Cruel punishment or safety measure? Panel will make recommendation on Tamms

News-DemocratApril 28, 2012 

Deep inside the most secure prison in the state, a lockup staffed by more guards per inmate than any other in Illinois, basketball was considered a threat.

"Why not put up a basketball hoop?" asked former Illinois Department of Corrections Director Michael Randle when he toured the supermax Tamms Correctional Center in 2009 with reporters and was shown the recreational area: bare cages where inmates walked alone. Former warden Yolande Johnson's response was immediate: A hoop would threaten security.

Fast-forward to Tuesday, when the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability is set to meet in Springfield to vote on closing several prisons, including Tamms, the most-expensive-per-inmate Illinois prison, in an attempt to reduce a huge state budget deficit.

The question of a basketball hoop's effect on security at Tamm's has been lost among these arguments:

* Concerns, especially by downstate legislators, that the prison is needed for safety and jobs.

* Testimony from dozens of mental health experts and activists that it is a human rights disaster, especially for the mentally ill.

* And a reversal of former policy by state corrections officials who now say Tamms inmates can be safely held elsewhere.

Inmates formerly considered so dangerous they had to be kept in solitary confinement at the supermax for as long as 13 years, are now considered safe to return to segregation cells at other maximum-security prisons, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. The state expects to save the estimated $26 million per year annual Tamms operating cost, which includes running an adjacent minimum-security unit. This includes 25 Tamms inmates considered by IDOC director Tony Godinez to be particularly violent, said Solano.

"The department does not anticipate an increased risk of staff assaults or anything like that because of these inmates coming back to (other) maximum-security facilities," said Stacey Solano, spokeswoman for IDOC.

The commission's vote, which is non-binding, will be sent to Gov. Pat Quinn, who is pushing for the closures. The debate about whether to close the state's only supermax comes at a time when officials in Mississippi and Maine have closed similar prison segregation units without increased danger to staff or inmates and at a cut in cost. Colorado is considering similar measures.

Challenged

Since it opened in 1998, Tamms has been publicized by the state as the final stop for inmates labeled the "worst of the worst," a conception challenged in 2009 by the Belleville News-Democrat's series "Trapped in Tamms."

The BND reported:

* Of 247 inmates, which included a majority of murderers, then held at Tamms, 138 had not been convicted of any crime since entering the prison system.

* Of the remaining 109 who were convicted of a crime after entering prison, 55 committed assaults such as throwing body wastes or spitting on or struggling with guards, acts that did not lead to serious injury and can be attributed in some cases to mental illness.

But each crime committed within the prison system by law must be punished by a consecutive sentence. That's how current Tamms inmate Anthony Gay, who was 19 when he punched another youth and stole his hat and a dollar bill in 1994, ended up with an enhanced sentence that will force him to serve 99 years, primarily for throwing body waste at guards.

And Faygie Fields, a convicted murderer whose schizophrenia was ignored by Tamms medical personnel for six years until a judge finally ordered him sent to the prison's 12-bed psychiatric unit, is serving an extra 34 years for the same behavior.

Laurie Jo Reynolds, the head of Tamms Year Ten, which has long advocated for an end to solitary confinement, toured the prison in March and said she encountered Fields, who, to her surprise, had been removed two years go from the mental unit for acting crazy.

"I was told by the Tamms staff that this was because he wasn't taking advantage of group therapy and was constantly smearing his feces. ... There is another man who was taken out of the Special Treatment Unit because he was doing so well, and now he is in the regular supermax writing us about how suicidal he is. Apparently, if you do bad they take you out and if you do good they take you out," she said.

'Safety control'

The relatively small supermax houses less than 0.5 percent of the approximately 45,000 prisoners in the state system.

Guards who stand to lose their jobs if Tamms is closed and other members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have placed hundreds of signs and bumper stickers in Southern Illinois proclaiming that "Tamms saves lives." They argue that since Tamms opened, no corrections officer has lost his or her life in the line of duty.

But what they don't point out is that the last state prison employee to die on the job in Illinois was a 24-year-old guard beaten to death at the Stateville Correctional Center on July 2, 1989 -- nearly nine years before the first prisoner arrived at Tamms.

"It's a gross misrepresentation to just say that by sending these inmates back into maximum security (at other prisons) that the whole prison system is going to go back to how it was in the 90s," Solano said. She attributed the long stretch without a prison employee death to measures taken to curb gangs and violence a decade before Tamms opened.

Even Anders Lindall, the AFSCME spokesman, discounted a connection between prison employee deaths and the opening of Tamms.

"I don't think anyone can make a claim to direct causality," he said.

However, Lindall said Tamms is needed and has protected prison employees from injury because violent inmates want to avoid being sent to the harsh conditions of a supermax.

"Tamms is one part of many reforms that have occurred over time that have made the prison system safer," he said. "It acts as a safety control valve."

State Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, has vehemently opposed the closing of Tamms on economic and safety grounds. He could not be reached.

During an informational meeting of the closure committee earlier this year, state Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, said, "Gov. Quinn ran on the promise of jobs, jobs, jobs, yet he's calling for layoffs to hundreds of hard-working people at Tamms."

Other states

In other states, supermax segregation is on the wane.

Joseph Ponte, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, said his staff has "taken a closer look at who ends up in segregation," and as a result the average time in solitary confinement has been reduced from years to 40 days.

"There are many pieces to this," Ponte said, "We took all our mentally ill inmates out of segregation. So now the policy is if you are diagnosed with a mental illness you do not go into segregation."

Emmitt Sparkman, deputy commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, led a reorganization of the use of solitary confinement at the notorious Unit 32 of the Parchman Farm Prison. Prisoners confined there were locked in hot cells with little ventilation during the summer and filled with mosquitoes, where the toilets operated in such a way that flushing in one cell often sent waste overflowing into an adjacent cell.

Like Ponte in Maine, Sparkman launched a review of exactly who ended up in segregation. He published a research paper in 2009 with several authors, including Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and expert on solitary confinement.

Sparkman could not be reached. But in an article for the Institute of Justice published in October 2011, Sparkman said: "When we started moving people to lower security levels we found that there was no increase in violence. We were able to identify those people who were a threat and they remained in segregation. But they participated in programs, we gave them more freedoms, and we saw a huge decrease in violence in that unit."

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlacyk@bnd.com or 239-2625.

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