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Gov. Quinn's Proposal to Close Tamms Supermax Prison Got It Right

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My friend and client Darrell Cannon experienced firsthand the regime of solitary confinement at the Tamms Correctional Center, the so-called supermax prison buried in the ground in a remote corner of southern Illinois. Darrell was one of the 50 first Illinois prisoners transferred to Tamms when it opened in 1998. For the next nine years, 23 hours a day, Darrell lived in a barren, concrete cell behind a steel mesh door with no view of the outside world, listening to the screams of prisoners in the cells near his who were slowly going mad. He slept on a concrete slab. In those more than 3,000 days the only human touch Darrell ever experienced was the hand of a corrections officer, shackling him on the infrequent occasions when he was moved out of his cell.

"I got through it by the grace of God and with the memories of my mother and my grandmother," Darrell told me recently. For nine years, he exercised relentlessly each day, testing himself. How many pushups could I do in an hour? How many sit-ups? He ran in place. "I tried to have something different to do on the different days of the week," he said. On Saturdays, he sang ditties to himself. Every song he could remember. On Sundays he sang the hymns he remembered from childhood when his mother would take him to church. Darrell got through it. On April 30, 2005, his wrongful conviction finally overturned, Darrell walked out of Tamms prison.

Since coming home, Darrell has been an exemplary citizen -- no arrests, a solid record of gainful employment, a wife and a stable home. His parole was terminated early. Though he once was a leader in a street gang, Darrell is not a monster. He is not a brute. And he is no fomenter of violence. In point of fact, Darrell is a person of exceptional grace and dignity -- and a very strong man. Darrell Cannon never did anything to deserve the appalling treatment he received at the hands of the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Faygie Fields, another client, was never so strong. He too came to Tamms shortly after it was opened. Before he got there, Faygie was already seriously mentally ill, suffering from acute, untreated paranoid schizophrenia. Solitary confinement at Tamms made Faygie's illness much worse. He repeatedly attempted suicide. He smeared his own feces on the walls of his cell. He tried to throw excrement on corrections officers. So the warden placed a plexiglass shield over his cell door, muffling Faygie's screams and confining the stench from his cage -- and leaving Faygie alone with his tormenting demons. He remains at Tamms as this is being written.

If, as Dostoevsky wrote, the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons, then, sadly, Illinois is a primitive place. Tamms blurs the line between harsh confinement and outright torture. It is a hell on earth and no place to house any Illinois prisoner for years on end, no matter how reprehensible his conduct.

So, for those of us who've seen Tamms at close range, it was a welcome surprise to learn that Governor Pat Quinn proposes shuttering the prison. It's expensive to operate Tamms, the governor noted in his announcement, and the prisoners from Tamms could be housed at a fraction of the cost in other facilities. Government austerity has its occasional virtue.

Predictably, there is pushback. Former Governor Jim Edgar, who authorized construction of Tamms, and George Welborn, the warden at Tamms for many years, both spoke out in favor of keeping Tamms open. Supporters of Tamms like Edgar and Welborn claim that Tamms reduces prison violence by providing a secure setting for the most disruptive prisoners, prisoners who would incite violence if left in the general population.

This is a hollow claim. Leaving aside the obvious -- prison officials have never been able to identify and transfer the "most disruptive" inmates; a significant fraction of those sent to Tamms are "difficult prisoners" because they exhibit the effects of untreated severe mental illness -- there is zero evidence that opening Tamms reduced violence in the Illinois prison system.

Tamms opened in 1998. Inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff violence in Illinois prisons started to decline in 1996 -- two years before Tamms -- and has been on a steady downward slope since then. Before 1996, gangs were in virtual control of several prisons in Illinois. When prison officials were publicly shamed that year by wide dissemination of a video showing convicted mass murderer Richard Speck partying with cocaine at the Stateville Correctional Center, they implemented wide-ranging reforms designed to take back control of the prison system from the gangs. A marked decrease in violence followed almost immediately.

Tamms, in other words, did not instigate a reduction of violence in our prisons. It is true that one study noted a short-term acceleration of the overall downward trend in prison violence for a few months after Tamms opened. Tamms supporters cling to this finding as proof that keeping Tamms open makes our prisons safer. They are mistaken. Jody Sundt, lead author of the study that the Tamms proponents tout, has this to say: "We simply do not know enough about the supermax or about the effect of Tamms specifically, to make an educated guess about the long-term effectiveness of these facilities."

Sundt is only half right. The experience with supermax prisons around the country in the past 20 years has convinced a growing number of prison administrators that subjecting inmates to brutal conditions of isolation for extended periods actually increases violence in our prisons. For example, the New York Times reported last Sunday that Mississippi's decision to loosen restrictions on prisoners in that state's super-maximum-security prison actually reduced violence. No longer driven to rage and despair by the conditions of their confinement, prisoners become easier to manage.

The pointless infliction of harm on our fellow human beings is never "effective." Tamms is immoral and its continued existence can't be justified. Illinois will be a better place once the supermax is closed.