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?

Barker says inmates without full audiovisual privileges have been uniformly denied TVs for closed-circuit religious broadcasts, even though the rules say TVs may be allowed for religious or educational reasons. He also says administrators won't clarify what diets are allowed to conform with religious beliefs. Barker outlined his concerns in a Dec. 19 memo he distributed to prison administrators and inmates. "I realize what the administrative response will be, but a job is not worth my soul," he wrote at the end of the memo.

Three days later, Barker was put on administrative leave and escorted out of the prison. He has retained an attorney and is reluctant to discuss details beyond what he wrote in the memo. "I chose to do what I believe to be right," he now says. "They don't care about rules and regulations. They only care about them if they're going to discipline you. They don't care about them if they're going to break them."

Nevertheless, Barker believes the state needs Tamms. "I think the concept in and of itself is a good idea," he says. But Barker faults Tamms as too harsh for some inmates. "You can be so punitive to somebody that it gets to the point where they say, "What's the point? I'm not going to get anything anyway,'" he says. "Try to encourage them to grow -- not negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement. Hopefully, they would evaluate people on an individual basis so that the ones that are really encouraged to try, that are trying, they could actually get out."

Some inmates are trying harder than others. In one of the most serious instances of misbehavior, an inmate who broke a guard's nose with a head-butt and fashioned a shank from a light fixture got an additional 10 years in prison last year. But the worst of the worst seem to be behaving themselves. The John Howard Association last year found that 51 percent of the administrative-detention inmates at Tamms had earned the maximum allowable privileges and that eight of 10 had had their privileges increased to some degree.

Residents of the town of Tamms don't seem concerned about what goes on inside the prison or what outsiders might think of the "Welcome to Tamms" sign at the town outskirts that pronounces the supermax and the town "a good place to live." Bill Lockett, owner of the Bill's Silver Moon tavern, speaks for many when he says, "I don't feel sorry for 'em one bit. If they hadn't fucked up, they wouldn't be in there."

The prison hasn't brought a rush of new businesses to town, but Lockett figures as much of a third of his business comes from guards -- he may clear $400 on a good day. The relationship is tight enough that the graveyard shift has a key to the tavern, the watering hole closest to the prison. If Lockett isn't there at change of shift, they keep track of what they owe and pay him when he comes in. He's hoping the town will allow him to stay open past midnight so he can make friends with the swing shift.

The Silver Moon is a friendly if austere place with a cement floor, free hotdogs and a jukebox that includes "Jailhouse Rock," "I Never Picked Cotton" and other prison songs. Guards fresh off duty roar along with Merle Haggard as he sings, "I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole." They say they like their work. "This is the safest and best job I've ever had," says one who has worked for IDOC for more than a decade. "I have been in fights with several inmates at one time. I will never have to worry about that at Tamms." Another with more than 16 years' experience says the prison itself is fine but, unlike other prisons, the guards, not the inmates, do the dirty work. "They've got us mopping floors, cleaning showers," he says.

Inmates contacted by the RFT grumble but have few serious complaints about guards. One was fired last year for dumping hot sauce in a meal loaf. Guards condemn the prank but are divided over whether the punishment was too harsh. "That's like a black eye," says one who believes a suspension would have been sufficient. "That's like a dirty police officer taking drug money or something. Even the new officers say that was totally asinine." Another who considers the fired guard a friend says he deserved to lose his job. "He altered the tray," the guard says. "He crossed the line. You can't cross that line."

The line includes treating all inmates alike and minimizing contact. "When I finish at that chuckhole (at the cell door), I step back," says one guard. "That's just the way it's got to be. If you linger with one and not another, the guy in the next cell will be asking why. I can't begin to go in there and think what each inmate has got on his mind. If an inmate lost a loved one, you might say something, nine times out of 10. We feel compassion. He's a human being."

None of the guards wanted to be named, for fear of reprisal from IDOC. Besides denying interviews with inmates, IDOC denied requests to interview the warden and also refused a request for a tour, even though the department's written policy says photographs, tours and interviews with inmates and staff are allowed. Even the IDOC Web site, which includes population figures and cost-per-inmate statistics for every other Illinois prison, lacks that information about Tamms.

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