Scrutiny Promised For Illinois' Supermax Prison

06/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Tamms Correctional Center's first warden made no apologies for christening the tough southwest Illinois prison a home for a "very unhappy inmate population." Critics wasted no time dubbing it an inhumane endeavor.

Eleven years later, the debate over the lockup where the worst offenders spend 23 hours a day in their cells remains unchanged, but Gov. Pat Quinn expects a newly minted Department of Corrections chief to take a long look at the super maximum-security prison where inmates are meant to serve hard time.

Quinn on Thursday tapped Michael Randle, second in command of Ohio's prison system, as Illinois' new department head. The Chicago-born Randle won't start his new job until next month, but Quinn already has made clear one assignment will be to examine prisoner treatment at Tamms.

"I'm going to ask Director Randle to meet with all of those who are concerned about the issue of Tamms in deep southern Illinois in Alexander County," Quinn said. "It is an issue we have to listen to everyone on, but Director Randle will make the final decision on what is best and recommend that to me."

Those who question the humaneness of typically giving Tamms' populace no more than an hour a day outside 7-by-12-foot cells square off against the prison's backers who call the segregation essential to safely containing the most dangerous of a 45,500-inmate, 28-prison state system.

"We have a very unhappy inmate population," Tamms' first warden, George Welborn, proudly declared in 1998.

State Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Democrat whose district includes the prison and its 242 inmates in long-suffering Alexander County, argued this week that Tamms "doesn't have to be messed with."

"Those people have earned their way to Tamms - when they were around people, they murdered them, they raped them," Phelps said.

Opponents say Tamms warehouses mentally ill inmates and isolates others for so long that they develop psychological issues. One state lawmaker has introduced legislation to limit terms at Tamms to one year in most cases, bar seriously mentally ill inmates from being sent to Tamms and make it more difficult to keep inmates there indefinitely.

Amnesty International, a leading human rights organization, recently has found Tamms "may breach international standards for humane treatment" and the prison has drawn numerous lawsuits alleging the inmate mistreatment.

"I can tell you there is concern when it comes to mental health and how you treat offenders in certain levels of confinement," Randle said this week. "The issue of Tamms as it relates to mental health is something I would have to look at once I get there. If, in fact, there are serious concerns about that, then I would make the appropriate recommendations to the governor for changes."

State figures show Illinois has sent more than 540 prisoners to Tamms in 11 years, amounting to just .14 of 1 percent of the people who have gone to Illinois prisons in that time. But much of the current attention has focused on long-term inmates - 156 who've been there at least eight years, 69 of them for more than a decade.

"We're not trying to close Tamms," said State Rep. Rep. Julie Hamos, the suburban Chicago Democrat behind the legislative push to change the prison, including allowing an inmate to earn increasingly less-isolated conditions for good behavior. "To leave them in that setting 10 years or longer is inhumane, in my estimate, and a human rights violation. It just cannot be condoned."

Phelps counters that he's seen nothing unfair or inhumane during his handful of visits to Tamms, which is located the identically named community he says "is dying on the vine" economically and doesn't need anything happening to the prison or its jobs. The prison has 275 employees, down more than 100 from just six years ago.

"I've heard the argument that the inmates are in confinement 23 hours a day and need to be around more people. When I heard that, I was beside myself," Phelps fumed. Hamos' legislation, he adds, "is talking about trying to make some of the worst criminals better. But some of them there don't care. They're never going to behave."

Corrections department spokesman Derek Schnapp says the state would "like to have no inmates at Tamms, but we feel Tamms has a purpose."

Backers of the prison have legal precedent on their side. In an Ohio case, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found in 2005 that the state's "first obligation must be to ensure the safety of guards and prison personnel, the public and prisoners themselves."

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court, found "prolonged confinement in supermax may be the state's only option for control of some inmates," including those assigned to the Ohio prison built in 1998 after a deadly inmate riot five years earlier at a state prison.

"Courts must give substantial deference to prison management decisions" against the "brutal reality of prison gangs," Kennedy added.

Still, the justices expressed some concerns about the harsh conditions, with Kennedy writing that inmates "are deprived of almost any environmental or sensory stimuli and of almost all human contact." Lights were always kept on in the cells, he said, and the treatment was more harsh than that of death row inmates.

The court did not address the issue of whether the detentions are unconstitutionally cruel.