU (Security Housing Unit) is entirely windowless, and from inside a cell with doors perforated with tiny holes, prisoners can only see the hallway.

They’re confined 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year with just a brief time (when permitted) in the “dog run” or outdoor enclosure for solitary exercise with no equipment, not even a ball.

But after nearly 20 years, California is now holding more people in solitary than ever; yet its gang problem is worse, and the violence rates have actually gone up.

Nationwide, at least 25,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement with another 50-80,000 in segregation units, many additionally isolated but those numbers are not released.

According to The Washington Post, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons reported there are 216 so-called international terrorists and 139 so-called domestic terrorists currently in federal facilities (I’m convinced the real terrorists are on Capitol Hill). No one has ever escaped from these “most secure prisons.”

In a 60 Minutes segment titled, Supermax: A Clean Version of Hell (revisited), June 21, 2009, the reporters took cameras into the ADX-Florence, Colorado Supermax where there have been six wardens since it opened in 1994. It’s where Imam Jalil al-Amin and Mutulu Shakur are held captive, along with myriad other political prisoners.

One former warden stated, “I don’t know what hell is, but I do know the assumption would be, for a free person, it’s pretty close to it.”

“Supermax is the place America sends the prisoners it wants to punish the most – a place the warden described as a clean version of hell.”

In a national study (Hayes and Rowan 1988) of 401 suicides in U.S. prisons —one of the largest studies of its kind—two out of every three people who committed suicide were being held in a control unit.

In one year, 2005, a record 44 prisoners killed themselves in California alone; 70 percent of those suicides occurred in segregation units

Bret Grote is an investigator and organizer with Human Rights Coalition/Fed Up!, a prisoner rights/prison abolitionist organization based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In the Angola 3 Newsletter, Grote details how HRC/Fed Up! Documented many hundreds of human rights abuses in Pennsylvania’s 27 prisons. Their investigations concluded that Pennsylvania is “operating a sophisticated program of torture under an utterly baseless pretext of ‘security,’ wherein close to 3,000 people are held in conditions of solitary/control unit confinement each day.”

Supermax prisons can also contain death rows where prisoners can spend decades in isolation, torture, with the added torment of impending execution. One obvious example is the highly political case of former Black Panther, journalist and author, Mumia Abu-Jamal, falsely convicted of killing a cop in 1981. Despite hard evidence of innocence, he’s still locked up in SCI Green, a Pennsylvania Supermax, after 27 years on death row and the signing of two death warrants.

These conditions are a flagrant violation of article 6 of the U.S. Constitution which affirms that treaty law (i.e. international law) is the “supreme law of the land.” Thus, article 10 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that “The penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation.”

Contrary to the lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key rhetoric of politicians, A Zogby poll released in April 2006 found 87 percent of Americans favor rehabilitative services for prisoners as opposed to punishment only.

The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, a bipartisan national task force, produced a study after a yearlong investigation (2005-2006) that called for ending long-term solitary confinement of prisoners. The report found practically no benefits and plenty of harm – for prisoners and the public.

One of the most egregious cases of prolonged torture is the politically-charged isolation of Hugo Pinell still held in Pelican Bay’s SHU after nearly 20 years. For his active resistance back in the 1960s and assault conviction in the San Quentin Six case (1976), my dear friend has spent a total of 40 years in hellholes – 45 of his 64 years in California prisons. (

“In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation,” writes Gawande, “ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement – on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a 30-minute drive from my home.”

In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!

Power to the people!


So, will there be meaningful change at Tamms, or is IDOC just trying to deflect attention to it? Hard to tell. IDOC holds a “media” event to publicize changes when it is a little to early to determine how effective and sweeping any of those changes are:

IDOC holds Media Day at Tamms Correctional CenterTour conducted along with staff and inmate interviews

SPRINGFIELD – Nov. 19, 2009 – The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) hosted a Media Day at Tamms Correctional Center Nov. 19.  The event, which was the second media day hosted there since the center opened in 1998, was part of the agency’s Tamms Closed-Maximum Security Unit (C-Max) Ten-Point Plan to give media the opportunity to tour the facility and interview staff and inmates.

Tamms C-Max, which was built to hold 500 inmates, currently houses nearly 250.  The mission of Tamms C-Max is to improve the quality of life, safety and day-to-day operations of other IDOC facilities and to enhance the safety of staff, offenders and the public. Tamms C-Max is designated and designed to house the department’s most disruptive, violent and problematic offenders. Offenders approved for placement at Tamms C-Max have demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to conform to the requirements of a general population facility.

“One of the first directives I received from Governor Quinn in June of this year was to review the conditions and management of Tamms Correctional Center,” IDOC Director Michael P. Randle told reporters.  “My second day on the job was spent at Tamms walking every cellblock and housing unit and talking to staff and inmates.  I spent 10 hours that day, which was the beginning of a thorough review of the facility programs, operations, inmate health and other issues.”

Randle noted that following his review of the facility, he later had the opportunity to present the Tamms C-Max Ten-Point Plan outlining reforms to the governor.  The plan was approved and the agency has moved forward with its implementation.

“There is and will continue to be a need for Tamms to be operated by IDOC.  Significant decreases in staff and inmate assaults within the correctional system correlate with the opening and operation of Tamms,” Randle said.

In addition to conducting the tour and fielding questions, Tamms Warden Yolande Johnson apprised the media of progress regarding the Ten-Point Plan, which involves implementation of increased telephone privileges for inmates, recruiting religious volunteers for congregate inmate activities, offering GED examinations for inmates as well as 10 inmates stepping out of Tamms C-Max to other state prisons.

“We are moving ahead,” said Johnson.  “The employees here at Tamms are excellent and have been on board since the beginning with the new reforms here at Tamms.”

“Tamms is evolving,” said Randle.  “IDOC continues to seek best practices throughout the nation in an effort to enhance our management of this population.  We have spent a great deal of time researching reform initiatives, including visiting nearby states that manage supermax facilities.”

On behalf of an invitation from Illinois U.S. Senator Richard Durbin in September, Randle addressed the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law in Washington D.C. regarding the important issues surrounding offenders with diagnosed mental illnesses.  In November, Durbin toured Tamms with Randle and noted that he was impressed with the mental health services and programming provided to the offenders.

“I will continue to tap into the expertise of the agency’s mental health staff, to work with other agencies to provide seamless treatment for offenders and to provide linkage with community providers,” Randle said.  “Using the resources that are at our disposal, the agency will continue to provide the best care for these offenders that it possibly can provide.”

Editor’s note:  Tamms Ten Point Plan is featured on the IDOC website at under the Tamms Overview and Ten Point Plan link.

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