Blooper Max

Another security breach surfaces at Illinois' superexpensive supermaximum prison

Embarrassing prison administrators may have been as much a motivator as a chance for freedom. Smith, for example, tried to mail a piece of blade to Gov. George Ryan in a package that was intercepted by prison employees. All told, the three inmates caused an estimated $3,360 damage to three cells, including a window in one cell that was cut again after the initial damage was repaired. Prison officials never found what was used to cut the window a second time, according to prison files. In addition to finding pieces of blades stashed in light fixtures and other hiding places, guards also found a homemade rope.

After attempting to pin the blame on corrupt guards, Smith confessed that it was his sister who mailed the blades, and polygraph testing indicated he was telling the truth. Smith agreed to cooperate with prison investigators in exchange for a promise not to prosecute his sister and a ticket out of Tamms. Prison officials apparently lived up to their end of the deal. According to IDOC records, Smith is now at the Menard Correctional Center. Inmate Gene Arnett also didn't fare too badly, even though Mills says Arnett recently pleaded guilty to attempted escape and possession of contraband and earned a 12-year sentence. The sentence is largely academic, given that Arnett, a double murderer and armed robber, is already serving a life sentence. In exchange for Arnett's guilty plea, Mills says prison officials agreed to move him to a wing with less harsh security and also removed a freeze on his prison bank account that had been in place because he owed money for restitution. "He couldn't buy anything from the commissary," Mills says. "They agreed to lift the freeze off the commissary account as long as he would pay them 30 percent of whatever money comes into the institution on his behalf until the debt's paid off." Mills says he's doesn't know what happened to the third inmate. Prison investigators concluded that an assistant warden in charge of mail distribution had been negligent. He was subsequently transferred to a youth prison. Fairchild won't discuss the transfer or the reasons behind it, but Mills and a source with ties to prison staff agree the hacksaw incident cost the assistant warden his job at Tamms. "The prisoners tell us he was walked out of the institution, meaning there were some charges brought against him," Mills says.

State Rep. Thomas Dart, chairman of the state House Prison Management Reform Committee, last year blasted prison management for security snafus. "Somebody's got to be held accountable," the Chicago Democrat told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Whether it's the people implementing the security measures or the people administering them, somebody dropped the ball." Rep. Lou Jones (D-Chicago), another committee member, was equally critical after IDOC officials reported that the blades were hidden in a book mailed to an inmate. "You can detect damn near a safety pin if it's in a book and you X-ray it, but you couldn't detect a saw?" the lawmaker told the Sun-Times. "These prisons have to stop blaming everybody but themselves." Neither Jones nor Dart returned calls from the RFT.

Tamms Correctional Center
Jennifer Silverberg
Tamms Correctional Center

Results of drug testing at Tamms also raise questions about security. According to IDOC statistics, prisoners and employees at Tamms during the most recent fiscal year tested positive for drugs at a rate higher than those at all but three of the state's 27 adult prisons. The situation has improved since the prison opened in 1998 and four of the 34 employees, or nearly 12 percent, tested positive. It was the highest rate of positive tests in any of the state's prisons that year (by contrast, none of the 73 Tamms inmates tested that fiscal year had a positive test). During fiscal year 2000, none of the 106 employees tested at Tamms turned up positive, but the rate jumped back up to 3 percent during the most recent fiscal year, when one of the 33 employees tested positive. Systemwide, 1.2 percent of prison employees tested were positive during the most recent fiscal year, when 19 of the state's prisons reported no positive results. IDOC randomly tests about 20 percent of its employees each year and has the authority to test more, including the entire staff of a given institution, Fairchild says.

As with most issues concerning Tamms, Fairchild is reluctant to go into any detail about drugs at the supermax, nor will he discuss what steps IDOC may have taken beyond firing any employee who tests positive. He does say that comparing the rate of positive drug tests between prisons is misleading because the percentage of positive results depends on how many tests are given and under what circumstances.

Meanwhile, Berry just wants to see his son, and he wants to know exactly why he wasn't allowed to do so last weekend. "This is just a totally cruel system down there," he says. "The whole system, it's just ridiculous."

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