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?

Mark Freeman has shackles on his ankles and a lot on his mind. The 40-year-old killer -- all 5 feet 9 inches and 203 pounds of him -- leans forward in his chair as the words tumble. From the other side of the glass, he looks more desperate than dangerous.

Yes, he was once a gang leader, but that was seven years ago, before he was shipped to a prison in New Mexico because of gang affiliations and his involvement in a prison disturbance. There's no denying his past violence. He's already served time for murder. Now he's in for attempted murder. Like so many others doing hard time, he says he has changed. He promises he'll be good from now on and notes that he lived among other inmates in New Mexico without any trouble except for the time he tested positive for marijuana, then got caught with a pot pipe. He says he hasn't committed an infraction since 1998, when he got to Tamms Correctional Center, the toughest prison in Illinois.

"We are," he says, "in a hell of a situation."

Due for release in 2015, Freeman spends 23 hours a day in a 10-by-12-foot cell with a concrete bed, a steel toilet-and-sink unit and a tiny window he can't see out of unless he stands on his bed. Even then, he can only see the sky -- inmates say the glass and walls are so thick they can see lightning but never hear thunder. He has virtually no contact with other human beings, although he can talk to -- but can't see -- inmates in adjoining cells. An intercom lets guards eavesdrop and talk to him without actually coming to his door, which is made of steel perforated with half-inch holes. He is not allowed to use a telephone -- though rules allow emergency calls, he didn't get clearance in time to talk to his mother before she died of cancer last June. Guards deliver his meals. Once a day, an unseen guard presses a button, his door opens and Freeman walks alone to a concrete enclosure measuring 10 by 30 feet. There is no basketball hoop, no exercise equipment of any kind, just room to pace for an hour until it's time to go back to his cell. Five times a week, he is allowed a 20-minute shower. He can have either a television or a radio (but not both) equipped with an earjack so other inmates can't hear it. He was cuffed, shackled and strip-searched before this visit, and he will be cuffed, shackled and strip-searched again before he returns to his cell, escorted by two guards. That's standard procedure whenever an inmate leaves his cell for any reason other than a shower or yard time.

This is as good as it gets at Tamms, the only "supermax" prison in the bistate region and part of a national trend toward high-tech human warehouses that specialize in long-term solitary confinement. Some inmates get just one shower a week, two hours of yard time and no radio, television or commissary privileges -- even keeping food or too many Christmas cards in their cells is against the rules. These restrictions can last indefinitely. Freeman, by virtue of good behavior, has earned his showers, his TV and the right to spend $30 a month for toiletries, candy bars and other items from the commissary. Visits are rare because Tamms is located across the Mississippi River from Cape Girardeau, in the most remote part of the state. Freeman's relatives, for instance, must travel more than 300 miles for a two-hour visit. Many prisoners say they've told their friends and relatives to stay home. They don't want their loved ones to see them like this.

Freeman is at Tamms not for what he's done but for who he is: an admitted gang leader. He won't be sent to a less restrictive prison unless he can convince prison officials he is no longer affiliated with gangs. And in prison, it's tough to prove a negative.

After 90 minutes, a guard taps on the visiting-room door. It's time to go. "Will you come again?" he begs someone he's never met before, a journalist who had to sign in as a "friend." This is what living in a space the size of a bathroom for 16 months will do to a man.

Tamms is filled with stories of inmates driven mad by prolonged solitary confinement. Some have cut themselves, some have eaten pieces of mirrors, some have smeared themselves with feces, some have attempted suicide. One inmate slashed his arm open and ate pieces of his own flesh. They don't get a lot of sympathy. When an inmate tried to hang himself with a bedsheet, prison officials found him guilty of destroying state property and made him pay for the sheet -- just another case of malingering in the eyes of the Illinois Department of Corrections. The staff uses psychotropic drugs ranging from Prozac to Thorazine to control mental disorders, according to attorneys with access to medical records. In some cases, inmates deemed a risk to themselves or others are stripped naked and restrained in bare cells.

Jean Maclean Snyder, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center in Chicago, says one inmate jammed a pen into his urethra. "He is a man who just carved up his body all the time," Snyder says. "They consider him to just be doing it for manipulative reasons -- he was never even seen by a psychiatrist for the first year or so he was out there. Sometimes, when people are so out of bounds, it seems like the mental-health staff there just goes deeply into denial."

In a federal lawsuit pending in East St. Louis, Snyder's organization has sued IDOC, alleging that confinement at Tamms constitutes cruel and unusual punishment for the mentally ill. The Uptown People's Law Center, also in Chicago, has filed two suits -- one to force IDOC to hold hearings to determine whether convicts should be released to less restrictive prisons, the other aimed at ending the practice of punishing inmates by feeding them "meal loaf" -- a blend of hamburger, chopped vegetables, applesauce, tomato paste, potato flakes, bread crumbs and milk powder -- for three days after misbehavior ranging from making weapons to refusing to return a food tray.

Judging from previous suits filed against similar supermax prisons, the lawsuits are quixotic. The courts say supermax isn't illegal. But that doesn't necessarily make it right.

The state of Illinois and the town of Tamms, population 750, had high hopes for the prison when construction began in 1994. Town leaders lobbied hard for the lockup and saw a chance to combat an 18 percent unemployment rate by putting people to work at the prison. The town bought 23 acres and built a water tower and a road to the prison, floating a $455,000 bond to pay for infrastructure. IDOC built Tamms as a place for predators, escape risks and inmates who can't be controlled any way short of complete isolation -- the end of the line for the worst of the worst. The supermax would make the entire prison system safer, corrections officials predicted.

But nearly two years after Tamms opened, things aren't going exactly as expected.

Few locals have gotten jobs there -- IDOC says 80 percent of the staff transferred from other prisons. If he had the chance to do it over again, Mayor Walter Pang says, he would have set up training programs for locals before the prison opened to improve their chances of getting hired. The prison's closest neighbor, a woman who lives right across the road, says the prison doesn't bother her, but she can't see how it's helped the town. "When they built this thing, they thought Tamms was really going to boom," she says. "Tamms hasn't prospered. If anything, there's fewer people in town."

Things aren't going as planned for the state, either.

By the time the 520-bed prison opened in March 1998, IDOC had already figured out other ways to curb violence and punish its most disruptive inmates.

Once Tamms opened, several of the "worst of the worst" were sent there, even though they hadn't been in trouble for years. After two years of operation, Tamms is nearly half-empty, contradicting predictions that Tamms inmates who'd learned their lesson would need to be transferred to less restrictive prisons to make room for new cancers. Meanwhile, prison officials have violated state law by not holding required hearings to decide whether Tamms inmates who have behaved themselves should be transferred to other prisons. In short, nobody has "graduated" from Tamms.

Moreover, the $73 million prison -- $13 million more than original projections -- is far more expensive to operate than IDOC promised. Operating costs are more than twice what a governor's task force predicted in 1993 when it recommended the state build a supermax. The tab for keeping an inmate at Tamms for one year exceeds $60,000 -- more than three times IDOC's systemwide average of $17,400. It's one of the most expensive prisons in the nation.

All of this begs the question: What purpose does Tamms serve?

Built partially underground and surrounded by Southern Illinois farmland about 110 miles southeast of St. Louis, the prison on East Supermax Road barely dents the landscape. There are no guard towers. If it weren't for fences topped with razor ribbon and "No Trespassing" signs at the entrance, visitors might not know this is a prison. Tamms houses the state's only execution chamber, but death-row inmates, who enjoy more privileges than inmates at Tamms, are all housed elsewhere until their execution dates near. It's also easier to see inside death row than Tamms. At other prisons, IDOC allows the media to interview condemned prisoners and take photographs, but at Tamms, no cameras, tape recorders, pens or papers are allowed, nor can journalists tour the facility, despite written policies that say otherwise. As a result, most of the quotes from inmates in this story came from letters written to The Riverfront Times.

Hallways are about 12 feet wide, which seems odd, considering they're usually empty. A guard on one visiting day explains that the wide corridors allow room to control unruly convicts without anyone getting hurt. There are plenty of surveillance cameras, but no windows or directional signs. One guard says it took him the better part of a year to learn his way around. The lobby and corridor leading to the visiting area are painted in pastel tones of blue and green. The farther you go into the prison, the grayer it gets.

No convict is sent to Tamms from the outside world, no matter what his crime. Inmates arrive from other prisons, ostensibly after committing serious physical or sexual assaults or if IDOC considers them a danger to the safety or security of an institution. Every transfer to Tamms is approved by regional corrections officials, then reviewed by a committee of prison employees once the convict arrives. After an inmate has been at Tamms for a year, the transfer-review committee is supposed to decide whether an inmate has changed his ways enough to warrant transfer to a less restrictive prison. But this has never happened. Forty-two inmates have gotten out of Tamms, but none have done so as a result of good behavior after a year in supermax. Twenty mentally ill prisoners have been sent to psychiatric facilities, two have gone to out-of-state prisons and five were released because their prison terms expired. Fifteen others left when IDOC determined they shouldn't have been there in the first place.

The prison's population is divided almost equally between inmates in disciplinary segregation -- those who are being punished for serious infractions or outright crimes committed in other institutions -- and inmates in administrative detention who haven't been caught doing anything wrong but are considered a threat to the security and safety of an institution. This latter group consists largely of inmates who are considered gang leaders. There are segregation units for such inmates at other Illinois prisons, but those units, unlike Tamms, allow privileges such as exercising with other prisoners.

Administrative detention is essentially a judgment call made to decide who deserves Tamms. "We get into the whole notion of predicting behavior," says Michael Mahoney, president of the John Howard Association, a prison-watchdog group in Chicago. Critics such as Mahoney question whether all the inmates on administrative detention in Tamms need such extraordinary security and barren living conditions.

IDOC won't release inmate disciplinary records -- even though inmates can get them -- but critics say it's not unusual for an inmate with years of good behavior to be sent to Tamms. Some have arrived straight from minimum- and medium-security prisons. Alan Mills, a Chicago attorney whose organization, Uptown People's Law Center, has been handling prisoner lawsuits in Illinois since 1984, says he knows of inmates in other prisons with far worse disciplinary records than the inmates at Tamms. "They never proved anything against most of the (administrative detention) guys who are down here," says Mills, who believes IDOC is sending inmates to Tamms and keeping them there simply to fill beds.

Mills' concerns are echoed by the John Howard Association, which enjoys a cordial relationship with IDOC and has been appointed by federal courts to monitor conditions in Illinois jails and prisons. Though some known gang leaders belong at Tamms, "criteria that are broad and vague and the lack of procedural safeguards have led to questionable placements that are made more suspect because they are not readily subject to objective review," says the association, which was granted access to Tamms and issued a report on the prison last year. The report says inmates with no documented history of serious misconduct have been sent to Tamms. With the cooperation of IDOC, association members are scheduled to visit Tamms next month to follow up on the 1999 report.

IDOC essentially denies the allegation, saying that reviews at the regional level and again once an inmate arrives at Tamms ensure that the right inmates are in supermax and that convicts who don't belong are sent back to less restrictive prisons. IDOC spokesman Brian Fairchild says the department errs on the side of caution, which explains why 15 inmates were sent to other state prisons shortly after their arrival at Tamms. "And I think to err on the side of safety for your staff and the other inmates in the system is an appropriate error," he says.

Inmates say economics and politics explain why they're at Tamms and why they're not getting out. They and their attorneys say the state is sending inmates to supermax to justify the expense of an institution that isn't needed. And Tamms, where there are more employees than inmates, is enormously expensive. Tamms costs $49,780 per inmate each year, according to a 1999 report by the state Office of the Auditor General. But that doesn't reflect the true cost of the supermax, because it includes the expense of running an adjacent 200-bed work camp where minimum-security inmates cook food, run the laundry service and maintain the supermax grounds. Considered separately (by subtracting operating costs for fiscal year 1997, when only the work camp was open), the Tamms supermax cost more than $60,000 per inmate for the fiscal year ending in July 1999, making Tamms one of the nation's most expensive prisons.

IDOC, which has maintained that Tamms costs $35,000 per inmate, doesn't quibble with the RFT's math. "The methodology that you use is certainly logical," Fairchild says. The expense shocks some state legislators. "That surprises me that it's that high," says Rep. Thomas Dart (D-Chicago), chairman of the House Prison Reform Committee. "It seems as if, from what you're telling me, that it's probably more than possible that it could have been done at a better price. Someone obviously made some mistakes." Nonetheless, Dart says, he and other legislators would still support Tamms, given the chance to start over again. "I do think, though, that the cost thing would have led us to maybe be a little more critical of how it was being done," he says.

Mahoney says taxpayers and the prison system would have been better served by building smaller, less expensive segregation units at each of the state's four maximum-security prisons. But IDOC spokesman Nic Howell says that isn't feasible. "Trying to put a supermax into one of those would not work," he says. "First off, we didn't have the room. Second off, they already had their own drawbacks and personalities and own problems. We weren't going to add to that."

What are taxpayers getting for their money? Prison officials say Tamms has made the entire prison system safer. "How do I know that? I got numbers, pal," Howell says. "Let me whip it on you. We keep track of assaults." In 1996, two years before Tamms opened, prison officials cataloged 1,219 assaults on staff in a system with 40,397 inmates. Last year, with 44,364 inmates, prison officials recorded 681 assaults. "We've gone up 4,000 inmates and almost cut in half the number of assaults," Howell says. "Maybe the threat of Tamms has gone a long way in keeping people from being stupid in other prisons."

Or maybe not. Chase Riveland, former director of the Washington state-prison system, conducted a 1999 study of supermaxes for the National Institute of Corrections (an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice) and concluded there is no firm evidence that supermaxes make other prisons safer. "Proponents point to reductions in assaults on inmates and staff and other serious incidents throughout the entire corrections system since the establishment of such facilities," Riveland writes. "There exists little or no hard data comparing such perceived impacts on entire systems versus the fiscal cost to gain such results, though anecdotal information is common."

Charles A. Fasano, a staff associate with the John Howard Association, says inmates everywhere are well aware of Tamms and that it's possible the supermax could deter misbehavior at other prisons. However, there's no way of knowing that, because in the past four years IDOC has cracked down on problem inmates in several ways short of sending them to Tamms. "It's like a doctor giving three different prescriptions for a problem," he says. "Which one cured you? Who the hell knows?"

Riveland, who isn't familiar with Tamms, says supermaxes have become political symbols designed to show a prison system is tough. He says prison administrators are too quick to put inmates in supermaxes that should be reserved only for the most dangerous and disruptive prisoners. Too often, prison officials fill expensive supermax cells with nuisance inmates who break minor rules and require constant attention, he says.

A 1997 survey by the National Institute of Corrections found that 57 supermaxes with a total of more than 13,500 beds were in operation in 31 states -- Texas alone has 16 supermaxes. Older supermaxes tend to be prisons converted to permanent-lockdown facilities with restricted inmate privileges. At least 22 supermaxes opened between 1989 and 1999. California opened the first high-tech supermax in 1989. Called Pelican Bay, it was designed specifically to isolate prisoners for prolonged periods and served as a model for Tamms and other supermaxes built in the 1990s. Riveland doesn't think the nation needs so many supermax cells. "In most instances, I think we're finding that people are overbuilding," he says in an interview.

The inmate count at Tamms suggests Illinois has gone overboard. The prison has 520 beds, but nearly half have remained empty, according to monthly population records. In December, the prison housed 274 inmates, the highest population since Tamms opened. During 1999, the prison's population increased by just 12 inmates. At that rate of growth, it will take 20 years for Tamms to reach capacity.

Meanwhile, the rest of the state's prisons are operating at 160 percent of their designed capacity, which hampers efforts to run vocational, educational, drug-treatment and other programs designed to reduce recidivism. The state is planning three new prisons that would add 4,400 beds to the system. The cost is far less than that of Tamms. For example, a 1,000-bed maximum prison already under construction will cost $98 million.

Prison officials who see Tamms as a deterrent have always said the supermax will never be full. They say they need to keep beds open so inmates at other prisons prone to misbehavior know there is always room for them at Tamms. "We will always reserve 30 or 40 beds in the event there is a major incident someplace and we need to move them there," Howell says. "It's a safety issue for us."

But 30 or 40 empty beds is a far cry from nearly 250 vacant cells. Fairchild admits IDOC didn't expect a half-empty prison. He says the empty cells show inmates elsewhere are behaving themselves better than anyone imagined because they're scared of Tamms. And everything will work out in the long run. "Tamms won't have to be expanded as quickly, and it will serve us longer," he says.

Supermax critics say the empty cells are a good sign. "One, it minimizes the harm," says Mahoney. "Secondly, the department has used it more sparingly than some of us were afraid they would." Riveland says empty beds make Illinois unusual. "Because of overcrowding in their systems in general, jurisdictions tend to relax the criteria (for supermax) and make sure they fill them," he says. "If Illinois is not doing that, then I commend them for it."

That's not much comfort to inmates doing time at Tamms. Prisoners say the empty beds prove there aren't as many worst-of-the-worst as prison officials would have taxpayers believe. Despite vacant cells, inmates say prison officials are overusing Tamms because they can't very well leave it empty. Daryl Eskridge, an armed robber who's been in Tamms since August 1998, is typical. He says he was sent to Tamms for gang activity and assaults for which he had already done time in segregation. "I'm being punished over and over again for shit that happened before Tamms was even built," he says. "I guess when the state duped the taxpayers into paying for this place they claim they needed so bad they got to fill these cells up with somebody." Eskridge says he had behaved well enough to earn the maximum allowable privileges but was recently knocked back to bare bones for "bogus" infractions. He says he's not worried about his lack of privileges, because he's getting out of prison in July. He says Tamms hasn't taught him anything. "This place's sole purpose is not to rehabilitate but to tear individuals down mentally and physically," he says. "To sum it all up, I'm mad, angry, bitter, pissed off and screaming for vengeance."

Robert Westefer, an armed robber who's spent most of his life in prison, says Tamms isn't as bad as he had feared. He fully expected he would be sent to Tamms when it opened and, like many other inmates, he read up on Pelican Bay before his transfer and prepared for the worst. Unlike the California prison, which has a reputation for brutality, guards at Tamms generally follow the rules -- indeed, they're more likely to inform on each other than cover up, Westefer says. The food is decent and the air conditioning, unlike conditions at other Illinois prisons, makes summertime bearable. This doesn't mean he's happy. He refers to Tamms as a dungeon and says he's so used to being alone that he starts sweating when he speaks to a priest, a barber or anyone out of the ordinary.

Tamms is also hard on the families of inmates. "Why can't they even let me hug my brother?" asks Robbie Haben, Westefer's sister. In October, she and another sister ignored his request that they not visit, even though the siblings hadn't seen each other in more than a year. "He said, "I don't want you to see me through this window,'" Haben recalls. "He thought we were going to think of him as less of a brother because he was through a window. That kind of thing bothers me."

Like all inmates sent to Tamms, Westefer had to send home virtually all the possessions he'd accumulated during more than 10 years in prison. "When they sent him to Tamms, all the pictures and all the cards and all the letters that we sent to him through the years, they told him he could keep 10 pictures," Haben says. "For him to have to pick out 10 pictures, that's dehumanizing. And that's what he said: "That's my punishment. I'm not a human being anymore.'"

Some families can do more than others. When Fred Hampton Jr., who is known as Alfred Johnson (one of his aliases) by IDOC, was sent to Tamms, his mother, Akua Njeri, organized a campaign to force his release. Hampton is the son of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was slain by Chicago police in 1969. She says her son was sent to Tamms because of his political activism in prison. "We have an extensive e-mail tree," says Njeri, who heads a group called National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement. "We mounted a tremendous campaign. People from London, Canada, Africa were e-mailing, faxing, demanding the release of Fred Hampton Jr. We were even prepared to go down there (to Tamms) and have a demonstration. He got out of there relatively quick and in good shape." Hampton, an arsonist who spent one month in Tamms, is now at Joliet Correctional Center, within easy driving distance for his family in Chicago. Fairchild won't discuss the particulars of Hampton's release from Tamms, but he says public pressure won't get an inmate out if he's not behaving himself or is considered a threat.

Illinois state Rep. Coy Pugh (D-Chicago), who served time in the early 1980s on theft and drug charges, was one of the people who wrote to IDOC asking that Hampton be released from Tamms. "I did what I'd do for most of my constituents -- I merely wrote a letter of support to the prison review board," says Pugh, who condemns supermax prisons such as Tamms. "I think it's an inhumane system of treatment for any human being."

In theory, inmates can get transferred from Tamms after one year if they behave themselves. But there's no sign inmates will be released, no matter how well they behave. The only inmates who have gotten out of Tamms are those whose sentences have expired, those who have gone crazy and those, like Hampton, who were sent back to other prisons shortly after their arrival when prison officials determined they shouldn't have been sent there in the first place. Tamms is supposed to include a pre-transfer housing unit where inmates learn to live among other people before being sent to less restrictive prisons, but the unit hasn't opened. Instead, inmates whose prison terms are due to expire are sent to other prisons shortly before their release.

Prisoners complain that IDOC broke the law last July when it stopped holding review hearings -- required under state administrative regulations -- to determine whether inmates had changed enough to warrant transfer after a year in Tamms. Prison officials also withheld decisions for several inmates who had previously appeared before the transfer-review committee. The hearings resumed late last fall, after Mills sued on behalf of inmates and demanded that prison officials obey the law. In November and December, prison officials notified all inmates whose hearings or decisions had been delayed that they could not leave Tamms. Mills calls the hearings a sham. "We've gotten their attention," he says. "Now, we have to get them real hearings." Howell refuses to say why IDOC stopped holding hearings and won't comment on the lawsuit: "We'll reveal our answers where they belong: in court."

The rules governing release from Tamms changed shortly after prison officials caught up with delinquent hearings. Now, IDOC says inmates suspected of being gang leaders can't get out unless they go through a "security-threat group" renunciation program. The new program, which is also being extended to inmates in segregation within other prisons, is fraught with problems. For one thing, renouncing means snitching on other inmates, which could get informants -- and their families on the outside -- in trouble with gang enforcers. Recognizing the danger, IDOC says inmates who snitch may be separated from other inmates but given more privileges than allowed at Tamms. Inmates say they won't snitch, even if it means indefinite stays in supermax. "I went to the (renunciation) hearing, and pretty much it's based on telling, informing, ratting or stool-pigeon-type questions that I refuse to answer, so I highly doubt they will accept my statement that I'm not in a gang," says Michael Sparling. Justin Bevins, a 23-year-old inmate convicted of home invasion and battery of a prison employee, also says renunciation won't work. "In renouncing this security-threat group, they want you to place your life in danger and the lives of my family by asking for information that may get me and my loved ones injured or killed," he says.

Some inmates claim they don't have any information to give because they aren't gang members or aren't high enough on the chain of command to know anything valuable. Attorneys for inmates say renunciation could violate Fifth Amendment guarantees against self-incrimination. There are no promises that information collected during renunciation hearings would not be used to file criminal charges, they say. And conspiracy statutes could hold Tamms inmates criminally liable for the acts of others, depending on their knowledge of crimes and their efforts to help, attorneys say. "The old line they say on TV, "Anything you say can be used against you,' is absolutely true," Mills says.

The Illinois Department of Corrections must share the blame for the gang situation inside its prisons. For years before Tamms was proposed, prison officials complained about gangs even as they tolerated them. Gang violence had plummeted by the time Tamms opened -- thanks to a prison crackdown inspired by Gangster Disciple chieftain Larry Hoover and mass murderer Richard Speck, who killed eight student nurses in 1966. Both convicts embarrassed prison administrators by exposing, albeit unintentionally, a prison system run by inmates.

In late 1995, federal prosecutors indicted Hoover on charges he headed a drug ring that netted $100 million a year while serving a 200-year murder sentence in Illinois prisons. Hoover was convicted and is now in federal prison. State legislators were outraged a few months later when a clandestine 1988 videotape of Speck having sex, snorting drugs and waving fistfuls of cash inside a maximum-security prison was made public. "If they only knew how much fun I was having, they would turn me loose," Speck bragged for the camera. He died of a heart attack in 1991, his breasts still enlarged -- apparently from female hormones he obtained in prison.

Release of the Speck tape, which was obtained by a documentary filmmaker who got it from an inmate's attorney, caused a sensation. Subsequent legislative hearings and media reports produced more evidence of a system lax on security and run by gangs with the full knowledge of prison officials. Inmates wearing gold jewelry, designer clothes and alligator shoes used cell phones to traffic drugs and conduct gang business. More than 70 percent of inmates were gang members -- to not join a gang meant harassment from other prisoners that ranged from assaults to extortion. Prisoners were allowed to put curtains over their cells so guards couldn't see what was going on inside. Cells were painted in gang colors. At Menard Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison, inmates hosted an annual bikers' picnic that drew hundreds of visitors, some of whom were videotaped having sex with prisoners. Until one inmate crashed into a picnic table, prisoners were allowed to ride Harleys around the prison yard during the picnics. Gang leaders decided inmate job and cell assignments and held formal three-week gang-initiation classes in a prison law library, complete with a written exam at the end of the course.

Legislators demanded change, and they got it. The picnics stopped and the cell curtains came down. The number of cell searches went up, as did the number of segregation cells. Lockdowns became routine, and prison officials created gang-free prisons by concentrating gang members at Pontiac Correctional Center, where they were locked down 23 hours a day. Nonreligious jewelry, except for wedding bands, was banned and personal possessions were limited to what an inmate could store in two boxes. Inmates wear uniforms instead of street clothes, and the only choice in shoes will soon be whether you want black or white. "No gang bullshit at all," brags Howell.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

I'm probably the youngest guy here. My release date is in 2002 and I believe I'll end up doing the rest of my time here. This is messing my social skills up. I haven't had any human contact the whole time I've been here. My grandma died last summer and I was refused a phone call. For the most part, I haven't been rehabilitated. Imagine me coming to society. I haven't had any school or educational opportunities. No trade. I'm 22 and have been locked up for five years already, with two-and-a-half years left. I've done one-and-a-half in supermax. I don't know what I'm going to do when I get out. I don't have anything. I'm poor, my family's poor. How have I been rehabilitated? Truthfully, I'm scared. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't want to be coming back to jail. I want what everybody wants, but the only thing I've learned is better ways to be a crook. -- Justin Bevins, convicted of home invasion and battery, turned 23 on Jan. 18

I arrived at Tamms on March 9, 1998, its opening day. I've no TV or radio, nor do I anticipate ever gaining access to such. Twenty-three hours of my day is spent caged in a concrete box, maybe slightly larger than a bathroom. Only by standing on my bed can I reach the narrow window to view the outside world. It's a world whose sounds and smells are completely shut off to me by thick concrete walls and Plexiglas windows. I pass several hours of each day just pacing the floor, four steps one way, four steps back, while trying to focus my thoughts on somewhere -- anywhere other than here. At one time I was a firm believer in the saying that they can incarcerate my body but not my mind. But since being at Tamms, my belief has been shaken. It seems that as each day passes it becomes more difficult for even my thoughts to extend beyond the confines of these walls and fences. The bare cells, strict isolation and regime of sensory deprivation has created an environment indicative of psychological torture. Some people have been less fortunate than others in withstanding the effects of Tamms. Since my arrival here I've witnessed and/or heard of more suicide attempts and incidents of self-mutilation than any other time during my 12 years of incarceration. Even I have contemplated and concluded that suicide is a viable, and in some respects, more appealing prospect than enduring year after year of my present conditions. -- Danny Johnson, 34, murderer, convicted four times of escape or attempted escape, due for release in 2060

The simple pleasure of feeling the sun on your face I'll never take for granted again. During the summer, I was able to get plenty of sun but now winter solstice, I guess it is, kinda robs me of that, you could say. The walls are over 10 feet, so can't see much but clouds and the occasional plane. I was pretty fortunate to see two flocks of geese going south this last month. Visits are all behind glass, no contact, and that is the worst part of Tamms for me. For almost every month of my eight years in prison I've used all five visits when I was at Menard. My family has stood by me all the way -- not being able to give them hugs really hurts. I can't convey that enough. My family (and) children have given me strength to look to each day, and not be able to hug them is simply devastating. You know a lot of guys say they don't have feelings, but that's B.S. I do wonder how I will act whenever I'm around other people. It's a trip, man. Last week the sewer was blocked and raw sewage was on the floors, on the galley and in our cells, so they finally moved us. The wing I was moved to the window faces the west, so on a couple nights I could see the moon for a few minutes -- been awhile since last time. Yeah, I saw a few fireworks on the Fourth of July, too! That was pretty cool for me. -- Michael Sparling, 29, murderer and arsonist, due for release in 2025

Why some inmates in long-term isolation go crazy
At Tamms Correctional Center and other super-maximum prisons across the country, some inmates display remarkably similar behavior: They smear themselves with feces, they engage in self-mutilation, they eat their own flesh, they provoke violent cell extractions out of the clear blue.

That behavior isn't surprising to mental-health experts who've studied the effects of long-term solitary confinement on prisoners.

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Harvard psychiatrist who has testified in lawsuits on behalf of prisoners, says he was skeptical when he visited a Massachusetts prison in the early 1980s at the behest of an attorney friend.

"I didn't think I was going to find anything and all these people would be conning me and making things up," Grassian recalls. "I left that prison absolutely shocked. These guys were so sick. They were so scared about how sick they were that they were minimizing it. They weren't exaggerating. They would try to rationalize away symptoms that were so clearly stated in the record: suicide attempts, episodes of confusional psychotic disorganization and all this kind of stuff. Not only were these people sick, but they were all sick in similar ways. Eventually I realized what the problem was. It is a described syndrome in psychiatry. It's delirium."

Dr. Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has studied inmates in several supermax prisons, says even healthy psyches can be damaged by long-term solitary confinement. "I have seen people; I've examined their files; there's no apparent sign or symptom of mental disorder or disturbance before being incarcerated in these units," Haney says. "I've seen them lying on the floor babbling incoherently because they simply have not been able to stand up to long-term confinement in one of these places."

Human beings require a certain amount of interaction with other human beings, and when that interaction is taken away, the results can be traumatic. "I've interviewed guys who've smeared themselves with feces, who bang their heads against the wall, who provoke cell extractions for no apparent reason -- they hold their tray at lunchtime and won't give it back, for no reason at all," Haney says. "You ask them afterwards, "Why in the world did you do that?' Some of them don't know -- some of them will tell you, "I don't have any idea why I did it. I just couldn't control myself. I felt like I had to do it.' But others will tell you, "You know, I just don't feel like I exist in here. There's no way for me to demonstrate to myself that I exist. And I keep pushing myself to extremes. Sometimes I bang my head against the wall to feel the pain to make sure I'm still existing. Sometimes I do things just to provoke a response from the staff in order to reassure myself that I'm capable of provoking a response from another human being, because I have no other opportunity to interact.' It's almost as though these guys are fighting against what they're experiencing as a kind of psychological death."

Some inmates survive long-term isolation with no apparent damage, but these are the exception, Haney says. "Sometimes they'll tell you, "I didn't like it at first, but I figured out a way to survive it,'" he says. "You probe a little further, what you find is they've basically cut themselves off from the pain that they're experiencing by denying the emotional response, by removing themselves as much as they can from the world around them and from the needs that otherwise normal people have. They learn to discipline themselves, essentially, by becoming completely indwelling." The problems come when such inmates get out of supermax. "They come out saying they're fine," Haney says. "They're in the mainline prison system for a week or a month and they get in fights with people because they can't handle being around other human beings. They're easily irritated. Sounds that never bothered them before provoke them. They feel like people are watching them or staring at them or disrespecting them. They're just very irritable. And they're very difficult to get along with."

The courts have generally ruled that supermax prisons don't constitute cruel and unusual punishment. In a landmark 1995 ruling in California that is required reading for all Tamms staff, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson gave inmates a partial victory by ruling that Pelican Bay prison, the prototype for Tamms and other supermaxes built in the 1990s, violated the rights of mentally ill inmates. Prolonged solitary confinement for a mentally ill prisoner is "like putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe," the judge wrote. "Dry words on paper cannot adequately capture the senseless suffering and sometimes wretched misery that state officials' unconstitutional policies leave in their wake. The anguish of descending into serious mental illness, the pain of physical abuse, or the torment of having serious mental needs that simply go unmet is profoundly difficult, if not impossible, to fully fathom."

But healthy inmates are a different matter, so long as they aren't physically abused. "Federal courts are not instruments for prison reform, and federal judges are not prison administrators," Henderson wrote. "Conditions ... may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience, particularly when endured for extended periods of time. They do not, however, violate exacting Eighth Amendment standards, except for the specific population subgroups identified in this opinion."

In Illinois, corrections officials say they take pains to ensure that mentally ill inmates either don't go to Tamms or are sent elsewhere if persistent, serious problems develop. Before a prisoner is sent to Tamms, a mental-health professional must review his file to determine whether the inmate has mental problems that could be exacerbated by prolonged solitary confinement. Is the inmate psychotic or has he been on psychotropic medications? Has he been confined to a prison psychiatric unit or had a history of being restrained as a result of mental problems? Does he have a history of self-mutilation? Has he tried to commit suicide in the past year or had mental problems during previous stays at Tamms? Has a court found him guilty but mentally ill? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, the department's chief psychiatrist or chief of mental-health services must review the case and determine whether confinement at Tamms would worsen mental-health problems. Inmates whose conditions are likely to deteriorate at Tamms aren't supposed to go there.

Despite the screenings, 20 Tamms inmates have been transferred to psychiatric units, according to prison records. Still, there remain at least eight inmates who receive Thorazine and other anti-psychotic drugs, 11 others who get psychotropic drugs to treat less serious mental disorders and another six who have been placed on suicide watch after serious suicide attempts, according to court papers filed last September by attorneys for inmates.

Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Fairchild says transfers of mentally ill inmates to psychiatric facilities show prison officials realize that Tamms isn't a place for inmates with severe mental illness. "We're cognizant of the issue that there are some individuals whose psychosis is so great that there's very little chance of reaching them with a place like Tamms," he says.

Prison officials have said fewer than 10 percent of Tamms inmates are on psychotropic drugs. They also insist they're not driving anyone crazy. In court papers, officials say plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment are feigning mental illness.

Ten days before attempting to hang himself, plaintiff Faygie Fields told guards that co-plaintiffs Ashoor Rasho and Robert Boyd, both of whom had documented mental disorders before their arrival at Tamms, had cut their wrists as part of a scheme to show supermax is driving them insane, according to prison records. Fields also told guards he would try to hang himself to further the lawsuit. When he later fashioned a noose and had to be forcibly extracted from his cell, he told a guard, "You know, the only reason I did this shit was for that lawsuit."

"It looks like a bad issue for us," admits Jean MacLean Snyder, lead attorney in the lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment at Tamms. Fields' statement prompted her to consult a psychoanalyst, who told her that such a statement doesn't mean Fields isn't mentally ill. Rather, she says, Fields is trying to draw attention to himself because he wants people to care about him "Doesn't it strike you as a little bit strange that a person would try to kill himself so that the co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit would benefit?" Snyder says. "Faygie Fields is delusional. Part of the delusion is that this will make them care, because it won't. Faygie Fields is not faking."

The suicide attempt a year ago wasn't the first time Fields tried to kill himself at Tamms. Before the lawsuit was filed, he had been ordered to pay restitution after tearing up a sheet and putting it around his neck, his lawyers say. His lawyers also say he was punished for destroying state property after twice swallowing pieces of a mirror. Boyd and Rasho have been stripped naked and restrained in bare cells after suicide attempts, lawyers say, and both men have been given Thorazine at Tamms. Rasho has repeatedly slashed himself, then torn out his stitches. After slashing his arm, he once ate pieces of his own flesh in front of a guard, according to court papers.

Shortly after being named as plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, Boyd, Rasho and Fields were charged with battery on guards. Rasho, who tied plastic forks to his hands and swung at guards who were removing him from his cell, pleaded guilty and received an additional seven years in prison. Boyd pleaded guilty but mentally ill to charges that he threw urine and water at guards, then elbowed a guard and stomped on another's foot after being shackled and manacled. He got a two-year sentence. Fields, who tried to snatch keys from a guard, stood trial and was found guilty. He is awaiting sentencing.

Aside from a guard who took Tylenol for a shoulder that remained sore for three days after his encounter with Fields, no one was injured in the three cases. Boyd was transferred to a psychiatric facility last year and is now in a different prison. Fields and Rasho remain at Tamms.Cruel & UsualTamms 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?

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