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Struggling against Torture in an Illinois Prison

Tamms Year Ten campaign challenges supermax facility

By Stephen F. Eisenman
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Tamms Year Ten

Tamms Year Ten is an organization of former prisoners, prisoners' families, artists, writers, lawyers, and others who believe that long-term solitary confinement is a form of cruel and unusual punishment that needs to be severely curtailed, if not ended. The group has hundreds of members in the Chicago area, with additional members downstate, and it works in coalition with many other organizations dedicated to peace, justice and prison reform. Founded in 2007, the group's name commemorates the tenth anniversary of the opening of Tamms Supermax Prison in 1998, and ten years of 24 hour per day solitary confinement for nearly 100 men. (Another 150 prisoners at Tamms have been entombed for shorter periods of time.)

As the result of an intense campaign of education and protest, a bill, HB 6651, was introduced to the Illinois legislature at the end of its spring 2008 session that would for the first time establish clear standards concerning which prisoners may be transferred to Tamms and limit the time men can be kept there. Contacts with sympathetic legislators in early spring 2008 led to a public hearing about Tamms convened by the Illinois House Prison Reform Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Eddie Washington (D-Waukegan). The large, diverse and energetic crowd in attendance - more than 110 people packed the small hearing room at the Thompson center in Chicago - convinced members of the committee that a new law was needed to effect the necessary changes. Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston) introduced the bill, working in collaboration with Tamms Year Ten.

The bill would accomplish four things: ensure that only violent prisoners are transferred to Tamms; provide hearings to establish fairness in decisions about transfer; limit terms of solitary confinement at Tamms to one year, unless the prisoner committed another violent act; and prevent mentally ill prisoners from being sent to Tamms. The bill would not alleviate the bitter isolation and sensory deprivation - and the consequent mental and physical degradation - experienced by men kept in solitary confinement. But it would limit its duration and thus have an important impact upon prisoner health. Moreover, it implicitly announces that torture by the state, in the name of justice, is in fact a form of injustice.

But until the bill becomes law, the scourge of long-term solitary confinement - with its attendant psychological and physical cruelty - remains a fact of life in the state of Illinois. So Tamms Year Ten has now added a strategy for legislation that operates in tandem with a strategy for public education and protest.

A Brief History of Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement is an unusual, and unusually harsh, form of punishment. Before the building of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1821, it was extremely rare. At this new prison, however, men were kept in their cells 23 hours a day, with one hour of solitary exercise in an adjoining yard. Cells were arranged around a central observation tower permitting constant surveillance. Meals were served in the cells, and there was no possibility of physical contact with other prisoners. When a prisoner was moved out of his cell, he was hooded, further enforcing isolation.

Complete silence was required at all times. The idea was that solitude bred introspection and repentance. Instead it led to insanity and recidivism, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1833. At Auburn Prison in New York, based upon the Philadelphia model, "isolation without labor has been tried, and those prisoners who have not become insane or did not die of despair, have returned to society only to commit new crimes...."

It was another European traveler to the United States, Charles Dickens, who in 1841 made the association that presses upon us today. After visiting Eastern State Penitentiary, he wrote, "I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

By the end of the nineteenth century, the "penitentiary system" was widely understood to be a form of torture. The viewpoint was summarized in 1890 by Supreme Court Justice Miller, who wrote that solitary confinement had the effect of rendering prisoners "insensible, suicidal or violent," and thus incapable of rehabilitation. And indeed for the next five decades, solitary confinement was rarely employed, except for short-term control of extremely violent offenders.

In the 1980s the practice was revived, however, in maximum-security prisons such as the federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois. There, men were subjected to permanent lockdown and a system of "sensory and psychological deprivation" so profound that it "stripped them of their individual identities," according to the John Howard Association of Illinois, a non-profit organization that provides public oversight of the state's prisons, jails and juvenile correction facilities. Marion spawned the new generation of "supermax" prisons, most notably California's Pelican Bay in 1989. Just nine years later, Tamms was opened to receive its first prisoners.

The Tamms Regime

Men at Tamms are kept in concrete cells 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with few sounds or sights from the outside world. Prisoners never see or touch other prisoners. Visits from family members or friends are strictly non-contact. Phone calls are not permitted. Food is served through a "chuckhole" in the cell door.

At Tamms, there are no communal activities, no religious services, no jobs, no counseling, and no rehabilitation. Incoming and outgoing mail is censored, and limited reading material is available. Personal possessions - even family photographs - are strictly rationed. Most prisoners get to leave their cell for one hour a day to exercise in an empty, concrete pen with a wire-mesh roof. Many men at Tamms have been subjected to this regime for years. Indeed, nearly a third of the 270 inmates at Tamms have been there since the prison opened in 1998.

According to a report by Physicians for Human Rights, "Prolonged isolation has been demonstrated to result in increased stress, abnormal neuro-endocrine function, changes in blood pressure and inflammatory stress responses. Additional effects include depression, anxiety, difficulties with concentration and memory, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucination and perceptual distortions, paranoia, suicidal thoughts and behavior, and problems with impulse control."

They end their report by stating that "[t]he lasting depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that victims of isolation suffer constitute the prolonged and/or non-transitory mental harm required for mental pain to be considered severe or serious, [that is] torture." By any reasonable definition, the treatment of prisoners at Tamms constitutes torture.

The Work Ahead for Tamms Year Ten

During the past year, Tamms Year Ten has organized or co-sponsored lectures, film screenings, letter writing campaigns (to prisoners at Tamms as well as to politicians), press conferences, public protests, peace rallies and even a blues concert. Its members have spoken on radio and appeared on television, contributed to blogs, and attended national conferences.

Because of the diversity of the membership of Tamms Year Ten - artists, writers, lawyers, ex-prisoners and family members of men still in prison, and a few long-time prison reform activists - it has a broad pool of talent from which to draw. Most important of all, however, there is a committed leadership committee that follows up on every possible opportunity to advance the issue of ending torture in Illinois prisons.

Now that legislation has been introduced to limit who may be transferred to Tamms and how long they may be kept there, the campaign has moved into a new phase. Now it is lobbying and negotiation as well as education and agitation that are called for. And organizational skills have become more important than ever: it is increasingly difficult to keep all members of the growing campaign abreast of the latest developments, and to give all a say in emerging strategies.

In order to keep the movement together and maintain democratic bearings, Tamms Year Ten has created a Coordinating Committee consisting of about a dozen of its most dedicated members to make decisions and apportion work. So far, signs are good that the diverse membership will maintain its focus, energy, and coherence.

The work ahead remains difficult - passing any prison reform bill is difficult in a society that often prefers to "throw away the key" - but the members of Tamms Year Ten, with the help of groups like RESIST and others, is dedicated to informing the public about conditions at Tamms supermax, and keeping pressure on lawmakers and correction officials to end torture in Illinois prisons.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor of art history at Northwestern University. In addition to his activism, he is a writer, critic and curator. His books include: Gauguin's Skirt (1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (2007) and Design in the Age of Darwin (2008). He lives in Highland Park, Illinois.

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