Tamms Year Ten

Tamms C-MAX

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Tamms is located at the southern tip of Illinois, 360 miles from Chicago. Modeled after the “supermax” at Pelican Bay, California, the partially underground facility was designed to hold prisoners in permanent solitary confinement.

Men are kept in concrete cells twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with no sounds from the outside world and a very limited field of view. There is no physical contact. No phone calls are permitted. Food is served through a chuckhole called an “attached service delivery box” in the cell door.

There are no communal activities, no classes, no jobs, no education, and no rehabilitation programs. Incoming and outgoing mail is heavily censored—even Time magazine and Field and Stream have been refused. Most prisoners get to leave the cell for one hour a day to exercise in an empty enclosure, hardly bigger than their regular cell, with a wire-mesh roof. Doctors and psychologists have described prolonged isolation as torture, and the United Nations Committee Against Torture and numerous human rights groups have condemned the practices of supermax prisons in the U.S.

Supermax prisons like Tamms have been a model for jailers at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, where isolation has been used to weaken prisoners prior to interrogation, leading to mental breakdowns. At Guantanamo Bay, solitary confinement exceeding four weeks requires special clearance; at Tamms, prisoners are kept in isolation for years on end.

Not surprisingly, many men have developed mental illnesses while there. They routinely cut or otherwise mutilate themselves, attempt suicide, scream uncontrollably for hours on end, and cover their cells with their own excrement—all predictable consequences of the torture of sensory deprivation.

Mental health treatment at Tamms often consists of stripping the men of their possessions (including their clothes), putting them in four-point restraints, subjecting them to twenty-four hour lighting, and controlling them with pepper spray and psychotropic drugs.

No one is sent to Tamms because of their crime—they are transferred from other Illinois prisons to Tamms. The initial proposal was that the men would be kept there for one to two years and then be sent back to the general population. Instead, it has become a place where men are kept indefinitely with no opportunity to appeal.

Some men are sent there for their gang affiliation, some for their behavior, and some because they are active litigators, jailhouse lawyers—or because their political organizing caused problems for prison administrators. In fact, some men have never had a disciplinary ticket or hadn’t had one for years before being sent to Tamms. Tamms was built with the rationale that extra punishment would help control gangs and deter violence in Illinois prisons. Yet, there is no evidence to support this theory. And these problems have declined steadily since before Tamms was constructed.

Despite their circumstances, the men at Tamms are trying to survive and persevere. To quote one prisoner: “Locked down in a cell 24/7, year after year, no TV, no radio, no letters. It’s a hard life to endure. It’s like I’m on duty all day every day—just to keep a right frame of mind.”


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How does this happen in “The land of the free and the home of the brave”? In recent years I have blamed the immorality I see growing in this country as a product of the Bush administration but more and more I am coming to believe that this administration, with its blatancy, is only calling our attention to something that has existed for a long time.

We are the country that has demanded the rest of the world rewrite the definition of torture, while at the same time we call ourselves the standard for human rights issues, and justify our obvious disregard for human life by demanding other countries live up to standards we ignore.

That we treat our incarcerated criminals inhumanly should be no surprise to thinking human beings and it will continue until people such as yourselves force us to demand that our government live up to the principles in which we claim to believe.

Thank you for paying attention to people that have no voice.

Comment by Bobbi Ashley

[…] example is Tamms, a “supermax” prison facility in Illinois where inmates are held in solitary confinement for 23 […]

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