Despite uncertainty about whether the Tamms Correctional Center will continue to operate, a United Nations committee is expected to make a decision this week about whether to seek permission from the U.S. State Department to investigate solitary confinement at the supermax prison to see if it meets the international definition of torture.
Many Tamms inmates, including the mentally ill, have been held in isolation at the relatively small 180-prisoner lockup for more than a decade. More than a dozen have been held in solitary since the prison opened in 1998.
Juan E. Mendez, the special rapporteur on torture for the U.N., said Saturday that his staff in Geneva, Switzerland, is going ahead with an assessment of Tamms to determine if it should be investigated. The assessment began about two weeks ago in response to a written request by the Tamms Year Ten Committee, a Chicago-based alliance of mental health advocates, citizens and religious groups concerned with prison reform. The group has opposed the supermax on humanitarian grounds for more than a decade.
"Communications with the U.S. government are still being prepared but it is going to go forward unless we have drastic changes in the situation," Mendez said Saturday.
An attorney from Argentina, who was himself tortured in the 1970s in his own country, Mendez has been involved with international human rights groups for decades. He has taught human rights at colleges and universities in the United States and at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
Mendez said that even if Gov. Pat Quinn goes ahead with his earlier announced intention of closing Tamms for budgetary reasons, the U.N. is still likely to seek the go ahead to launch a study.
"Whatever happened in the past is also part of my concern. So, we will have to see. I'm obviously following the situation closely. It will have an effect on what I ask the government to allow us to do but not necessarily whether I ask them," Mendez said.
Jean Maclean Snyder, an attorney and member of the Tamms Year Ten Committee, said, "Mr. Mendez' swift and serious attention to the human rights concerns posed by prolonged incarceration at the Tamms supermax should be a wake-up call for Gov. Quinn. More is at stake than providing jobs for downstaters."
Quinn's spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The Illinois Department of Corrections, long a supporter of Tamms, has since stated that if the prison closes, even its most troublesome inmates can be held safely in isolation units at other maximum security prisons.
But several groups including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have urged that Tamms remain open to act as a safety valve for the entire 45,000-inmate system. Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME, has said fear of being transferred to Tamms has resulted in less violence at other prisons.
However, following weeks of testimony, long-term solitary confinement at Tamms was found harmful in 2010 by a federal judge sitting in East St. Louis.
"Tamms imposes drastic limitations on human contact, so much as to inflict lasting psychological and emotional harm on inmates confined there for long periods," wrote U.S. District Court Judge G. Patrick Murphy in his decision stating that inmates must have a hearing before being transferred to the supermax. That decision is under appeal.
Controversy about Tamms increased in 2009 following the publication of an investigative reporting series "Trapped in Tamms" by the Belleville News-Democrat. The newspaper's findings questioned long-held beliefs by the Illinois Department of Corrections that only the "worst of the worst" were sent to the lockup, located in Alexander County in the southernmost part of Illinois.
The BND reported that many inmates were held in the most restrictive portion of the prison for throwing body waste at guards and other acts that could be attributed to mental illness exacerbated by solitary confinement.
Mendez said he welcomed what is being called the first ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, which is set for June 19 and will be headed by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, assistant majority leader and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is titled, "Reassessing solitary confinement: The human rights, fiscal and public safety consequences."
It is actually the second committee hearing involving solitary confinement and prisons.
In September 2009, several weeks after the newspaper series ran, Durbin issued a statement that he would hold a hearing about mentally ill prisoners in solitary, which was in response to the BND articles about Tamms. But about two months later, Durbin made a 90-minute tour of the prison and later told reporters that he thought its 12-prisoner mental health unit was the best in the country.
That finding brought criticism from members of the Tamms Year Ten Committee who stated that the main concern was the hundreds of inmates driven to mental illness by the lengthy solitary confinement.