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?

Prisoners complain that IDOC broke the law last July when it stopped holding review hearings -- required under state administrative regulations -- to determine whether inmates had changed enough to warrant transfer after a year in Tamms. Prison officials also withheld decisions for several inmates who had previously appeared before the transfer-review committee. The hearings resumed late last fall, after Mills sued on behalf of inmates and demanded that prison officials obey the law. In November and December, prison officials notified all inmates whose hearings or decisions had been delayed that they could not leave Tamms. Mills calls the hearings a sham. "We've gotten their attention," he says. "Now, we have to get them real hearings." Howell refuses to say why IDOC stopped holding hearings and won't comment on the lawsuit: "We'll reveal our answers where they belong: in court."

The rules governing release from Tamms changed shortly after prison officials caught up with delinquent hearings. Now, IDOC says inmates suspected of being gang leaders can't get out unless they go through a "security-threat group" renunciation program. The new program, which is also being extended to inmates in segregation within other prisons, is fraught with problems. For one thing, renouncing means snitching on other inmates, which could get informants -- and their families on the outside -- in trouble with gang enforcers. Recognizing the danger, IDOC says inmates who snitch may be separated from other inmates but given more privileges than allowed at Tamms. Inmates say they won't snitch, even if it means indefinite stays in supermax. "I went to the (renunciation) hearing, and pretty much it's based on telling, informing, ratting or stool-pigeon-type questions that I refuse to answer, so I highly doubt they will accept my statement that I'm not in a gang," says Michael Sparling. Justin Bevins, a 23-year-old inmate convicted of home invasion and battery of a prison employee, also says renunciation won't work. "In renouncing this security-threat group, they want you to place your life in danger and the lives of my family by asking for information that may get me and my loved ones injured or killed," he says.

Some inmates claim they don't have any information to give because they aren't gang members or aren't high enough on the chain of command to know anything valuable. Attorneys for inmates say renunciation could violate Fifth Amendment guarantees against self-incrimination. There are no promises that information collected during renunciation hearings would not be used to file criminal charges, they say. And conspiracy statutes could hold Tamms inmates criminally liable for the acts of others, depending on their knowledge of crimes and their efforts to help, attorneys say. "The old line they say on TV, "Anything you say can be used against you,' is absolutely true," Mills says.

The Illinois Department of Corrections must share the blame for the gang situation inside its prisons. For years before Tamms was proposed, prison officials complained about gangs even as they tolerated them. Gang violence had plummeted by the time Tamms opened -- thanks to a prison crackdown inspired by Gangster Disciple chieftain Larry Hoover and mass murderer Richard Speck, who killed eight student nurses in 1966. Both convicts embarrassed prison administrators by exposing, albeit unintentionally, a prison system run by inmates.

In late 1995, federal prosecutors indicted Hoover on charges he headed a drug ring that netted $100 million a year while serving a 200-year murder sentence in Illinois prisons. Hoover was convicted and is now in federal prison. State legislators were outraged a few months later when a clandestine 1988 videotape of Speck having sex, snorting drugs and waving fistfuls of cash inside a maximum-security prison was made public. "If they only knew how much fun I was having, they would turn me loose," Speck bragged for the camera. He died of a heart attack in 1991, his breasts still enlarged -- apparently from female hormones he obtained in prison.

Release of the Speck tape, which was obtained by a documentary filmmaker who got it from an inmate's attorney, caused a sensation. Subsequent legislative hearings and media reports produced more evidence of a system lax on security and run by gangs with the full knowledge of prison officials. Inmates wearing gold jewelry, designer clothes and alligator shoes used cell phones to traffic drugs and conduct gang business. More than 70 percent of inmates were gang members -- to not join a gang meant harassment from other prisoners that ranged from assaults to extortion. Prisoners were allowed to put curtains over their cells so guards couldn't see what was going on inside. Cells were painted in gang colors. At Menard Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison, inmates hosted an annual bikers' picnic that drew hundreds of visitors, some of whom were videotaped having sex with prisoners. Until one inmate crashed into a picnic table, prisoners were allowed to ride Harleys around the prison yard during the picnics. Gang leaders decided inmate job and cell assignments and held formal three-week gang-initiation classes in a prison law library, complete with a written exam at the end of the course.

Legislators demanded change, and they got it. The picnics stopped and the cell curtains came down. The number of cell searches went up, as did the number of segregation cells. Lockdowns became routine, and prison officials created gang-free prisons by concentrating gang members at Pontiac Correctional Center, where they were locked down 23 hours a day. Nonreligious jewelry, except for wedding bands, was banned and personal possessions were limited to what an inmate could store in two boxes. Inmates wear uniforms instead of street clothes, and the only choice in shoes will soon be whether you want black or white. "No gang bullshit at all," brags Howell.

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