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?

By the time Tamms opened two years after reforms began, the number of assaults on staff had dropped to a 15-year low despite an escalating prison population. Assaults between inmates had also decreased, from 763 in 1996 to 578. In 1997, a panel of outside experts reported the problem was under control: "In the Panel's opinion, gangs do not control the prison system today and the degree of influence has been significantly reduced."

Though prison officials say the number of assaults dropped because inmates were afraid they'd be sent to Tamms once it opened, inmates contend the new supermax had nothing to do with it. "They'd have y'all believe the prisons are safer, run smoother, 'cause we're gone (to) Tamms," says Ned Brooks, who is serving time for murder. "Bullshit. They took control of the joints in '96. To cover their asses, we're the sacrifice -- for the public's eye." Prisoners note that gang members could not have had so much power if it hadn't been given to them by prison administrators. "When, from 1976-1996, the IDOC released the reins of their office, they cannot complain that a prisoner picked them up," says inmate Robert Felton, who was convicted of armed robbery, battery and theft. "Such poor oversight encourages and even nurtures the very malady that needs cured."

Howell rejects any suggestion that the expense of Tamms could have been avoided if IDOC had done a better job of running prisons before scandal forced reform. He cites the latest figures for assaults on staff. "There's 681 people getting hurt," Howell says. "That's 681 too many." Rep. Dart, whose legislative committee was created to force reform, also says Tamms is needed. It's just one tool on a workbench that has brought prisons under control, he says.

Jennifer Silverberg

A Tamms guard says the state will always need a supermax -- some of the inmates at Tamms create problems every time they're out of their cells. He says the prison would be full if not for the reforms, but he's silent when asked whether inmates have a point when they say prison officials helped create the environment that led to Tamms. "That," he finally says, "is a tough one to answer."

Rules at Tamms are strict. One of the few expansions in privileges came when prison officials allowed inmates to buy $2.99 rubber handballs so they'd have something to do besides pace during yard time. A year ago, Felton flooded his cell after he was refused toilet paper, then splashed water on a guard, according to disciplinary records Felton mailed to the RFT. He received an infraction for assault. In a separate incident, Felton was found guilty of insolence and making threats after he called an employee a bitch and said he would "beat her ass." Felton has also been punished for talking to another inmate in the Tamms law library, where prisoners aren't allowed to speak. Felton, who has won more than $8,000 from lawsuits against IDOC, says he was giving legal advice to the other inmate. All are considered major rule violations and resulted in additional time in disciplinary segregation and suspension of library privileges, but Felton has little to lose. He says he has already been in segregation for eight years, and segregation sentences, which run consecutively, exceed his prison term, which expires in 2011.

Even personal hygiene is considered a privilege at Tamms. For their first 90 days in supermax, inmates are allowed just one shower a week and two hours of yard time, contrary to National Commission on Correctional Health Care minimum standards that call for daily showers and three one-hour exercise periods a week. New convicts are not allowed radios, TVs or commissary privileges, but they can keep up to 25 books or magazines in their cells. They can have one visit each month, but this is a largely empty privilege because most inmates get no visitors. The visitor log shows fewer than 10 visitors on any given visiting day. Often, just one or two people come.

For inmates on disciplinary segregation, these restrictions never end. After 90 days of good behavior, inmates on administrative detention get two showers a week, five hours of yard time and the chance to spend $15 a month at the commissary. They can get two visits each month. If they own TVs, prison officials might allow them to watch educational or religious programming on the prison's closed-circuit TV system. If they continue to behave for 90 days, they get five showers a week, an hour every day in the yard and the right to spend $15 at the commissary every two weeks. They can have four visits a month and either a TV or a radio, which they can exchange every six months. Life won't get any better until they leave Tamms.

But written policies saying what is and isn't allowed can be misleading. The Rev. Hal Barker, until recently the senior chaplain at Tamms, says the prison operates under a set of unwritten rules that sometimes conflict with what inmates are told. Though he believes Tamms is needed, Barker -- a former guard who has worked in Illinois prisons for six years -- questions whether Tamms is overly punitive for inmates who behave themselves.

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