Cruel and Usual

Tamms Correctional Center is one of the toughest, most expensive and least crowded prisons in the nation. But does it accomplish anything - besides driving inmates insane?

Mark Freeman has shackles on his ankles and a lot on his mind. The 40-year-old killer -- all 5 feet 9 inches and 203 pounds of him -- leans forward in his chair as the words tumble. From the other side of the glass, he looks more desperate than dangerous.

Yes, he was once a gang leader, but that was seven years ago, before he was shipped to a prison in New Mexico because of gang affiliations and his involvement in a prison disturbance. There's no denying his past violence. He's already served time for murder. Now he's in for attempted murder. Like so many others doing hard time, he says he has changed. He promises he'll be good from now on and notes that he lived among other inmates in New Mexico without any trouble except for the time he tested positive for marijuana, then got caught with a pot pipe. He says he hasn't committed an infraction since 1998, when he got to Tamms Correctional Center, the toughest prison in Illinois.

"We are," he says, "in a hell of a situation."

Jennifer Silverberg

Due for release in 2015, Freeman spends 23 hours a day in a 10-by-12-foot cell with a concrete bed, a steel toilet-and-sink unit and a tiny window he can't see out of unless he stands on his bed. Even then, he can only see the sky -- inmates say the glass and walls are so thick they can see lightning but never hear thunder. He has virtually no contact with other human beings, although he can talk to -- but can't see -- inmates in adjoining cells. An intercom lets guards eavesdrop and talk to him without actually coming to his door, which is made of steel perforated with half-inch holes. He is not allowed to use a telephone -- though rules allow emergency calls, he didn't get clearance in time to talk to his mother before she died of cancer last June. Guards deliver his meals. Once a day, an unseen guard presses a button, his door opens and Freeman walks alone to a concrete enclosure measuring 10 by 30 feet. There is no basketball hoop, no exercise equipment of any kind, just room to pace for an hour until it's time to go back to his cell. Five times a week, he is allowed a 20-minute shower. He can have either a television or a radio (but not both) equipped with an earjack so other inmates can't hear it. He was cuffed, shackled and strip-searched before this visit, and he will be cuffed, shackled and strip-searched again before he returns to his cell, escorted by two guards. That's standard procedure whenever an inmate leaves his cell for any reason other than a shower or yard time.

This is as good as it gets at Tamms, the only "supermax" prison in the bistate region and part of a national trend toward high-tech human warehouses that specialize in long-term solitary confinement. Some inmates get just one shower a week, two hours of yard time and no radio, television or commissary privileges -- even keeping food or too many Christmas cards in their cells is against the rules. These restrictions can last indefinitely. Freeman, by virtue of good behavior, has earned his showers, his TV and the right to spend $30 a month for toiletries, candy bars and other items from the commissary. Visits are rare because Tamms is located across the Mississippi River from Cape Girardeau, in the most remote part of the state. Freeman's relatives, for instance, must travel more than 300 miles for a two-hour visit. Many prisoners say they've told their friends and relatives to stay home. They don't want their loved ones to see them like this.

Freeman is at Tamms not for what he's done but for who he is: an admitted gang leader. He won't be sent to a less restrictive prison unless he can convince prison officials he is no longer affiliated with gangs. And in prison, it's tough to prove a negative.

After 90 minutes, a guard taps on the visiting-room door. It's time to go. "Will you come again?" he begs someone he's never met before, a journalist who had to sign in as a "friend." This is what living in a space the size of a bathroom for 16 months will do to a man.

Tamms is filled with stories of inmates driven mad by prolonged solitary confinement. Some have cut themselves, some have eaten pieces of mirrors, some have smeared themselves with feces, some have attempted suicide. One inmate slashed his arm open and ate pieces of his own flesh. They don't get a lot of sympathy. When an inmate tried to hang himself with a bedsheet, prison officials found him guilty of destroying state property and made him pay for the sheet -- just another case of malingering in the eyes of the Illinois Department of Corrections. The staff uses psychotropic drugs ranging from Prozac to Thorazine to control mental disorders, according to attorneys with access to medical records. In some cases, inmates deemed a risk to themselves or others are stripped naked and restrained in bare cells.

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