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Tamms is Not the Answer: Advocates Should Work to Keep Tamms Supermax Closed

David Fischer
March 16, 2015
“I Am a Man”

These words, borrowed from the placards of striking sanitation workers in 1968, were a rallying cry in the fight to close Tamms Supermax Correctional Facility. A fight that advocates thought was won in January of 2013.  Yet, just two years later State Representative Terri Bryant has filed House Bill 233 to re-open Tamms.  Her main argument?  That the prisoners who were sent to Tamms are dangerous criminals and that in order to avoid being “soft on crime,” these prisoners deserve the inhumane treatment of Segregation Solitary Confinement—a treatment which has been called torture by both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. 

Tamms Supermax was built for the sole purpose of keeping prisoners in utter isolation. With no cafeteria, recreation yard, classroom, or other social gathering space, prisoners were kept in their cells 23 hours a day, and allowed only one hour of recreation time in isolated concrete boxes. Some inmates were held in isolation for decades. The detrimental impact of solitary confinement is well documented and has been found to lead to deteriorating mental health, suicidality, and self-injury. In fact, solitary confinement can cause severe social entropy and social anxiety, meaning that prisoners who have been in solitary confinement have a more difficult time re-entering society.  

Why then, is Representative Bryant advocating that Tamms should re-open? 

One of her arguments is prison overcrowding. Overcrowding is a real issue in Illinois. A system built to house 31,000 inmates housed 48,653 people in 2012. Prison overcrowding leads to unsafe and unhealthy conditions for both the people who are incarcerated and the people who work there.  However, prison overcrowding is not a justification for re-opening Tamms for several reasons: 
  1. Illinois prisons were still experiencing overcrowding when Tamms was operating. Yet, the prison, which was built to hold 500 in its supermax facility and an additional 200 in its minimum security facility, generally ran at half capacity or less.  Because of the extreme treatment of prisoners, judges were reluctant to send people to Tamms.  
  2. Due to deteriorating mental health associated with solitary confinement, people held at Tamms faced even more difficulties obtaining parole than others in the system, meaning that more people were held in the facility for longer sentences than if they had not been placed in a solitary confinement facility to begin with.
  3. Overcrowding is a systemic issue in Illinois (and nationally) where minimum sentencing laws, policies that funnel black and brown men into prisons, and the over-reliance on prison sentences for low-level drug offenses lead to overcrowded prisons.
Representative Bryant also claims that closing Tamms led to increased gang activity in other prisons. While ang activity is undeniably an issue within Illinois prisons, there is little support for this point either. Gangs were an issue when Tamms was open, just as they are an issue now.  Where is the evidence that closing Tamms has increased gang activity?

There is no argument that Representative Bryant has given, or that she could give, that would necessitate re-opening Tamms. Tamms was a facility that used torture as a means to control—a facility that ran at three times the cost of other Illinois prisons, that stripped away the basic human rights of the people it held, and that did nothing to increase public safety, combat overcrowding, or tackle the myriad other issues facing our corrections system. 

If Bryant is truly interested in improving the system, perhaps she should consider advocating that Gov. Rauner re-fund CeaseFire, an organization that interrupts and addresses gang violence. Maybe she should encourage her county, and the rest of her district, to host Adult Redeploy sites. Maybe she should question the minimum sentencing laws that force low-level offenders into prison sentences. Maybe she should address the stark racial disparities that lead to more black men being charged for the same or similar crimes as white men who are not charged. There are many options Representative Bryant could endorse that would impact the issues of overcrowding, public safety, and gang violence she claims motivated this bill, but none of those options include re-opening Tamms.