Blooper Max

Another security breach surfaces at Illinois' superexpensive supermaximum prison

The Rev. Joseph Berry was looking forward to his visit with his son Reginald, a murderer who's been locked up at the toughest prison in Illinois for more than three years.

The trips are difficult for the Chicago minister, who must drive six hours each way to Tamms Correctional Center in Southern Illinois, about 120 miles south of St. Louis, smack in the most remote part of the state. The visits last just two hours. Thick glass separates father and son, who speak to each other by intercom and are never allowed to hug, shake hands or otherwise touch each other. Berry must give at least two weeks' notice before a visit and has lately begun registering as a clergy member so as not to take time away from other loved ones -- his son's relatives are allowed just two visits a month.

Berry can tell you all about being sniffed by search dogs at the prison entrance and not being allowed to take a Bible inside. "They do everything they can to discourage you," he says. But what happened the day before his long-awaited visit last weekend was unprecedented.

Tamms Correctional Center
Jennifer Silverberg
Tamms Correctional Center

"They gave me a call Friday [Aug. 24] and told me all visits had been canceled," Berry recalls. "The lady that called me said she couldn't give me a reason why." So Berry called an assistant warden. "He told me it was for 'security reasons' -- no more details than that," Berry says. "Then he turned around and said the lawyers could come. So I say, 'So the lawyers can come and the preacher can't?' And he said, 'Yes.'"

Something out of the ordinary is clearly up at Tamms. A source with close ties to the prison staff tells the Riverfront Times that hacksaw blades were found in the prison last week, in an area inaccessible to inmates. The source spoke on condition of anonymity. Alan Mills, a lawyer for inmates, says rumors are flying. Mills, who has spoken to inmates in three different housing areas, says some inmates have told him it was hacksaw blades, but at least one says it was a bullet. He's heard that the contraband was found in areas where inmates are allowed; he's also heard the items were found in staff-only parts of the lockup, where inmates are kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day.

This much Mills says he knows for sure: In addition to canceling all visits last weekend, corrections officials performed a prisonwide shakedown, stripping all inmates down to their underwear, then transferring them to empty cells in different housing units so guards could perform a thorough search of their belongings. And the Illinois Department of Corrections brought in help from outside Tamms. "The other thing that was different was, the statewide tactical team was at Tamms, including the commander of the statewide tactical unit," Mills says.

IDOC won't provide even basic information.

Were hacksaw blades found? "We're not going to get into confirming or denying any of it," answers IDOC spokesman Brian Fairchild. What about the canceled visits? Fairchild says he doesn't know about that. "It wouldn't be unusual," he says. "I'd have to check." And the reports of a prisonwide shakedown? "I don't know that they did something recently, but we're continually shaking down all our facilities, so it wouldn't be unusual for that to occur," Fairchild responds. He won't even say why IDOC won't say whether hacksaw blades or other contraband was found. "I don't know that we have a particular policy on what investigations we will or will not talk about," he says. "I think it's a case-by-case situation."

And so one thing, at least, hasn't changed at Tamms. As always, IDOC acts as if the institution belongs to prison brass instead of the public, which is paying more than $60,000 a year per inmate at a half-empty prison that critics charge is unnecessary and needlessly cruel [Bruce Rushton, "Cruel And Usual," RFT, Feb. 16, 2000]. Berry and others with a vested interest in what goes on at Tamms aren't the only ones kept wondering. The media has routinely been denied access to the prison, its inmates and its staff, despite written IDOC policies stating that journalists shall be allowed inside the prison and given the chance to talk to employees and prisoners.

What is IDOC afraid of? Perhaps it's bad publicity. After all, this wouldn't be the first time hacksaw blades have turned up in IDOC's most secure prison, a place reserved for what administrators say are the system's most dangerous and escape-prone inmates.

State legislators last year blasted prison officials after blades were found in a prison filled with surveillance cameras and eavesdropping equipment, a human warehouse where mail is supposed to be either opened or X-rayed and no two inmates are supposed to be out of their cells at the same time. In that incident, prison officials discovered that three inmates were attempting to saw through barred windows. It was a somewhat comical attempt, in some respects. According to prison investigative files, inmate Glenn Smith, a rapist with a history of violence while in prison, persuaded a sister on the outside to mail him some hacksaw blades. She apparently misunderstood her mission and sent jigsaw blades designed to cut wood, which would be of little use in a fortress made of steel and concrete. The second try was more fruitful, with the sister succeeding in mailing several hacksaw blades into Tamms.

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