Trapped in Tamms: Supermax prison confines inmates to cells 23 hours a day (8/5/09)

August 21, 2012 

Faygie Fields' escape from years of solitary confinement on the toughest wing of Illinois' only state-run supermax prison began with food.

He claimed there were rat droppings in his rice, bugs in his beans and poison in his Tylenol.

Guards at the supermax Tamms Correctional Center in the southern tip of Illinois told Fields to cut it out. He wasn't going to fake his way to the easier prison mental health unit. It was all an act, they said. He had tried it before.

Reports from other lockups, where Fields was often held in solitary, laid out his dismal disciplinary history. He threw Kaopectate, milk cartons, urine, tomatoes, Kool-Aid, a food tray. He grabbed at keys. He pulled away from handcuffs. Fields was just plain bad, the reports concluded.

What the supermax staff didn't know because records were not initially forwarded was that while in his teens, Fields had been committed four times to Chicago-area mental hospitals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and collected disability payments because of mental illness. Untreated schizophrenics can act violently. He was sentenced to state prison in 1984 at age 25 for shooting a man to death during a drug deal.

According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, Fields is among the "worst of the worst," an extremely violent inmate who cannot be safely held anywhere but at Tamms, a maximum discipline and security prison.

But critics of the prison say Fields is a victim of a deeply flawed policy that punishes mentally ill inmates for behavior they cannot control by placing them in solitary confinement for long periods, in many cases 10 years or more.

Such punishment, some critics say, amounts to torture worse than that experienced by suspected terrorists at the U.S. military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

After his transfer 11 years ago to Tamms, Fields coped in ways bizarre and self-destructive common to many inmates held in continuous solitary confinement. He sliced his arms and throat with bits of glass, metal and paint chips. A prison doctor who stitched him up once testified he didn't always inject anesthetic because the skin of many Tamms inmates became numb from massive scarring from repeated self-mutilation.

Fields smeared excrement in his cell so often that maintenance men painted it with an easier to clean coating. He swallowed glass. Prison officials charged him $5.30 for tearing up a state-owned sheet to make a noose to kill himself.

And then in 2004, after he had been held alone and often naked in a segregation cell for nearly six years, two psychiatrists called to testify in an ongoing lawsuit about conditions at the prison examined him and his medical records and said Fields was a schizophrenic who needed immediate treatment. They also reviewed a long-ignored 1999 report by psychiatrist Dr. Bernard Rubin, a former director of the Illinois Department of Mental Health, diagnosing Fields a year after his arrival at Tamms as a paranoid schizophrenic whose condition was deteriorating. The MacArthur Justice Center of Chicago filed the lawsuit on behalf of Fields and three other Tamms inmates.

Two Illinois Department of Corrections psychiatrists did not find Fields to be a schizophrenic. The prison's supervising psychologist, Kelly Rhodes, countered that Fields was trying to fake his way to easier time. Under oath, Rhodes described self-mutilation as a game.

"They'll compete with each other to see who can cut because it's fun," she said, according to a deposition.

The lawsuit resulted in a court order moving Fields in 2005 to the Tamms mental health unit where, like all inmates at the supermax, he is held in solitary but receives treatment.

The psychiatrists who testified on his behalf said Fields' multiple convictions for aggravated assault against guards resulted from behavior symptomatic of his mental illness.

If he hadn't been charged with crimes in prison, Fields could have been paroled in 2004 after serving 20 years of a 40-year sentence. But Fields must serve all the extra time for throwing food, urine and committing other offenses against guards. That amounts to 34 years, or 54 years total that he must serve before becoming eligible for parole in 2038, at age 79.

Ten years of solitary

Illinois has about 45,000 state prisoners. The state built Tamms to reduce violence among prisoners statewide by taking the "worst of the worst" and holding them in solitary confinement at one location for about a year, or until their behavior improved.

But 54 inmates at Tamms have been held in continuous solitary confinement for more than 10 years, according to an investigation by the Belleville News-Democrat. They include 39 like Fields who have been held continuously since they were transferred there in 1998, the year the prison opened.

Many others have been held for seven, eight or nine years. All Tamms inmates are held in solitary. They spend 23 hours a day in their cells. In March, the torture watchdog group Amnesty International issued a statement citing Tamms:

"The harsh conditions of isolation endured by many prisoners for years on end appear to be unnecessarily punitive and may breach international standards for humane treatment," it said.

George Welborn, Tamms' first warden, defended the prison's treatment of prisoners.

"It's very, very hard time. ... Is it constitutional incarceration? Yes it is. The court cases to this point have shown that. We're not beating them. We're not starving them," he said.

Shortly after Gov. Pat Quinn appointed Michael Randle as the new director of the Illinois Department of Corrections on June 2, Quinn directed him to investigate Tamms. Randle said after spending a day at Tamms he believed it held highly dangerous prisoners who could not be imprisoned elsewhere. Records show that the majority of Tamms inmates are convicted murderers and that a small number have murdered staff and inmates at other prisons.

"I am not comfortable at this point having those offenders out of Tamms," he said during a telephone interview.

Randle would not say whether he considers 10 years and more in solitary confinement to be cruel. He conceded that harsh conditions such as not allowing telephone calls, religious services or education programs might be eased.

"There are things we are going to continue to look at in terms of giving offenders an avenue to demonstrate the appropriate conduct to earn their way out of Tamms," he said.

The News-Democrat's investigation found that Tamms may not house the "worst of the worst." Prison and court records also raised questions about the prison medical staff's ability to identify inmates with serious mental problems who need treatment.

The investigation showed:

* Of 247 Tamms inmates listed June 30 on the prison's roster, 138 had not been convicted of a crime after entering the prison system.

* Of the remaining 109 inmates convicted of a crime after entering prison, 55 committed assaults such as throwing body wastes and spitting on or struggling with guards, and possessing contraband or homemade weapons --- acts that did not lead to serious injury and can be attributed in some cases to mental illness and a need for self-protection.

* Of the more than 250 inmates transferred to Tamms since 1999, records provided by the Department of Corrections show that only six who passed through the mental health screening process were placed in the prison's Special Treatment Unit for seriously mentally ill prisoners, despite a 2005 U.S. Department of Justice study that shows that 15-23 percent of state prison inmates are seriously mentally ill. Department of Corrections general counsel Ed Huntley would not provide information about the total of inmates Tamms staff rejected for mental health reasons who were returned to other lockups.

* Sixteen inmates at the supermax entered the prison system for relatively minor crimes such as car theft, forgery, burglary and drug offenses but incurred huge amounts of additional time --- 92 years in one case --- for in-prison crimes including guard assaults and possessing a shank, or homemade knife. State law requires this time be served consecutively, or after the original sentence.

Tamms, a 500-bed, $70-million cluster of concrete buildings in Alexander County, is smaller than some county jails. The state keeps it half full so that there is room to transfer inmates if a riot occurs elsewhere.

Many of its inmates live in segregation or the disciplinary part of the prison.

Information from the Department of Corrections shows that from Jan. 1 to June 30, Tamms transferred 15 inmates to other prisons. But of this number, three inmates were within a few months to a year from parole and had to be transferred under a regulation that prohibits Tamms prisoners from being released into the public directly from the supermax.

A 2001 study by Southern Illinois University Carbondale graduate student Chad Briggs questioned the value of Tamms as a deterrent to violence. He concluded that despite sending inmates to the supermax, the rate of assaults on guards throughout the prison system either stayed the same or increased.

Prison violence has increased in recent years, said the guards' union spokesman Anders Lindall of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Too few guards and prisoner overcrowding are to blame, he said.

"The state tells us they can't track the date, even on a facility-by-facility basis, but based on the anecdotal evidence that we've seen from our members, violence has increased," Lindall said.

The Tamms Year Ten Committee, a confederation of activists supported by at least two Chicago area state representatives, is also monitoring conditions at the prison. One of the state representatives is Julie Hamos, D-Evanston, who has introduced a bill to improve conditions at Tamms.

"It is a form of insanity to put people in a place that provokes mental illness and then waste taxpayers' money to treat the symptoms," said committee member Laurie Jo Reynolds. "Or worse yet, releasing them without treatment. ... Either they went in crazy, or they go crazy once they are there." Extended isolation Solitary confinement beyond 30-90 days invariably leads to mental breakdown and behavior that becomes worse, not better, according to Dr. Terry A. Kupers of the Wright Institute, a clinical psychology graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. Kupers is one of three psychiatrists who diagnosed Fields as a schizophrenic.

"Anything in solitary longer than three months, what it does is the individual feels hopeless. One of the universal fears that people in supermaxes tell me is, `I'm going to die in here,'" said Kupers, who has conducted hundreds of court-ordered interviews of men in long-term isolation, including Tamms inmates.

"They know they can't control their behavior enough, or please their wardens enough to ever get out," he said. "Twenty-three hours a day alone in a cell causes many inmates to brutally attack themselves.

"In the adult male population of the United States, self-mutilation occurs only in solitary confinement," he said. "It's an epidemic across the country. They're not faking."

In a prison population such as Tamms, where most inmates are murderers, Chris Marcum of Granite City might seem out of place. At age 20, he was sentenced in Madison County Circuit Court to six years for burglary with parole after three years.

But Marcum, now 32, got nine years added to his sentence because he possessed a shank and committed other in-prison crimes. In Tamms he was known as a "cutter." His left arm is covered front and back from forearm to biceps with long, whitish scars.

"I just wanted to feel something. It was the only way I coped with, at the time, with being incarcerated. You lose all sense of everything. It helped me with what I was going through, but it hurt a lot," he said.

Unlike some cutters, he said he did not handle his body wastes.

"I've seen in other prisons inmates cut on themselves, but there wasn't that many people doing it. But at Tamms, every wing I went on there was at least one inmate that had a glass shield on his door, played with his feces and cut on himself."

The shields prevent inmates from throwing body wastes through any of about 400 dime-sized holes in their cell doors.

His mother, Nancy Marcum, would visit him in the Tamms visiting room, where the inmate is behind Plexiglas and chained to a concrete block. She said her son, "kept his arms under the table so I couldn't see. When I found out this was happening, all I could do was cry."

In several lawsuits challenging conditions at Tamms, prison officials have testified that self-mutilation is not a symptom of serious mental illness because the inmate can stop at will.

Chicago attorney Jean Snyder, the lead attorney in the lawsuit involving Faygie Fields, said, "What kind of a guy is slicing up his penis and his arms to get out of prison? Is it an answer to say he could stop it if he wanted to?"

Explosive situation When he was 7 years old, Tamms inmate Jerome Moore used drugs. At age 10, he was confined to a state mental ward. At 11, he was selling drugs and living on the street. He was shot that same year and spent weeks in a hospital. Sent to juvenile detention at 13, authorities suspected Moore of a double homicide but never charged him. At 17, a judge sentenced him to state prison for attempted murder. In 2000, at age 19, he was sent to Tamms.

Forensic psychologist Michael E. Althoff of Carbondale outlined this history of Moore in a 2005 mental evaluation. Yet, despite documented mental illness, prison officials regarded Moore as a "malingerer" who faked symptoms.

What was different in Moore's case was that besides the finding of "malingering," Althoff confirmed a diagnosis of "intermittent explosive disorder," uncontrollable rage totally out of proportion to a perceived insult or threat.

Moore faced a maximum of 16 years for attempted murder but now must serve at least 38 years. The extra time came from assaults on guards --- incidents that, except for one, did not include a weapon or result in serious injury but instead consisted of throwing food and body wastes or twisting away from handcuffs.

Psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Grassian of Chestnut Hill, Mass., who was on the staff of Harvard Medical School for nearly 30 years and has written widely about the effects of solitary confinement, said inmates such as Moore are likely to continue to commit impulsive violence as long as they are kept in solitary confinement. He said prison mental health staff often has distorted views of supermax inmates.

"There's a tremendous pull toward seeing everything that you're looking at as bad behavior that needs to be punished, rather than recognizing that it's actually a response to mental illness," Grassian said. "People tend to think of them (supermax inmates) as the James Cagneys of the prison system. They're not. They are actually the wretched of the earth. ... The paradigm (model) in the prison system is if you punish bad behavior enough it'll get better. That's obviously a paradigm that doesn't work."

Marcum, the former Tamms inmate from Granite City, said he remembers a lot of behavior that caused guards to react, but none more bizarre than when inmate Anthony Gay of Rock Island ate his own flesh. The incident is corroborated in federal court documents.

"I was in the infirmary for 11 days because I was on a hunger strike and he was there on suicidal watch," Marcum said. "And every four hours they came around and took my vitals. And he did it right in front of the window when I was standing there at my cell getting my vitals checked. He just cut a little piece of his skin off and ate it. Right in front of them and they didn't do nothing except go in his cell and search for the object he used to cut on himself."

Tamms' first warden Welborn, Tamms' first warden, hadn't expected the reporters who showed up at his door in Anna, 20 miles north of the prison in Tamms. He regarded them warily. But when Welborn, who helped design Tamms, heard one of them say, "Darrell Cannon says hello," he smiled and said, "How is DC?"

Welborn and Cannon, a murderer convicted in Cook County, formed an unlikely alliance at the maximum security Menard Correctional Center in Chester. Welborn was the warden; Cannon was an inmate who, he said, helped Welborn ease tension between gang members and guards.

Cannon said he was astounded in 1998 to be rousted out of his Menard cell and shipped to the newly opened supermax at Tamms. When he got to Tamms, Cannon said Welborn came to his cell and told him, "Hey look. You do one year down here and if you don't have any tickets, no disciplinary problems, after that you'll be shifted outside again."

But Cannon did nine years at Tamms and got out only after a federal judge ordered his parole following testimony that crooked Chicago detectives set him up on the murder charge.

Welborn, who retired in 2002, said he never expected inmates to be held at Tamms for 10 years or more.

"I don't lose a lot of sleep over those guys who have been there 10 years ... (but) I think they should have been given the opportunity to go back to a reduced security facility and then, if they screw up again, it's right back to Tamms. It was not intended to be a place where guys would be there for eight to 10 years."

In a lawsuit deposition, Welborn disputed allegations that the policy of holding prisoners alone amounted to solitary confinement.

"This isn't like throwing a guy in a closet," he testified.

Cannon disagreed.

"It was total solitary confinement. There were times I would wake up shaking. It would be my system trying to, I don't know, go haywire. I would have to get up off that concrete bed and go to the sink and run some cold water and wait until the sink fills up and then throw the water all over me," he said. "And I would have to talk to myself and say, `Hey, look. Do not break. You can't let this happen.'"

Cannon said he never engaged in self-mutilation but knew of many inmates who did.

"I would walk the floor in circles. And I may do that for two hours straight," he said.

He set aside a special night for the music of his youth.

"Saturday night was dedicated to all the old songs. Blue Moon. Stand By Me ... all those old songs I could think of. I would try to remember the words. I would sing just loud enough where I could hear myself." Back to Tamms Richard Conner, a murderer doing life, attempted to hang himself in his cell at Tamms on Dec. 1, but wound up instead in a coma at Heartland Community Hospital in Marion.

Although the Department of Corrections won't talk about it, members of the Tamms Year Ten Committee believe Conner tried to kill himself a few weeks earlier by slitting his wrists.

After recovering, the prison system sent Conner, 38, to its Dixon Psychiatric Unit and then on to the maximum security Stateville Correctional Center at Joliet. And there, on April 2, guards opened the cell that Conner shared with Jameson S. Leezer and found Leezer dead. Leezer, a car thief, was 18 days from parole.

An autopsy showed that Leezer was strangled and Conner, the only other person in the locked cell, was the obvious suspect. Instead of returning him to the prison system psychiatric hospital at Dixon, authorities sent Conner back to Tamms.

No decision has been made on whether to prosecute Conner for Leezer's murder. A Department of Corrections directive issued on May 11 stated that any Tamms inmate transferred out must be held in a single cell.

In another incident, guards found Robert Foor, 33, dead on June 23 in his cell in the Tamms Special Treatment Unit, or mental ward. He was convicted of robbery and burglary in 1994 and given nine years but accrued eight years of extra time because of in-prison convictions.

Debbie Elsoff of Malta, Ill., Foor's mother, said that an autopsy did not determine how her son died. She said that when she informed prison officials that she could not afford to pay for her son's cremation or to have his body shipped home, they said they would cremate him there but could not turn over his remains because of state law.

"I cried all night when I heard that," said Elsoff.

Later, a non-profit group agreed to pay for Foor's cremation, and his remains were sent to his mother.

Malcolm Young, who until recently was the director of the prison reform organization The John Howard Association, said the policy at Tamms to use extreme discipline to respond to problems that many consider are caused by mental illness causes psychological deterioration, even worse behavior and sometimes suicide.

"It is not a dirty place. It's not a hole in the ground with mice and rats and everything else," he said, "But it is just total isolation and it operates to purposely deprive the men that are there from contact with other people."

Young, a lawyer at Northwestern University's Bluhm Legal Clinic, said even the way inmates are moved to the yard reinforces the debilitating effect of solitary confinement. The yard represents the one hour a day when inmates are not in their cells, yet they are still alone in a concrete box with a roof of steel mesh that half covers the sky.

Inmates head to the yard handcuffed and shackled inside a special caged chute with two guards outside the wire keeping pace.

"It's just the mechanical way they do it. It's like a ballet that emphasizes the separation between the prisoner and any other human being," he said. "The design of the place. The way the windows are situated too high to see out of. All of it just drives home that you are in a totally sterile environment as is possible to put you in and keep it legal."

`Eternal Twilight Zone' For more than eight years, Nancy Meyer of Elgin has corresponded with Tamms prisoners. She often drives the 700-mile round trip to visit about a dozen men there she has come to know well.

Meyer said she sends money to inmates and contacts family members who often haven't heard about their loved ones for years. Some tell her not to call again.

Of the inmates on her list, Faygie Fields is her favorite. She says that even though Fields is a grown man and a convicted murderer, something about his optimism, even cheerfulness, makes her heart go out to him. In his Tamms mugshot, Fields is smiling.

"I see that face and he smiles and I say, `Faygie, how are you doing? You're not hurting yourself anymore because if you are I won't come to see you.' He always says he isn't, but I know he will."

In a handwritten letter dated April 6, Fields used a plus sign for the word "and," capital letters for emphasis and dropped question marks in odd places.

While the sentences were fragmented and the grammar vague, the message was clear: "Please know that Tamms is driving ME CRAZY all of them keep saying none of us can leave here. But keeps all here? + in a Eternal Twilight Zone that has no ending?" Tale of two prisons Alcatraz, built on a rock in San Francisco Bay, was America's most-notorious prison. Here's a look at conditions at Tamms compared with Alcatraz: A typical day at Alcatraz:

• Guards came through at 6:30 a.m. shouting "wake up." A prisoner had 30 minutes to get dressed and stand at attention in front of his open cell.

• A guard would then walk by and inspect each inmate. If all was well, a whistle sounded at 7 a.m. and men walked single file to the dining room known as "Times Square." Loud talk was not tolerated.

• After breakfast, inmates were led to jobs in the prison industry building or into the yard, which was surrounded by high walls. Inmates could play softball, but the rule was that a ball hit over the wall was an out.

• Lunch was at noon. Dinner at 5 p.m. Each feeding time, prisoners walked single- file first to their cell for one of the day's several counts, and then to eat.

• Inmates could keep a few books in their cells but no newspapers or magazines. They could have tobacco products but only to roll their own cigarettes.

• There were no work details on weekends when inmates mostly spent time in the yard, which could be a dangerous place. "Shivs" or knives were fashioned from wood and could be slipped by the metal detector and used to stab a fellow inmate.

• Prisoners were allowed a single, one-hour visit each month from a blood relative.

• Disciplinary problems were sometimes handled by placing an inmate naked in a cell with no light and no mattress. A typical day at Tamms:

• Inmates stay in their cell 23 hours per day. Meals are served through a "chuck hole," or feeding slot in the perforated steel door.

• Yard privileges are allowed for some inmates for an hour per day. When allowed out of their cells for yard or a shower, each Tamms inmate must back up to the door and place his hands through the feeding slot. The door is then opened, and the inmate must kneel and be shackled. Two guards then accompany the prisoner with each keeping both hands on his body.

• The yard consists of a 30 feet long, 15 feet wide concrete enclosure with a mesh roof that allows some sky to be seen. Inmates are always alone in the yard. There is no recreational equipment and no toilet.

• Tamms inmates cannot make or receive telephone calls except from their attorney. They have little or no access to educational programs or religious services. There are no jobs for inmates. There are no weight room and workout facilities for inmates.

• Some inmates who have reached the highest behavioral level can use a small television or radio with headsets if they can afford to purchase them.

• Books, magazines and newspapers are allowed under certain conditions. Mail is delivered after being searched.

• Disciplinary problems result in "tickets" that can cause a prisoner to be stripped of all possessions, including clothing and placed in a "strip cell."

• An inmate's water supply for flushing his toilet and water for drinking can be cut off for hours at a time for disciplinary reasons. He may also be placed on a diet of water and nutraloaf, a baked concoction said to supply sufficient nutrients but virtually devoid of taste. Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, Illinois Department of Corrections