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Don't Protect Torture to Preserve Jobs at Tamms Supermax

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Effective Aug. 31, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn plans to close Tamms Correctional Facility, a super-maximum security prison that has become known as a "human rights catastrophe" and a "financial sink-hole" due to its reliance on solitary confinement. Even as other states across the country turn away from the supermax model, local politicians and one of the state's most powerful unions are ignoring the prison's human rights abuses as they fight to protect the status quo.

This June, Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, announced that he was considering investigating the prison in order to determine whether its systemic use of prolonged isolation meets the UN's definition of torture.

In a recent report, Mendez concluded that prolonged solitary confinement "can amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and even torture." In the same report, Mendez found that forced Isolation often causes depression, paranoia, hallucination, self-mutilation and suicide, and that after a period of 15 days, "some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible."

Consider that solitary confinement for a period of 15 days constitutes torture. Now consider that the average stay of an inmate at Tamms is close to five years. Worse still, many prisoners have been held in isolation for over a decade, and some since the prison opened its doors in 1998.

Other states, including Maine and Mississippi, are reevaluating their use of supermax prisons, in which solitary confinement is standard procedure. Motivating these states' reforms are isolation's high human cost, its ineffectiveness when it comes to keeping prisons safe, and its financial toll on state governments. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announced plans to close Tamms after learning that it costs the state an average of $64,805 per inmate, per year.

Governor Quinn faces stiff resistance, though, in the form of a lawsuit filed by AFSCME, the union that represents prison staff. He also faces resistance from Illinois state legislators representing counties in the state's far south who are threatening to override the Quinn veto that cut Tamms's funding.

The reason why AFSCME and legislators want to protect Tamms is simple: jobs. In a statement about Tamms, State Senator Gary Forby wrote:

Closing Tamms will devastate Alexander County, which already has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. This is just another sign that Quinn is governing from Chicago and turning his back on Southern Illinois.

Alexander County is the poorest county in Illinois, and it continues to be plagued by layoffs and drought. It's understandable that Southern Illinoisans would be concerned about job loss, and the Department of Corrections needs to follow through after offering Tamms employees positions at other prisons in the region. Still, it's disappointing that unions and politicians would allow the economy to cloud their perspective on Tamms's human rights abuses.

To be fair, they have offered other rationales for keeping the prison open, but each of these is misleading. For example, AFSCME frequently refers to Tamms as an important "safety valve" that reduces violence in other prisons. The prison's proponents argue that Tamms is the reason violence in the Illinois system has dropped overall since the early 1990s, but they forget that sweeping prison reforms across the state brought about that decline as early as 1996, two years before Tamms opened its doors. In fact, Christopher Epps, Commissioner of Corrections for the State of Mississippi, reported that violence in Mississippi prisons dropped precipitously when his state turned away from the supermax model.

AFSCME also argues that closing Tamms would exacerbate overcrowding in other prisons. There's no denying that overcrowding in Illinois prisons is dire and does require attention, but given that there were only 181 inmates held at the Tamms Supermax as of March, keeping this particular prison open is hardly a meaningful solution. Meanwhile, a Washington State pilot study shows that doing time in a supermax predicts a greater likelihood of recidivism due to violent crime. If anything, supermax prisons like Tamms contribute to overcrowding over the long haul.

When all else fails, union leaders and local politicians resort to "worst of the worst" rhetoric, highlighting the serious crimes of which many Tamms inmates have been convicted in order to justify their inhumane treatment. Yes, there surely are murderers and rapists at Tamms, as well as gang leaders, but violent criminals and gang leaders are present in maximum-security prisons across the state, and there has been no firm rule as to who gets placed in isolation. Indeed, due process has been conspicuously lacking at Tamms; some inmates were placed there arbitrarily or in retaliation for registering complaints.

While parading Tamms's least sympathetic prisoners in front of the press, Southern Illinois politicians fail to mention men like Darrell Cannon and Andre Davis, each of whom spent years in isolation at the prison as a result of wrongful convictions. They also fail to mention the dozens of mentally ill inmates other prisons routinely warehouse at Tamms. After the John Howard Association, a nonpartisan prison watchdog group, visited Tamms this spring, they reported:

We found multiple instances of inmates decompensating mentally and physically and engaging in acts of auto-aggression and self-mutilation. We found seriously mentally ill inmates housed in long-term isolation convicted of lower-level offenses who would be more accurately described as the "sickest of the sick" rather than the "worst of the worst."

Clearly, Tamms's backers are making convenient omissions in their frenzy to protect jobs. These omissions, however, have serious ramifications for hundreds of men's lives.

Our justice system should not rely on solitary confinement for safety -- it is cruel, ineffective, and expensive to continue defending the supermax model. AFSCME and state legislators need to reassess their priorities, and so do the rest of us. Has a weak economy so compromised our integrity that as a society we will choose to spend tens of millions of public dollars to perpetuate the use of torture?

The answer, I hope, is a resounding "No."