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?

No convict is sent to Tamms from the outside world, no matter what his crime. Inmates arrive from other prisons, ostensibly after committing serious physical or sexual assaults or if IDOC considers them a danger to the safety or security of an institution. Every transfer to Tamms is approved by regional corrections officials, then reviewed by a committee of prison employees once the convict arrives. After an inmate has been at Tamms for a year, the transfer-review committee is supposed to decide whether an inmate has changed his ways enough to warrant transfer to a less restrictive prison. But this has never happened. Forty-two inmates have gotten out of Tamms, but none have done so as a result of good behavior after a year in supermax. Twenty mentally ill prisoners have been sent to psychiatric facilities, two have gone to out-of-state prisons and five were released because their prison terms expired. Fifteen others left when IDOC determined they shouldn't have been there in the first place.

The prison's population is divided almost equally between inmates in disciplinary segregation -- those who are being punished for serious infractions or outright crimes committed in other institutions -- and inmates in administrative detention who haven't been caught doing anything wrong but are considered a threat to the security and safety of an institution. This latter group consists largely of inmates who are considered gang leaders. There are segregation units for such inmates at other Illinois prisons, but those units, unlike Tamms, allow privileges such as exercising with other prisoners.

Administrative detention is essentially a judgment call made to decide who deserves Tamms. "We get into the whole notion of predicting behavior," says Michael Mahoney, president of the John Howard Association, a prison-watchdog group in Chicago. Critics such as Mahoney question whether all the inmates on administrative detention in Tamms need such extraordinary security and barren living conditions.

IDOC won't release inmate disciplinary records -- even though inmates can get them -- but critics say it's not unusual for an inmate with years of good behavior to be sent to Tamms. Some have arrived straight from minimum- and medium-security prisons. Alan Mills, a Chicago attorney whose organization, Uptown People's Law Center, has been handling prisoner lawsuits in Illinois since 1984, says he knows of inmates in other prisons with far worse disciplinary records than the inmates at Tamms. "They never proved anything against most of the (administrative detention) guys who are down here," says Mills, who believes IDOC is sending inmates to Tamms and keeping them there simply to fill beds.

Mills' concerns are echoed by the John Howard Association, which enjoys a cordial relationship with IDOC and has been appointed by federal courts to monitor conditions in Illinois jails and prisons. Though some known gang leaders belong at Tamms, "criteria that are broad and vague and the lack of procedural safeguards have led to questionable placements that are made more suspect because they are not readily subject to objective review," says the association, which was granted access to Tamms and issued a report on the prison last year. The report says inmates with no documented history of serious misconduct have been sent to Tamms. With the cooperation of IDOC, association members are scheduled to visit Tamms next month to follow up on the 1999 report.

IDOC essentially denies the allegation, saying that reviews at the regional level and again once an inmate arrives at Tamms ensure that the right inmates are in supermax and that convicts who don't belong are sent back to less restrictive prisons. IDOC spokesman Brian Fairchild says the department errs on the side of caution, which explains why 15 inmates were sent to other state prisons shortly after their arrival at Tamms. "And I think to err on the side of safety for your staff and the other inmates in the system is an appropriate error," he says.

Inmates say economics and politics explain why they're at Tamms and why they're not getting out. They and their attorneys say the state is sending inmates to supermax to justify the expense of an institution that isn't needed. And Tamms, where there are more employees than inmates, is enormously expensive. Tamms costs $49,780 per inmate each year, according to a 1999 report by the state Office of the Auditor General. But that doesn't reflect the true cost of the supermax, because it includes the expense of running an adjacent 200-bed work camp where minimum-security inmates cook food, run the laundry service and maintain the supermax grounds. Considered separately (by subtracting operating costs for fiscal year 1997, when only the work camp was open), the Tamms supermax cost more than $60,000 per inmate for the fiscal year ending in July 1999, making Tamms one of the nation's most expensive prisons.

IDOC, which has maintained that Tamms costs $35,000 per inmate, doesn't quibble with the RFT's math. "The methodology that you use is certainly logical," Fairchild says. The expense shocks some state legislators. "That surprises me that it's that high," says Rep. Thomas Dart (D-Chicago), chairman of the House Prison Reform Committee. "It seems as if, from what you're telling me, that it's probably more than possible that it could have been done at a better price. Someone obviously made some mistakes." Nonetheless, Dart says, he and other legislators would still support Tamms, given the chance to start over again. "I do think, though, that the cost thing would have led us to maybe be a little more critical of how it was being done," he says.

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