Tamms, opened in the 1990s, was designed as a facility to hold especially violent and disruptive inmates on a temporary, rotating basis—to “serve as a sort of shock treatment for inmates with severe behavior problems.” It didn’t work out that way: Tamms lapsed into housing many prisoners for years, then some for over a decade, keeping them in near-total solitary confinement with no access to phone calls, with only rare family visits—in part because most of the prisoners’ families were hundreds of miles away in the Chicago area—and without education or job programs. The campaign to close it stepped up after the 2009 death of a 33-year-old inmate who had been kept in isolation for 11 years, and had complained that his medication was being withheld.
The closure is a victory for the wellbeing of the inmates, certainly, and for the broader movement to call out the abuses inmates face in maximum-security facilities. Inmates at Tamms now had reasons to hope, where their lives previously had been held to a cycle of cruel and often arbitrary restrictions and abuses—sent to Tamms for seemingly no reason, held there indefinitely and without any word from the outside. Most of these inmates have been moved to the Pontiac maximum-security prison, where, at least momentarily, conditions were improved, even to the meager extent that shows how poorly they were treated at Tamms.
It is sadly telling how the Tamms prisoners have been so demoralized and traumatized that the somewhat less restrictive setting at Pontiac felt liberating. A prisoner, corresponding with Steve Bogira at the Reader, pointed to the surreal changes that leaving Tamms brought on: “We get a chance to see the people we talk to,” he said. “In Tamms, you could talk to an individual for years and not know what he looked like.” Being housed behind bars, rather than steel-mesh doors, in Pontiac’s former death row; being allowed regular pens, toothbrushes, and bowls to eat from; going on visits without being shackled; being able to see and interact with other people on the yard from individual, fenced-in “dog cages”: these are what pass for a step up in life at Pontiac.
But concern, and alarm, is increasingly being expressed about the conditions at Pontiac. The legal director of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago recently toured the facility, and saw what the Center reported as one of the most disturbing things they had ever witnessed in a prison: one of the “treatment rooms,” where therapists have one-on-one sessions with inmates, “contains a chair for the therapist, then they built a cage in the middle of the room–Hannibal Lecter style. Then they have plexiglas covering the bars. Sitting in this cage was a man shackled hand and foot, wearing a spit mask.”
And now, in the last week, 47 former Tamms inmates at Pontiac have gone on a hunger strike, professing that they are “treated worse than everybody else at Pontiac.” The Law Center commented that the inmates don’t take this action lightly, knowing that they might well end up punished for it. Pontiac is a much larger facility than Tamms, and it seems that Pontiac doesn’t have the resources to properly handle the influx of prisoners. The strikers are complaining that they’re forced to share nail clippers, even though some of the men have Hepatitis C and HIV, and that their cells aren’t being heated properly.
The Law Center, and Tamms Year Ten and others, are closely monitoring this situation. But the grim reality remains that, given the state of our prison system, and the country’s institutional drive to incarcerate that has created such an enormous prison population, the closure of one inhumane facility means the hasty transfer of people into yet another fairly similar one. The particulars of the setting and the restrictions of daily life may change—and for the men from Tamms, every little improvement is hugely valuable—but the culture that treats the people in our prisons as much less than human, and is all-too-eager to put them there, continues largely apace.
The system feeds off of itself, as in how officials at another Illinois facility provided almost no explanation of the recent death of an inmate, beyond blaming a spike in violence on the closure of Tamms. Inmates in this state are better off without Tamms as a possible destination, and those who were formerly suffering there have at least gained a measure of access to the outside world to protest their treatment. But for now, when one heinous facility closes, another will still pop up to take its place. The system is inflexible, overpopulated, and fundamentally inhumane. Tamms may have been called the worst of the worst, and likened to Guantanamo, but the ongoing question is how to make the whole system just as notorious.