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?

Mahoney says taxpayers and the prison system would have been better served by building smaller, less expensive segregation units at each of the state's four maximum-security prisons. But IDOC spokesman Nic Howell says that isn't feasible. "Trying to put a supermax into one of those would not work," he says. "First off, we didn't have the room. Second off, they already had their own drawbacks and personalities and own problems. We weren't going to add to that."

What are taxpayers getting for their money? Prison officials say Tamms has made the entire prison system safer. "How do I know that? I got numbers, pal," Howell says. "Let me whip it on you. We keep track of assaults." In 1996, two years before Tamms opened, prison officials cataloged 1,219 assaults on staff in a system with 40,397 inmates. Last year, with 44,364 inmates, prison officials recorded 681 assaults. "We've gone up 4,000 inmates and almost cut in half the number of assaults," Howell says. "Maybe the threat of Tamms has gone a long way in keeping people from being stupid in other prisons."

Or maybe not. Chase Riveland, former director of the Washington state-prison system, conducted a 1999 study of supermaxes for the National Institute of Corrections (an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice) and concluded there is no firm evidence that supermaxes make other prisons safer. "Proponents point to reductions in assaults on inmates and staff and other serious incidents throughout the entire corrections system since the establishment of such facilities," Riveland writes. "There exists little or no hard data comparing such perceived impacts on entire systems versus the fiscal cost to gain such results, though anecdotal information is common."

Jennifer Silverberg

Charles A. Fasano, a staff associate with the John Howard Association, says inmates everywhere are well aware of Tamms and that it's possible the supermax could deter misbehavior at other prisons. However, there's no way of knowing that, because in the past four years IDOC has cracked down on problem inmates in several ways short of sending them to Tamms. "It's like a doctor giving three different prescriptions for a problem," he says. "Which one cured you? Who the hell knows?"

Riveland, who isn't familiar with Tamms, says supermaxes have become political symbols designed to show a prison system is tough. He says prison administrators are too quick to put inmates in supermaxes that should be reserved only for the most dangerous and disruptive prisoners. Too often, prison officials fill expensive supermax cells with nuisance inmates who break minor rules and require constant attention, he says.

A 1997 survey by the National Institute of Corrections found that 57 supermaxes with a total of more than 13,500 beds were in operation in 31 states -- Texas alone has 16 supermaxes. Older supermaxes tend to be prisons converted to permanent-lockdown facilities with restricted inmate privileges. At least 22 supermaxes opened between 1989 and 1999. California opened the first high-tech supermax in 1989. Called Pelican Bay, it was designed specifically to isolate prisoners for prolonged periods and served as a model for Tamms and other supermaxes built in the 1990s. Riveland doesn't think the nation needs so many supermax cells. "In most instances, I think we're finding that people are overbuilding," he says in an interview.

The inmate count at Tamms suggests Illinois has gone overboard. The prison has 520 beds, but nearly half have remained empty, according to monthly population records. In December, the prison housed 274 inmates, the highest population since Tamms opened. During 1999, the prison's population increased by just 12 inmates. At that rate of growth, it will take 20 years for Tamms to reach capacity.

Meanwhile, the rest of the state's prisons are operating at 160 percent of their designed capacity, which hampers efforts to run vocational, educational, drug-treatment and other programs designed to reduce recidivism. The state is planning three new prisons that would add 4,400 beds to the system. The cost is far less than that of Tamms. For example, a 1,000-bed maximum prison already under construction will cost $98 million.

Prison officials who see Tamms as a deterrent have always said the supermax will never be full. They say they need to keep beds open so inmates at other prisons prone to misbehavior know there is always room for them at Tamms. "We will always reserve 30 or 40 beds in the event there is a major incident someplace and we need to move them there," Howell says. "It's a safety issue for us."

But 30 or 40 empty beds is a far cry from nearly 250 vacant cells. Fairchild admits IDOC didn't expect a half-empty prison. He says the empty cells show inmates elsewhere are behaving themselves better than anyone imagined because they're scared of Tamms. And everything will work out in the long run. "Tamms won't have to be expanded as quickly, and it will serve us longer," he says.

Supermax critics say the empty cells are a good sign. "One, it minimizes the harm," says Mahoney. "Secondly, the department has used it more sparingly than some of us were afraid they would." Riveland says empty beds make Illinois unusual. "Because of overcrowding in their systems in general, jurisdictions tend to relax the criteria (for supermax) and make sure they fill them," he says. "If Illinois is not doing that, then I commend them for it."

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