Nothing Left to Lose

Faced with supertough restrictions, inmates at Tamms protest by refusing to eat

May 10, 2000 at 4:00 am
Frustrated by everything from lack of showers to lack of education, inmates at Illinois' toughest prison have launched a hunger strike.

More than half the inmates at Tamms Correctional Center refused breakfast and lunch on May 1, the first day of a strike called to force prison officials to ease restrictions at the state's only supermaximum prison, where inmates are locked down 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. By the beginning of this week, 39 inmates were still on strike and refusing to eat.

In addition to calling for an end to restrictions that include no telephone privileges, no exercise equipment except $3 rubber handballs (which inmates must purchase) and no chance to earn a GED, inmates want the Illinois Department of Corrections to follow its own written policies. For example, inmates say prison officials often delay or refuse to deliver incoming and outgoing mail, contrary to policy. They're also asking for more showers -- some inmates get just one each week.

The experience of The Riverfront Times suggests the inmates have a point, at least with regard to their mail. When the paper published a story in February chronicling conditions at Tamms ("Cruel and Usual," RFT, Feb. 16), prison officials withheld mailed copies of the story from at least 10 inmates on the grounds that the newspaper included self-addressed, stamped envelopes so inmates could write back (earlier letters from the RFT containing such envelopes had been distributed to inmates before the story ran, without any problems). After several packets containing the story were returned to the paper, assistant warden Charles Hinsley told the RFT that employees were removing the self-addressed envelopes and distributing the rest of the packets, including the story and a cover letter. However, subsequent to Hinsley's explanation, more than a half-dozen rejected packets (mailed back to the RFT at public expense) trickled in -- one was returned more than a month after it was first mailed. Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) spokesman Nic Howell this week offered a different explanation than Hinsley's: "We don't allow inmates to read about themselves or others in that particular facility."

The number of inmates participating in the hunger strike has plummeted since the first day, when 149 of the 273 prisoners housed at Tamms refused breakfast and 168 would not take lunch. After the first 72 hours, all participating inmates were checked by a doctor, and those checks will continue as needed, Howell says. Jean MacLean Snyder, attorney for inmates who claim Tamms is cruel and unusual punishment for the mentally ill, says she expected the numbers to drop after the first three days. But she and attorney Alan Mills, who has filed three lawsuits on behalf of prisoners contending that conditions at Tamms are unconstitutional, say they expect that a core group of inmates will continue starving themselves. They face a bleak existence. Some inmates are facing a lifetime of confinement in a space the size of a bathroom with no chance for visits, telephone calls, televisions or radios. In a lawsuit, Mills says some inmates are sent to Tamms as punishment for filing lawsuits and grievances against IDOC, not because they pose a true threat to anyone's safety.

Inmates insist their grievances are reasonable. In a four-page list of demands, inmates wrote: "It isn't cable television that we desire, or free college education. Rather, what we seek is for the Department of Corrections to come into compliance with their own rules and regulations." The only grievance that caught Howell's attention was a demand for interpreters so that inmates who can't speak English can communicate with medical personnel. Howell says he checked with prison officials and was assured that this has never been an issue before.

Supermax prisons such as Tamms have drawn nationwide criticism, including some from corrections professionals who say such prisons waste taxpayer money while extracting a heavy psychological toll from inmates who can't withstand long-term solitary confinement. "What is interesting about the demands that the guys have made is they're not saying, 'Close down Tamms,'" Snyder says. "The complaints are taking the facility as something that has to exist. I think this hunger strike came out of a frustration that following the rules doesn't help. Good behavior does not bring the reward it should bring. Filing grievances does absolutely no good. The institution doesn't want to change."

Among the inmates' demands is reinstatement of the Rev. Hal Barker to his position as senior chaplain at Tamms. IDOC is trying to fire Barker for writing a December memo to inmates and staff stating that the prison routinely ignores regulations and operates under a set of unwritten rules. For example, Barker wrote that eligible inmates are denied televisions for closed-circuit religious broadcasts and prison officials won't clarify what diets are allowed to conform with religious beliefs. Prison officials say Barker endangered the security and safety of the institution. In a written statement to the media, Barker says he was just telling the truth. "You can't do your duty in accordance with your faith and the rules of the Illinois Department of Corrections and applicable law because in speaking the truth, you will be fired," he wrote.

Barker says he disagrees with the hunger strike and believes inmates should "seek avenues within the rules of the department to voice their concerns." Snyder says that's not realistic and notes that Barker himself is facing termination even though he says he followed rules.

"He's asking guys to work within the system; however, at the same time he's saying the system doesn't work even for employees," Snyder says.