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?

Why so much secrecy? Inmates say they know the answer.

"Stop and think: What are they afraid of?" Westefer says. "The truth is the state's enemy, not ours."

The Illinois Department of Corrections barred The Riverfront Times from interviewing inmates at the Tamms Correctional Center. RFT staff writer Bruce Rushton met with four inmates, at their invitation, under the same restrictions imposed on all visitors to the facility. He was allowed a maximum of two hours per inmate visit and was prohibited from using a notebook, pen, tape recorder or camera. The only variation from standard rules came when he visited two inmates on one day -- regulations bar more than one visit per day. Faced with those restrictions, the RFT wrote to 35 prisoners named in lawsuits against the prison and 42 inmates who have been released from Tamms, asking them to describe life in a super-maximum facility. We received more than 25 responses. Here are edited excerpts. While walking around in circles for my daily exercise, I noticed the small drain hole at the bottom of the wall, and a thought suddenly came to me. I wondered if the outside world could be seen at all through that small hole. Driven by curiosity and high hopes, I laid down on my side and maneuvered as to get my eye flush against the 2-inch round hole, and there it was. I could see a large plain of grass -- real grass! I could see the wind grazing across it and a few wild dandelions scattered about. Then, just inches from the porthole, a cricket leisurely crawled past my view, apparently unbothered by my curiosity of his surroundings. Straining to focus on a movement in the far distance, I caught the energetic stroll of a grasshopper as he bounced from blade to blade. Not far from his route, there sat a small colorful butterfly perched atop a lazy weed, which I found myself admiring in a way I can't even describe. As ridiculous as it may seem, I struggled to understand what was happening to me. What brought about such a sudden surge of excitement? Why did I feel like a kid in a candy store? It was as if I had discovered a tunnel to freedom, or at least a crack in their blindfold, which secretly allowed me to steal a glimpse of nature's beauty. If there was a logical explanation for such an extreme emotional reaction within me, it was way beyond my grasp. I laid down there on that concrete floor with my eye scanning every inch of that beautiful landscape for what seemed like days, only to be interrupted by the demanding voice of a guard breaking the peaceful silence with an order to return to my cell, for my recreation period was over. Well, I would have to relinquish my newfound emotional high, but not without the promise of knowing I would soon be able to revisit that same unique experience for at least 60 minutes of another day, so long as I keep it a secret. For should the administration ever discover the satisfaction one can reap through that little 2-inch drain hole, it too, like the rest of that box, will undoubtedly be filled in with fresh concrete before sunset. -- Larry Foutch, 34, murderer, due for release in 2015

Jennifer Silverberg

I'm not a kid. Been around the block a few times. Done over 20 years in Illinois prisons. But nothing prepares you for this isolation. It's not a day or a week that make it torture. It's the idea that it's years. Gray paint or no paint. Isolation. But you can hear only too well. Hard to read, write, think with couple guys screaming. No movement, no jobs. Lots of guys have no family, no money, pure hell. Not a man down here is the picture of perfect mental health. These are the guys the state decided to antagonize and send back out to the streets. Man two cells away goes home in less than a year. -- Robert Westefer, 43, armed robber, serving a life sentence

I was transferred due to continued self-mutilation and suicide attempts. My arms are destroyed, scar-tissue masses. My legs also. I've received thousands of stitches. The self-mutilation started long before Tamms, but it was most frequent there. I was placed on involuntary psychotropic meds, Haldol and Cogentin. I was there for four months and two days. I was the first inmate to leave Tamms under psych pretenses. It's a psychological nightmare. And if you are not strong, you will likely commit suicide or cause yourself serious harm. -- Patrice Daniels, 24, murderer, serving a life sentence and a seven-year sentence for possessing a weapon in prison, sent to a psychiatric unit from Tamms on July 21, 1998; now at Pontiac Correctional Center

Psychologically, this place adversely affects us all, but at different rates. To me, being in Tamms is like being in the most somber and disheartening place imaginable. But even in the most dire circumstances, one must find it within to want to live, adapt and adjust to the chances to ensure your survival, as well as hold onto your emotions. From the paint color to the ambience, the theme is the same -- gray. Imagine not having visual stimulation or it being severely reduced. Social isolation. I guess the best comparison is like suddenly losing one of your faculties -- sight, hearing, speech, etc. Some adjust and survive. Others don't. But the greatest thing is the realization and having to live with it, such a loss. The impact of being in this place. How can I really describe it? It's the equivalent of you asking a man who just lost his sight, "Sir, can you tell me what it feels like to be blind?" -- Ned Brooks, 28, murderer, due for release in 2014

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