Tamms Supermax Prison

Supermaximum prisons, increasingly popular in the United States, exercise control over inmates through extreme social isolation, severely restrict movement, and an environment that restricts stimulation. The prisons cause serious psychological damage to many inmates and make prisoners angrier and less able to control their impulses when they return to society, as many will. The Roderick MacArthur Justice Center has sued Illinois officials over the housing of seriously mentally ill prisoners at Illinois's supermaximum prison, Tamms Correctional Center, and has voiced in public forums its concerns about supermaximum prisons.

Conditions at Tamms

Reforming Tamms

Advocates who labored for more than a decade to reform Tamms Correctional Facility, Illinois' controversial supermax prison, achieved significant progress this month when Illinois Department of Corrections Director Michael P. Randle unveiled a new plan to improve conditions at the site.

During its brief but dubious history, Tamms has been called "inhumane" and a place of "psychological torture" by human rights advocates and legal experts alike. Inmates are warehoused in isolation, barred from contact with the outside world and with others within the facility. It is not uncommon for prisoners confined in such isolation to suffer from mental illness.

The Roderick MacArthur Justice Center has joined other prison reform groups, such as Tamms Year Ten, in urging state officials to close the controversial facility. While stopping short of that goal, Randle introduced a ten-point plan that aims to alleviate some of the most flagrant problems at the prison. In addition to calling for more mental health screenings, his plan also allows for congregate religious services, eased restrictions on reading materials and an increased access to phone calls, showers and other privileges.

These reforms are clearly a step in the right direction. Regrettably, however, Randle's plan is short on specifics. He also fails to make clear whether the changes he proposes will be permanently codified in Administrative Regulations.

Of particular concern, Randle's plan proposes no changes in the unacceptably vague criteria governing which prisoners are eligible for transfer to Tamms in the first place.

Tamms was created as a short-term punishment for prisoners who commit serious rule infractions and to quell violence in other Illinois prisons. Yet the rules for how and why prisoners are sent to the supermax are so ambiguous that any prisoner could be found eligible for placement at Tamms. Meanwhile, the entire justification for Tamms' existence - that it reduces violence and disciplinary problems throughout the state prison system - lacks credibility.

Randle should have established narrow, objective criteria for transfer to the supermax, like those in HB 2633, sponsored by Representative Julie Hamos. With no clear transfer guidelines, Randle's proposals to review the assignment of long-term Tamms inmates, to hold transfer hearings, and to allow prisoners to appeal their detention at Tamms may have little practical effect.

Some experts have rightly compared Tamms to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. While the President has renounced the conditions at Guantanamo and ordered the facility to eventually close, Tamms continues to be Illinois' warehouse of long-term isolation.

Randle's 10-point plan moves several steps toward the humane treatment of Tamms inmates. We have yet to see how firmly the Illinois Department of Corrections is committed to protecting the human rights of these prisoners.

Updated - 09/23/2009

Former Inmates Describe Psychological Torture at State Supermax Prison During Illinois House Committee Hearing

The Illinois House of Representatives Committee on Prison Reform held a hearing today in Chicago to review the current conditions at Tamms Supermax Prison - a "supermaximum security" prison in southern Illinois where prisoners are sent for extra punishment. The prison was intended for short-term incarceration (1-2 years) during which time prisoners are in permanent solitary confinement. However, 88 men have been at Tamms since the prison opened 10 years ago and are being held indefinitely.

"Permanent solitary confinement, often for years at a time with no end in sight, is a form of psychological torture, and it often leads to mental illness," said Jean Maclean Snyder, a former MacArthur Justice Center attorney who has represented Tamms' prisoners in the past. "And when some of these men finally do return to society, Tamms has left them worse off than before they went in. It's time to reevaluate the effectiveness of supermax prisons."

They're also extremely expensive. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, the average annual cost of housing a prisoner at Tamms is two to three times as much as any other adult prison in Illinois.

"The fact that we're paying tens of thousands of dollars more to lock people up at Tamms when there is no benefit to the prisoner or the larger society is mind boggling," said Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center. "Throwing more money away on an abusive system at Tamms that doesn't work is not the answer."

Mental health professionals, prisoners' family members, MacArthur Justice Center attorneys, and advocates testified at the hearing and are calling on the Illinois House of Representatives to end psychological torture at Tamms.

Updated - 04/01/2008

Rights of Mentally Ill Prisoners at Tamms

MJC Improves Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners at Supermax Facility

Mentally ill inmates housed in one of Illinois' harshest prisons will receive access to better health treatment under a legal settlement that MacArthur Justice Center has reached with the Illinois Department of Corrections.

The agreement results from a lawsuit that the center brought against the state on behalf of mentally ill inmates confined at the Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois. Tamms is a maximum-security, or "Supermax," prison, a designation "synonymous with extreme isolation" according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At Tamms, prisoners with serious mental illness were denied access to adequate medical treatment, causing them severe psychological trauma, MacArthur Justice Center charged in its suit.

In settling the case, the Illinois Department of Corrections agreed to institute better screening of inmates to detect mental illness, to establish a special psychiatric unit to administer to afflicted prisoners and to heighten standards of confidentiality between inmates and mental health care providers.

Updated - 07/01/2005

Lawsuit Says Housing Mentally Ill Prisoners at Supermax is Illegal

The MacArthur Justice Center won the right for two seriously mentally ill inmates housed at Illinois' supermaximum prison, Tamms Correctional Center, to proceed to trial on their claims against prison mental health personnel. That was the ruling by Magistrate Judge Clifford Proud on January 25, 2005, when he denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment (while dismissing claims against some defendants not involved in providing mental health treatment). The inmates contend that the harsh, isolating conditions at Tamms supermax prison exacerbate their mental illnesses and that the mental health treatment provided to them is inadequate. Their lawsuit seeks an injunction to prevent the defendants from continuing to violate their rights under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitutional and the federal Rehabilitation Act. The defendants have filed objections to the magistrate's decision with the trial judge in the Southern District of Illinois, where the case is pending.

Initially two other Tamms' inmates were plaintiffs in the Justice Center lawsuit. Those men withdraw as plaintiffs when they were transferred out of Tamms.

Updated - 03/24/2005

MacArthur Justice Center Sues Tamms Prison Officials on Behalf of Mentally Ill Prisoners

Four prisoners represented by the MacArthur Justice Center have sued prison officials (pdf) for housing seriously mentally ill prisoners at Tamms Correctional Center, Illinois's supermaximum prison. The lawsuit, Rasho v. Snyder, pending in the Southern District of Illinois, seeks declaratory and injunctive relief based on the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the federal Rehabilitation Act. The lawsuit says that exposing mentally ill prisoners to the excessively harsh conditions at the prison amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and unlawful discrimination.

MacArthur Justice Center Speaks Out About Supermax Prisons

MJC Testimony Says Conditions at Tamms Increase Recidivism

MacArthur Justice Center attorneys warned the Illinois legislature (pdf) that the environment at Tamms Correctional Center, Illinois' supermaximum prison in southern Illinois, has devastating effects on the prisoners who are housed there. Testifying at the Illinois House Prison Management and Reform Legislation Committee's April 2001 hearings on recidivism, the lawyers complained that inmates who live in the harsh, isolating conditions at Tamms will have difficulty becoming law-abiding citizens when they are released from prison.

UN Committee Condemns "Excessively Harsh Regime" at Supermax Prisons Following MJC Statement

In a statement (pdf) delivered to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, the MacArthur Justice Center called for a new U.S. policy condemning as torture the housing of mentally ill inmates in supermaximum prisons. The Justice Center said that the practice violates both the Torture Convention's prohibition against punishment by the intentional infliction of severe mental pain and suffering and its prohibition against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. In May 2000, in response to concerns raised by the MacArthur Justice Center and others, the UN Committee condemned "the excessively harsh regime" of U.S. supermax prisons (pdf) such as the one at Tamms in southern Illinois.

MacArthur Justice Center Op-Ed (pdf)