Published 12/31/2009 For almost 12 years, Illinois taxpayers have paid one of the highest per-inmate costs in the country to house what the Department of Corrections says are the 250 worst inmates in the state. The per-year cost to operate the solitary-confinement-only Tamms Correctional Center has grown to at least $16 million --- $64,000 per prisoner, according to figures provided by the state. The amount is two to three times what is spent annually to house an inmate at the three other maximum security lockups in Illinois.
However, the actual per-inmate cost of running the Tamms supermax is undoubtedly much higher, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections 2008 Annual Report. That's because 155 inmates at a minimum security camp operated on the same grounds are included in the figures.
The combined annual cost for the supermax and the minimum security camp is $27.7 million. Using the generous per-inmate cost of $30,000 per year for a minimum security inmate, a classification that requires the least amount of guards and services, the cost of the minimum camp is $4.7 million annually. That leaves $23 million for the supermax or $92,000 per inmate.
The annual cost of providing mental health care at Tamms --- which critics, such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch, say causes mental illness by imposing years solitary confinement --- is $1.2 million. Most of that expense goes into operating the Special Treatment Unit, which usually houses fewer than a dozen inmates. The Tamms staff psychiatrist is paid $288,000 per year.
Five months after a News-Democrat investigative series reported abuses at the supermax, and nearly four months after prison system director Michael Randle announced limited reforms, 48 inmates have been cleared for transfer out of Tamms.
But as Randle struggles to find ways to keep costs down statewide, prison experts and attorneys who handle prison-condition lawsuits question whether Tamms actually works.
Randle recently testified in a federal lawsuit brought by Tamms prisoners that the supermax is crucial to safety throughout the system and deterring assaults against guards because inmates fear transfer to Tamms. However, as of Wednesday, his office had not provided any data requested by the News-Democrat concerning whether assaults on guards have declined since Tamms opened.
Supermax critics challenge the idea that confining 250 or so prisoners --- half of 1 percent of the entire state prison-system population --- does any good. They argue it is illogical to believe isolating fewer prisoners than are held in many county jails can have any real effect on reducing violence in a large, highly transient prison system.
While DOC data show that assaults against guards dropped for about 1 1/2 years after Tamms opened in 1998, the decrease has been attributed by critics to statewide prison reforms that began in 1996.
"It is inconceivable that they support the idea that violence declined because of Tamms," said Chicago-area lawyer Jean Maclean Snyder, who has represented Tamms inmates in federal lawsuits. "It declined because of other security changes."
Jody L. Sundt, who co-authored a 2008 study about Tamms, said supermax prisons are not cost-effective and probably do not achieve long-term goals.
"It is primarily a symbol, a gesture of overwhelming control," said Sundt, an assistant professor in the Division of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Portland State University in Oregon.
Sundt's study found that violence against guards did decrease during an 18-month period following the opening of Tamms, but she said she and her fellow researchers could not determine why. The study showed the short-term decrease was not solely due to ongoing reforms that began a few years earlier. No similar decreases were found in studies of supermax prisons in other states.
Sundt said that while inmates who commit crimes in prison need to be under strict control, programming, not years of solitary confinement, is more likely to reduce violence.
"Some might say it isn't torture because no bones are broken, but it causes pain and suffering," she said.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, recently praised the mental health treatment inmates receive in Tamms' Special Treatment Unit. He had earlier convened a Senate subcommittee on human rights because of his concern about Tamms inmates.
During a recent media tour, reporters saw mentally ill inmates in a treatment area. Each was confined to a separate Plexiglas booth set in a semi-circle and was playing a card game without actually touching any cards, which were handled by a $50,000-per-year activity director.
"The idea that Tamms serves as a deterrent is, on its face, nonsense," said Stephen F. Eisenman, an art history professor at Northwestern University in Chicago with a Ph.D. from Princeton. Eisenman has published widely, including the 2007 book "The Abu Ghraib Effect," concerning abuses at the U.S. military prison in Baghdad.
"Only a tiny fraction of those who commit any kinds of felonies in the prison system get sent to Tamms," said Eisenman, who also contends that the supermax does little or nothing to curb violence against guards at other prisons.
"To attribute it (a decline in violence) to this one small factor, this tiny prison opened in Southern Illinois, I just think is absurd," he said, adding, "What I think is really going on here is that the prison guards and the (guards') union like to have a place like Tamms where they can send somebody who has attacked a guard. Guards have difficult jobs, and if one of their own is attacked, they like to be able to feel that there is some way to get back at the prisoner, like sending him to Tamms."
Anders Lindall, the public affairs director for the guards' union --- Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees --- said violence against guards, according to "numerous anecdotal reports" from the union's membership, is increasing, not decreasing. He denied that guards sought vengeance against inmates.
Chad S. Briggs, a doctoral candidate at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, who worked with Sundt on the Tamms study, said, "Conceptually, Tamms doesn't make a lot of sense."
The way Tamms officials handle inmates sent to the lockup, especially mentally ill prisoners, by locking them in solitary with little or no social contact, is far different than the policy at what is arguably the largest lockup in the United Sates: the 10,000 prisoner Cook County Jail.
The newspaper's Tamms series reported that mentally ill inmates reacted to being held for as long as more than a decade in solitary by mutilating themselves to the point of needing hospitalization, and by throwing feces and urine at guards and smearing bodily wastes on themselves.
Randle repeatedly said Tamms is reserved for the "worst of the worst," although the newspaper's findings challenged that assumption. The series reported that more than half of Tamms inmates had committed no crimes inside prison and that others were seriously mentally ill and did not receive treatment.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said during a November interview that about 250 mentally ill prisoners, including 50 who are seriously mentally ill, are treated in a special unit at the sprawling jail. There is no Hannibal Lecter treatment, he said. The jail isolates only actively psychotic inmates and even then, only for a few hours or a few days at a time. All but a few mentally ill Cook County inmates are out of their cells all day and mingle with other prisoners and staff.
As for long-term solitary confinement, Dart said, "That stuff doesn't really work."
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