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Jean Maclean Snyder, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center in Chicago, says one inmate jammed a pen into his urethra. "He is a man who just carved up his body all the time," Snyder says. "They consider him to just be doing it for manipulative reasons -- he was never even seen by a psychiatrist for the first year or so he was out there. Sometimes, when people are so out of bounds, it seems like the mental-health staff there just goes deeply into denial."
In a federal lawsuit pending in East St. Louis, Snyder's organization has sued IDOC, alleging that confinement at Tamms constitutes cruel and unusual punishment for the mentally ill. The Uptown People's Law Center, also in Chicago, has filed two suits -- one to force IDOC to hold hearings to determine whether convicts should be released to less restrictive prisons, the other aimed at ending the practice of punishing inmates by feeding them "meal loaf" -- a blend of hamburger, chopped vegetables, applesauce, tomato paste, potato flakes, bread crumbs and milk powder -- for three days after misbehavior ranging from making weapons to refusing to return a food tray.
Judging from previous suits filed against similar supermax prisons, the lawsuits are quixotic. The courts say supermax isn't illegal. But that doesn't necessarily make it right.
The state of Illinois and the town of Tamms, population 750, had high hopes for the prison when construction began in 1994. Town leaders lobbied hard for the lockup and saw a chance to combat an 18 percent unemployment rate by putting people to work at the prison. The town bought 23 acres and built a water tower and a road to the prison, floating a $455,000 bond to pay for infrastructure. IDOC built Tamms as a place for predators, escape risks and inmates who can't be controlled any way short of complete isolation -- the end of the line for the worst of the worst. The supermax would make the entire prison system safer, corrections officials predicted.
But nearly two years after Tamms opened, things aren't going exactly as expected.
Few locals have gotten jobs there -- IDOC says 80 percent of the staff transferred from other prisons. If he had the chance to do it over again, Mayor Walter Pang says, he would have set up training programs for locals before the prison opened to improve their chances of getting hired. The prison's closest neighbor, a woman who lives right across the road, says the prison doesn't bother her, but she can't see how it's helped the town. "When they built this thing, they thought Tamms was really going to boom," she says. "Tamms hasn't prospered. If anything, there's fewer people in town."
Things aren't going as planned for the state, either.
By the time the 520-bed prison opened in March 1998, IDOC had already figured out other ways to curb violence and punish its most disruptive inmates.
Once Tamms opened, several of the "worst of the worst" were sent there, even though they hadn't been in trouble for years. After two years of operation, Tamms is nearly half-empty, contradicting predictions that Tamms inmates who'd learned their lesson would need to be transferred to less restrictive prisons to make room for new cancers. Meanwhile, prison officials have violated state law by not holding required hearings to decide whether Tamms inmates who have behaved themselves should be transferred to other prisons. In short, nobody has "graduated" from Tamms.
Moreover, the $73 million prison -- $13 million more than original projections -- is far more expensive to operate than IDOC promised. Operating costs are more than twice what a governor's task force predicted in 1993 when it recommended the state build a supermax. The tab for keeping an inmate at Tamms for one year exceeds $60,000 -- more than three times IDOC's systemwide average of $17,400. It's one of the most expensive prisons in the nation.
All of this begs the question: What purpose does Tamms serve?
Built partially underground and surrounded by Southern Illinois farmland about 110 miles southeast of St. Louis, the prison on East Supermax Road barely dents the landscape. There are no guard towers. If it weren't for fences topped with razor ribbon and "No Trespassing" signs at the entrance, visitors might not know this is a prison. Tamms houses the state's only execution chamber, but death-row inmates, who enjoy more privileges than inmates at Tamms, are all housed elsewhere until their execution dates near. It's also easier to see inside death row than Tamms. At other prisons, IDOC allows the media to interview condemned prisoners and take photographs, but at Tamms, no cameras, tape recorders, pens or papers are allowed, nor can journalists tour the facility, despite written policies that say otherwise. As a result, most of the quotes from inmates in this story came from letters written to The Riverfront Times.
Hallways are about 12 feet wide, which seems odd, considering they're usually empty. A guard on one visiting day explains that the wide corridors allow room to control unruly convicts without anyone getting hurt. There are plenty of surveillance cameras, but no windows or directional signs. One guard says it took him the better part of a year to learn his way around. The lobby and corridor leading to the visiting area are painted in pastel tones of blue and green. The farther you go into the prison, the grayer it gets.