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.

"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.

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.

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."