Tamms Is Torture: The Campaign to Close an Illinois Supermax Prison

May 6, 2013

In January 2013, Illinois' Tamms "supermax" prison closed its doors after 15 years of operation, during which hundreds of men were held in solitary confinement indefinitely. Here's how artists, writers and the families of prisoners shut down the notorious facility.

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Melvin Haywood, pictured above, spent eight years in solitary confinement at Tamms supermax until the Prisoner Review Board granted him parole from prison. Though the Department of Corrections held him in isolation for eight years, as a “C#,”one of the 270 Illinois prisoners floating in the system with indeterminate sentences, the notoriously tough parole board determined that he did not need to be in prison at all. He credits Goodwill and the Safer Foundation for helping him transition back to society after 30 years of incarceration. Since his release, Haywood has worked to prevent violence by educating and mentoring youth: “To stop the violence, it’s got to come from people from the streets, from the inside—not the academics.” Photo by Lora Lode/Tamms Year Ten, 2012.

Illinois Lost Its Head

In 1998, Illinois opened a prison without a yard, cafeteria, classrooms or chapel. Tamms Supermax was designed for just one purpose: sensory deprivation. No phone calls, communal activities or contact visits were allowed. Men could only leave their cells to shower or exercise alone in a concrete pen. Food was pushed through a slot in the door. The consequences of isolation were predictable: many men fell into severe depression, experienced hallucinations, compulsively cut their bodies or attempted suicide.

Tamms Supermax was designed for just one purpose: sensory deprivation.

The first men at Tamms were transferred there from other prisons around the state for a one-year shock treatment intended to break down disruptive prisoners and make them more compliant. But the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) left them there indefinitely. A decade later, more than a third of the men at Tamms had been there since it opened, and for no apparent reason.

Research has shown that supermax prisons don’t reduce prison violence or rehabilitate prisoners. On the contrary, isolation induces or exacerbates mental illness, creates stress and tension, worsens behavior and undermines the ability of people to function once they get out.

 

Mothers of men in isolation at Tamms supermax protest the guards union AFSCME for supporting a prison condemned by international human rights monitors. Their signs are based on the “I AM A MAN” placards first used by striking AFSCME sanitation workers, whom Martin Luther King, Jr. supported just before he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. The mothers said that closing Tamms is about human dignity, not jobs, and reiterated King’s message that workers’ rights and human rights are inseparable. They marched to AFSCME headquarters on April 4, 2012, the 44th anniversary of King’s death, and told the crowd, “Human suffering cannot be the basis of the southern Illinois economy.” Geneva, Rose and Brenda’s sons spent nine, eight and 14 years respectively in isolation at Tamms. Photo by Adrianne Dues, April 4, 2012.

Despite its uselessness as a form of correction, Tamms had many strong supporters: the powerful union to which the prison guards belonged, the nearby towns that welcomed the well-paid jobs, and state officials who thrived on tough-on-crime politics. They all deployed a single phrase meant to paralyze any possible dissenters: the worst of the worst. This slogan was applied to the men at Tamms to suggest they deserved the worst possible treatment—long-term solitary confinement that human rights monitors uniformly describe as cruel, inhuman and degrading, if not outright torture. Challenging this label and this punishment became the project of Tamms Year Ten, a campaign launched in 2008, a decade after the supermax opened.

Punching Above Our Weight

Two years earlier, a group of Chicago artists, poets and musicians formed the Tamms Poetry Committee. Two of them, Laurie Jo Reynolds included, had been members of a group that had protested plans to construct the supermax. Following the practice of two women who sent holiday cards to the prison, we sent letters and poems to every man at Tamms to provide them with some social contact. Their replies demonstrated the necessity of this project: “Hi Committee, is this for real? I can’t believe someone cares enough to send a pick-me-up to the worst-of-the-worst. Well, if nobody else has said it, I will: THANK YOU.” But we quickly found ourselves deluged with pleas for help: “Hey, this poetry is great, but could you please tell the governor what they’re doing to us down here?
 

“Photo Requests from Solitary” was one of many projects launched by Tamms Year Ten to build publicity for the campaign. The men in Tamms were invited to request a photograph of anything in the world, real or imagined. The resulting requests were touching and often surprising. They included: the sacred mosque in Mecca, comic book heroes locked in epic battle, Egyptian artifacts, Tamms Year Ten volunteers and a brown and white horse rearing in weather cold enough to see his breath. Willie Sterling III asked for a photograph of a vigil at Bald Knob Cross on top of a hill in southern Illinois to pray for his deliverance from Tamms and to be granted parole. Tamms Year Ten caravanned down to the cross, held a litany of song and prayer and celebrated with a dinner. The next day, we drove family members to visit loved ones at the prison. Sterling was transferred from Tamms, and on July 27, 2012, he was paroled after 36 years in prison. Photo by Rachel Herman, May 6, 2011. See more “Photo Requests from Solitary” on The Daily Beast.

 

Photographers from across the country offered to fill photo requests for men in isolation. Chicago animator Lisa Barcy, Dutch photographer Harry Bos and Baltimore filmmaker Stephanie Barber each orchestrated a version of one prisoner’s detailed request for a lovesick clown: “A lovesick clown: holding a old fashioned feathered pen: as if writing a letter: from the waist up: in black and white. As close up as possible: as much detail as possible: & the face about 4 inches big.” From left to right: photos by Lisa Barcy, Harry Bos and Stephanie Barber, 2012.

Prison reform is hard enough, but getting people to stand up for “the worst of the worst” was considered hopeless.

By 2008, we had connected with men on the outside who had spent years in Tamms and family members of current prisoners. Together, we launched the Tamms Year Ten campaign. Our goal was to educate the public about Tamms and hold the IDOC, legislators and then-Governor Blagojevich accountable for the use of long-term isolation. Prison reform is hard enough, but getting people to stand up for “the worst of the worst” was considered hopeless. Attorneys and veteran prisoner advocates warned that this campaign could endanger the men and increase support for the prison. But we believed that recent controversy over solitary confinement and torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib opened a new space for debate. And in any case, after a decade of isolation with no end in sight, the men in Tamms didn’t have much to lose.

Outrage Properly Directed
It was hard to know where to begin. Not many people had even heard of Tamms, located at the southern tip of Illinois, 360 miles from Chicago. Our members consulted with legislators from all over the state and sought advice from every quarter. A turning point was meeting Julie Hamos, an Evanston legislator known as a problem-solver. Her moral outrage was gratifying: “Ten years? This is unacceptable.” She felt that the best strategy was to force the IDOC to publicly justify itself. But that meant we had to have enough information to stand up to intransigent prison officials and law-and-order politicians. So we read, researched, filed Freedom of Information Act requests, extracted data from the public record and gathered statements from prisoners and their family members.

 

State Representatives speak at a press conference introducing HB6651, a bill to reform Tamms supermax prison and the first legislation in the country curtailing the use of solitary confinement. Shown from left to right: Former Tamms prisoner Reginald “Akkeem” Berry, Sr., Representatives Julie Hamos, Karen Yarbrough, Eddie Washington and Connie Howard, and Tamms Year Ten members Stephen F. Eisenman and Jean Snyder. Snyder litigated on behalf of men in Tamms with serious mental illness while she was with the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center. Photo by Laurie Jo Reynolds, May 25, 2008.

On April 28, 2008, our friend, the late Representative Eddie Washington from Waukegan, chaired public hearings on Tamms to focus legislators’ attention on the issue. We were supported by attorneys who had litigated on behalf of men at Tamms with mental illness. The testimony was often wrenching, but the IDOC was unmoved. Nevertheless, the sheer size of the audience—more than a hundred people came out—catapulted our legislative campaign. Through forums, lobby days, press conferences, rallies, prayer vigils and parsley-eating contests, we gained the support of 70 organizations and 27 legislators for a reform bill sponsored by Hamos. She also initiated roundtable discussions between Tamms Year Ten, the IDOC and legislators. The highlight of these meetings was seeing the real experts—the men recently released from Tamms—confront their former captors.

When Opportunities Are Seized, They Multiply

In 2009, the stars began to align. Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the conditions at Tamms as “harsh,” “unnecessarily punitive” and “incompatible with the USA’s obligations to provide humane treatment for all prisoners.” The organization contacted Illinois state officials, urging them to support our reform legislation. So did Human Rights Watch. Then Representative Luis Arroyo encouraged us to present our case to the House Appropriations Committee during its annual review of the IDOC budget. He opened the session with remarks about how international human rights monitors—and his own constituents—wanted the torture at Tamms to end. The hearing became a referendum on the supermax.

A month later, and just a year after the campaign went public, our new governor, Pat Quinn, announced he was replacing the IDOC chief with a reform-minded director whose first task was to review the supermax. This was followed by a Belleville News Democrat exposé that described men at Tamms with untreated schizophrenia and knots of scar tissue from self-mutilation. It also documented cases in which men entered Tamms with short sentences but wound up with life terms because of their mental illnesses. Their investigation revealed that more than half the men at Tamms had never even committed an offense in another prison. Amnesty released another, more strongly worded statement asserting that “the conditions at the supermax flout international standards for humane treatment.” In September 2009, the IDOC director announced a 10-point plan for reform that included an improvement in conditions, meaningful due process hearings and an administrative review of each man in Tamms. We had cracked the nut.

Torture Is a Crime, Not a Career

By 2011, the promised reforms were stalled, in spite of a new federal court ruling that men at Tamms had been deprived of their due process rights. But at just this point, Representative Arroyo became Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and pushed not for the reform, but for the closure of Tamms. And in February 2012, Governor Quinn followed suit due to the state’s budget crisis and human rights concerns. In response, downstate legislators and the guards’ union (AFSCME) orchestrated a scare campaign, falsely asserting that closing Tamms would make the prison system more dangerous. Family members, outraged by the union’s shamelessness, responded: “Torture is a crime, it shouldn’t be a career.” The battle played out in the media, the courtroom and especially the budgeting process. Last year was considered “one of the most contentious episodes in the history of Illinois penitentiaries” and the mothers, sisters, nieces, children and spouses of Tamms prisoners were at the forefront of the struggle to shut the supermax down. They lobbied legislators weekly in Springfield and led marches and rallies in Chicago.

 

Children look on at a mud stencil outside the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, part of a tactical media project led by Nicholas Lampert and Jesse Graves to publicize the torture at Tamms. Teams of activists traveled the city with buckets of mud and imprinted walls and sidewalks with this unique form of ecological messaging. Photo by Sam Barnett, April 11, 2009. Design: Mathias Regan.

As political artists with real-world political goals, we needed to engage with government systems.

Illinois has no private prisons and a Democratic supermajority in both chambers, yet it is notoriously difficult to close any state facility. We don’t have 50,000 people in prison because of an amorphous “prison industrial complex” hell-bent on selling uniforms, steel doors and honey buns. This state’s mass incarceration can be explained by a powerful guards union, Democratic legislators beholden to it, downstate legislators zealous to protect jobs in their districts, and mass media that promote fear-based policies. It takes guts to close a prison anywhere, but it is especially hard in Illinois. Yet Governor Quinn exemplified true leadership and closed Tamms on January 4, 2013. He chose fiscal prudence over pork-barrel spending; evidence-based policies over myth and fear; and human rights over vengeance.

Why Artists?

Artists were fundamental to the campaign to close Tamms. Accustomed to attempting the impossible, artists are well qualified to affect law and policy. And compared to the regular political players, they have the freedom of the outsider: they are in the world, but not of it.

For much of the last year, the Tamms Year Ten office and its documents were showcased as an exhibition in the Sullivan Galleries at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But our campaign didn’t just use art forms like poetry, photography, graphic design and songs for the purposes of politics; it was itself what we call Legislative Art.
 

In 2012, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago exhibition “Tamms Year Ten Campaign Office,” in the Sullivan Galleries, served as the hub for the campaign to close the supermax. The office contained all the files and ephemera from the then five-year-long political battle and was the site of an active campaign. Volunteers met and worked around the clock while gallery visitors stopped by to observe, ask questions and even sit down and help. Photo by Tony Favarula, 2012.

For centuries, artists have been concerned with systems of ratio, perspective, symmetry, geometry, anatomy, tactility and optics. For the last 50 years, they have taken on ecology, real estate, advertising, media, cybernetic, genetic, language, gender, racial and class systems. As political artists with real-world political goals, we needed to engage with government systems. Prison policies are made by governments and that is where you go to change them.

This campaign required the endurance, commitment and even obsession that serious art always does, as well as the unity associated with a religious or political movement. People who had stumbled alone forged a collective path. Tamms prisoners sent critical information, galvanizing testimony and prayers. Men once active in enemy gangs publicly spoke side by side about the damage of isolation. Even families of men no longer in the supermax lobbied for sons left behind. Artists lent their skills, advocates issued statements, attorneys battled in court—and principled public officials stood their ground. Out of isolation came solidarity.

We are enthusiastic about Legislative Art because it is stimulating, unpredictable and rewarding. But mainly because it is necessary. Real-world politics is new terrain for most artists, but it’s too important to leave to the politicians.

Below are a selection from among dozens of letters written by men after they were transferred out of Tamms, thanking Tamms Year Ten volunteers for their help in closing the supermax.

“To my brothers and sisters by another Mother, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your tireless efforts and indefatigable labor in moving the Mountain of the state with nothing but teaspoons and chopsticks and paper clips. You showed that faith alone is enough to move great obstacles when they are only standing upon sandy ground.”

The Tamms prisoner who wrote this letter started to hear voices and cut himself while in solitary, and was subsequently diagnosed with several mental illnesses. In the same letter, he wrote that “all the medication in the world won’t make me forget what I suffered at Tamms.”

“Being in Tamms felt like being held underwater and drowning, not being able to breathe. Leaving that place was as if you suddenly came up for air. You’re gulping in air. You feel alive and real again. Every step of the journey of transitioning from Tamms has been a revelation of things both big and small. Our natural human senses, having been so repressed at Tamms, were suddenly and shockingly activated simply by boarding the I.D.O.C. bus. The smell of diesel fumes was overpowering, its presence a turbulent mixture of ambivalent sensations; foreign yet familiar, comforting and nauseating, pleasurable yet unsettling. Shuffling into the bus was a formidable task: the waist and leg shackles severely hindered our movement and were as uncomfortable as they were difficult, yet every prisoner from the first to the last man had the biggest smiles on their faces.”

“I think back when I first heard of the ‘Tamms Poetry Committee.’ I thought I needed to read a poem like I needed a 25th hour a day to spend in that box! Who would have known though, through patience, steadfastness + perseverance, such an innocuous sounding group would transform into this mighty dynamo that would eventually shut down a Supermax prison! Amazing.
“Sadly, I believe the ones to benefit the most from this will be those who will never have to go to Tamms. For those who spent time there, they are damaged on some level, to some degree. While none of us will ever be the same, some are broken beyond repair.”

A former Tamms prisoner shares his elation at experiencing relative freedom in small ways. Elsewhere in the same letter, he writes:
“Hey, we can finally go outside with more than one person. Still takes time to get use to it. THANK YOU! …
“The support we received from everyone is inspiring and emotional. YOU WILL NEVER KNOW HOW MUCH YOU ALL TOUCHED US! THANK YOU ALL! …
“I can finally wear some sweat pants. No more jumpsuits. I even have my own bowl. It may sound trivial, but I haven’t had one in over eight years. A MILLION THANK YOUS!”

This drawing was made by a boy whose father was held in Tamms, as he anticipated the closure of the supermax. Once it closed, Tamms Year Ten sent a copy of the drawing as a New Years Day card, signed by volunteers, to each man transferred from Tamms to other prisons. The positive feedback has been tremendous.

“Tamms Is Torture” is part of an ongoing Creative Time Reports series on U.S. prison reform, which also includes dispatches on solitary confinement from filmmaker Angad Bhalla and photographer Christoph Gielen. This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published by Alternet and TruthOut. You can view more of the “Photo Requests from Solitary” featured above via The Daily Beast.

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  • Lucy

    I LOVED reading the letters from the ‘former tamms’ survivors and simply REJOICE with the picture of the crane w/ball destroying that horrible place…..I loved that drawing when I first saw it in January! I want to see tamms destroyed as soon as possible~

  • caro

    this is such an amazing story. i was working for a prison abolitionist organization a few years ago, and visiting people in prison felt so painful and hopeless. your story gives me inspiration, and your organizing methods are a model for everyone else.

  • Juan

    I agree. Amazing project. It renews my faith in humanity… and strange to say in the government too. How often do we hear about politicians doing what they know to be right even tho they don’t have ANYTHING to gain. The guy who said in his letter that “the ones to benefit the most from this will be those who will never have to go to Tamms” makes a good point. There are a lot of guys in the system who don’t even know what living hell they escaped because some good people and good politicians fought this good fight.

  • Chris

    Visiting a loved one in Tamms, felt at times, worse than visiting a tomb. Because at least when you visit a tomb, you don’t have to see your loved one suffering. It felt like he was in limbo, not really alive but just there. How can someone be alive with no human interaction? With no window to the outside world, with no one to talk to or to look at? Without so much as a hug or handshake every once in a while? It was harder for our family than when he was sentenced and at one point, I truly despaired and thought that death would be better. As a society, we are judged by how we treat our weakest members and that also means we cannot subject men in prison to the type of extreme sensory deprivation that was experienced in Tamms. It took a lot of work and a long time but I am completely relieved that all the men are now out of Tamms.

  • Patricia

    Such a comprehensive and elegant article about the horror of Tamms and the campaign to bring it down!

  • Clint Smith

    Go mothers! Good for these families to fight back against this harmful prison. Enough is enough. I tip my hat to them for taking on such a difficult challenge. Our entire criminal justice system has become a nightmare but a decade of solitary confinement is reprehensible.

  • donna

    WHAT ARE WE DOING! Do we really believe we can treat PEOPLE like this with impunity! Be careful. The hellhole you build for someone else might become your personal hellhole.

  • Ray

    Tamms is what all prisons should be like. Prison isn’t suppose to be the happy comfortable places most of them are or what most people expect out ot prison. I’m a African American who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, Compton and Watts, California. I have several siblings and relatives involved in gangs, drug traffiking, and a few other crimes. Like everyone in my neighborhood, prison isn’t a deterent to commiting crime because they just go hang out with people they already know on the inside or make new connections. One of the most common phrases my people say when they get convicted and have to go do time is ” I got go do this lil vacation time”. That phrase says it all. Take the emotion out of it people, criminals need to be punished…….and punished greatly so they’ll think twice about committing crimes. I would like to make all prisons supermax prisons only. You want to take responsibility for committing crimes, then take the responsibility for recieving the harshest punishment possible.

    • Jack

      Out of all the comments posted in response to the article your reply was the only one in favor of such places. While Tamms may perhaps have been a little over the top in terms of its extreme isolation tactics; in my opinion, we need more prisons like that. I agree with what you said. In my eyes, prisons are built to serve four purposes: prevent, punish, isolate(from public), rehabilitate. It appears to me that Tamms can be argued to fulfill three of the four while other prisons cover 2 at best. More importantly Tamms does the best job of addressing the key purpose, prevention. I contend that none of these comments were written by a victim or a relative of a victim of a crime committed by a Tamms’ inmate. I don’t want my loved ones hurt, mistreated, god forbid killed. I’m sure Tamms used to strike a strong dose of fear into criminals, as it should. I’d venture a guess that if all prisons were more like Tamms the possibility of my loved ones being hurt would be cut in half if not more… Let’s keep in mind that most of those incarcerated DESERVE to be there. If anything, I’d put a stronger emphasis on making sure that those who don’t deserve to be there aren’t erronously locked up in the “wrong” prison. Punishment should fit the crime so let’s not send a cold blooded murderer on “lil vacation time”.

      • Christian Basquez

        I love how you actually think that isolating an individual and depriving them of any social contact will rehabilitate them. Your idea of using Tamms as a fear mongering device shows how little you actually know about criminals. A bomber is not going to stop bombing an area because a Supermax prison exists as a punishment; when a criminal gets to that point, their mind has entered a state of no return, no matter what the consequences may be. Don’t believe me? Watch Breakout, where actual prison escapees are interviewed, and you’ll understand that the consequences were never a deterrent to them. Feelings take over criminals, not fear. Of course, we could send everyone who commits a crime to a Supermax facility and torture them, but it wouldn’t teach them anything. It would just make them want to commit crime even more. Regular prisons exist as a means to “fix” criminals, and as a bigger project, teach them and potential future criminals WHY crime is truly bad. Fear mongering won’t teach a criminal why crime is bad, just as the Crusades never made nonbelievers believe in God.

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