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?

I'm probably the youngest guy here. My release date is in 2002 and I believe I'll end up doing the rest of my time here. This is messing my social skills up. I haven't had any human contact the whole time I've been here. My grandma died last summer and I was refused a phone call. For the most part, I haven't been rehabilitated. Imagine me coming to society. I haven't had any school or educational opportunities. No trade. I'm 22 and have been locked up for five years already, with two-and-a-half years left. I've done one-and-a-half in supermax. I don't know what I'm going to do when I get out. I don't have anything. I'm poor, my family's poor. How have I been rehabilitated? Truthfully, I'm scared. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't want to be coming back to jail. I want what everybody wants, but the only thing I've learned is better ways to be a crook. -- Justin Bevins, convicted of home invasion and battery, turned 23 on Jan. 18

I arrived at Tamms on March 9, 1998, its opening day. I've no TV or radio, nor do I anticipate ever gaining access to such. Twenty-three hours of my day is spent caged in a concrete box, maybe slightly larger than a bathroom. Only by standing on my bed can I reach the narrow window to view the outside world. It's a world whose sounds and smells are completely shut off to me by thick concrete walls and Plexiglas windows. I pass several hours of each day just pacing the floor, four steps one way, four steps back, while trying to focus my thoughts on somewhere -- anywhere other than here. At one time I was a firm believer in the saying that they can incarcerate my body but not my mind. But since being at Tamms, my belief has been shaken. It seems that as each day passes it becomes more difficult for even my thoughts to extend beyond the confines of these walls and fences. The bare cells, strict isolation and regime of sensory deprivation has created an environment indicative of psychological torture. Some people have been less fortunate than others in withstanding the effects of Tamms. Since my arrival here I've witnessed and/or heard of more suicide attempts and incidents of self-mutilation than any other time during my 12 years of incarceration. Even I have contemplated and concluded that suicide is a viable, and in some respects, more appealing prospect than enduring year after year of my present conditions. -- Danny Johnson, 34, murderer, convicted four times of escape or attempted escape, due for release in 2060

The simple pleasure of feeling the sun on your face I'll never take for granted again. During the summer, I was able to get plenty of sun but now winter solstice, I guess it is, kinda robs me of that, you could say. The walls are over 10 feet, so can't see much but clouds and the occasional plane. I was pretty fortunate to see two flocks of geese going south this last month. Visits are all behind glass, no contact, and that is the worst part of Tamms for me. For almost every month of my eight years in prison I've used all five visits when I was at Menard. My family has stood by me all the way -- not being able to give them hugs really hurts. I can't convey that enough. My family (and) children have given me strength to look to each day, and not be able to hug them is simply devastating. You know a lot of guys say they don't have feelings, but that's B.S. I do wonder how I will act whenever I'm around other people. It's a trip, man. Last week the sewer was blocked and raw sewage was on the floors, on the galley and in our cells, so they finally moved us. The wing I was moved to the window faces the west, so on a couple nights I could see the moon for a few minutes -- been awhile since last time. Yeah, I saw a few fireworks on the Fourth of July, too! That was pretty cool for me. -- Michael Sparling, 29, murderer and arsonist, due for release in 2025

Jennifer Silverberg

Why some inmates in long-term isolation go crazy
At Tamms Correctional Center and other super-maximum prisons across the country, some inmates display remarkably similar behavior: They smear themselves with feces, they engage in self-mutilation, they eat their own flesh, they provoke violent cell extractions out of the clear blue.

That behavior isn't surprising to mental-health experts who've studied the effects of long-term solitary confinement on prisoners.

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Harvard psychiatrist who has testified in lawsuits on behalf of prisoners, says he was skeptical when he visited a Massachusetts prison in the early 1980s at the behest of an attorney friend.

"I didn't think I was going to find anything and all these people would be conning me and making things up," Grassian recalls. "I left that prison absolutely shocked. These guys were so sick. They were so scared about how sick they were that they were minimizing it. They weren't exaggerating. They would try to rationalize away symptoms that were so clearly stated in the record: suicide attempts, episodes of confusional psychotic disorganization and all this kind of stuff. Not only were these people sick, but they were all sick in similar ways. Eventually I realized what the problem was. It is a described syndrome in psychiatry. It's delirium."

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