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?

That's not much comfort to inmates doing time at Tamms. Prisoners say the empty beds prove there aren't as many worst-of-the-worst as prison officials would have taxpayers believe. Despite vacant cells, inmates say prison officials are overusing Tamms because they can't very well leave it empty. Daryl Eskridge, an armed robber who's been in Tamms since August 1998, is typical. He says he was sent to Tamms for gang activity and assaults for which he had already done time in segregation. "I'm being punished over and over again for shit that happened before Tamms was even built," he says. "I guess when the state duped the taxpayers into paying for this place they claim they needed so bad they got to fill these cells up with somebody." Eskridge says he had behaved well enough to earn the maximum allowable privileges but was recently knocked back to bare bones for "bogus" infractions. He says he's not worried about his lack of privileges, because he's getting out of prison in July. He says Tamms hasn't taught him anything. "This place's sole purpose is not to rehabilitate but to tear individuals down mentally and physically," he says. "To sum it all up, I'm mad, angry, bitter, pissed off and screaming for vengeance."

Robert Westefer, an armed robber who's spent most of his life in prison, says Tamms isn't as bad as he had feared. He fully expected he would be sent to Tamms when it opened and, like many other inmates, he read up on Pelican Bay before his transfer and prepared for the worst. Unlike the California prison, which has a reputation for brutality, guards at Tamms generally follow the rules -- indeed, they're more likely to inform on each other than cover up, Westefer says. The food is decent and the air conditioning, unlike conditions at other Illinois prisons, makes summertime bearable. This doesn't mean he's happy. He refers to Tamms as a dungeon and says he's so used to being alone that he starts sweating when he speaks to a priest, a barber or anyone out of the ordinary.

Tamms is also hard on the families of inmates. "Why can't they even let me hug my brother?" asks Robbie Haben, Westefer's sister. In October, she and another sister ignored his request that they not visit, even though the siblings hadn't seen each other in more than a year. "He said, "I don't want you to see me through this window,'" Haben recalls. "He thought we were going to think of him as less of a brother because he was through a window. That kind of thing bothers me."

Like all inmates sent to Tamms, Westefer had to send home virtually all the possessions he'd accumulated during more than 10 years in prison. "When they sent him to Tamms, all the pictures and all the cards and all the letters that we sent to him through the years, they told him he could keep 10 pictures," Haben says. "For him to have to pick out 10 pictures, that's dehumanizing. And that's what he said: "That's my punishment. I'm not a human being anymore.'"

Some families can do more than others. When Fred Hampton Jr., who is known as Alfred Johnson (one of his aliases) by IDOC, was sent to Tamms, his mother, Akua Njeri, organized a campaign to force his release. Hampton is the son of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was slain by Chicago police in 1969. She says her son was sent to Tamms because of his political activism in prison. "We have an extensive e-mail tree," says Njeri, who heads a group called National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement. "We mounted a tremendous campaign. People from London, Canada, Africa were e-mailing, faxing, demanding the release of Fred Hampton Jr. We were even prepared to go down there (to Tamms) and have a demonstration. He got out of there relatively quick and in good shape." Hampton, an arsonist who spent one month in Tamms, is now at Joliet Correctional Center, within easy driving distance for his family in Chicago. Fairchild won't discuss the particulars of Hampton's release from Tamms, but he says public pressure won't get an inmate out if he's not behaving himself or is considered a threat.

Illinois state Rep. Coy Pugh (D-Chicago), who served time in the early 1980s on theft and drug charges, was one of the people who wrote to IDOC asking that Hampton be released from Tamms. "I did what I'd do for most of my constituents -- I merely wrote a letter of support to the prison review board," says Pugh, who condemns supermax prisons such as Tamms. "I think it's an inhumane system of treatment for any human being."

In theory, inmates can get transferred from Tamms after one year if they behave themselves. But there's no sign inmates will be released, no matter how well they behave. The only inmates who have gotten out of Tamms are those whose sentences have expired, those who have gone crazy and those, like Hampton, who were sent back to other prisons shortly after their arrival when prison officials determined they shouldn't have been sent there in the first place. Tamms is supposed to include a pre-transfer housing unit where inmates learn to live among other people before being sent to less restrictive prisons, but the unit hasn't opened. Instead, inmates whose prison terms are due to expire are sent to other prisons shortly before their release.

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