When death row and dog cages are a step up in the world



A cell block at Tamms on the day the supermax was dedicated in March 1998
  • AP Photo/Mark Christian
  • A cell block at Tamms on the day the supermax was dedicated in March 1998
"This place is one hundred times better than Tamms," a prisoner in the Pontiac Correctional Center told me in a recent letter. "I was able to purchase a regular Bic ink pen and a regular-size toothbrush." In Tamms, prisoners were limited to what were called "security toothbrushes," he wrote. "A security toothbrush is the size of your pinky finger. It loses its effectiveness after three brushes. My gums are still bleeding each time I brush my teeth. Everyone that went from Tamms to Pontiac put in for the dentist upon arriving here, to get their teeth cleaned, pulled etc.—things they would not do in Tamms. I'm surprised I still have teeth."

I've been corresponding with this man for more than a decade, and he'd been in Tamms the last six years. Tamms is the supermax prison near the southern tip of Illinois that was closed January 4 because of state budget cuts. The man was among the 138 prisoners who were transferred out in December. The vast majority of these prisoners went to Pontiac, a maximum-security prison 100 miles southwest of Chicago.

At Pontiac, "They moved all of us into the old Death Row," my correspondent wrote. The bottom two tiers of the North Cell House at Pontiac had been death row, but Illinois abolished capital punishment in 2011, so the tiers no longer need to be reserved for condemned inmates.

"We're allowed bowls to eat from here," the prisoner wrote. "In Tamms, they refused to sell or give us bowls, stating we might use it to throw something on correction staff. However, they gave us cups. Go figure! We had to eat our food from our drinking cups or old potato chip bags."

While an ink pen, a regular toothbrush, and bowls perhaps felt like luxuries, they weren't the first thing the prisoner mentioned in his letter. The first thing was: "We get a chance to see the people we talk to. In Tamms, you could talk to an individual for years and not know what he looked like."

On the bus trip from Tamms to Pontiac, he and his fellow prisoners had the surreal experience of matching familiar voices with unfamiliar faces. "There were 20 prisoners all handcuffed to a security box and shackled. Guys that had been talking to each other for years—we were seeing each other for the first time. Guys would be like, 'Hey, man, I'm so-and-so, I used to be the person talking to you on 5 Wing, or on the yard.' It was crazy."

Tamms, which opened in 1998, cost more than $60 million to build, but Illinois got state-of-the-art solitary confinement for its money. Tamms prisoners were housed in one-man concrete cells, nine feet by fifteen feet, furnished with a toilet, sink, stainless-steel mirror, concrete-slab desk, and a concrete bunk with a mattress. Through a window at the top of one of the nine-foot-high walls, a prisoner could see a sliver of sky. Meals were delivered on a plastic tray through a small chuckhole in the steel-mesh door.

Prisoners spent between 23 and 24 hours a day in these cells. They were allowed at least one shower a week, and up to an hour a day of exercise, alone, in another concrete box that was euphemistically called a "yard." The yard was almost twice as big as the cells, but had no water fountain, no basketball hoop, and no exercise equipment. The walls were 30 feet high, and the yard was mostly covered above. Through the section that was uncovered, "inmates occasionally are able to see a bird or an airplane passing," a federal judge noted in a lawsuit that targeted the isolation at Tamms.

In that class-action lawsuit, Westefer v. Snyder—filed in the year 2000—Tamms inmates contended they'd been denied due process because they weren't given a hearing on their assignment to the supermax. Being sent to Tamms was especially ominous for an inmate because, although prison officials had initially said most inmates wouldn't stay long, they were there an average of more than six years; 28 percent stayed at least ten years. Prison officials maintained that a hearing wasn't required because Tamms was no more restrictive than the segregation tiers of some other Illinois prisons, such as the ones at Pontiac.

Federal district judge G. Patrick Murphy toured both Tamms and the segregation tiers at Pontiac, and found conditions at Tamms "significantly harsher" because of the "severe limitations on all human contact." Judge Murphy noted that all of the present and former Tamms inmates who testified in the case "complained bitterly of the intense isolation caused by the pervasive lack of contact" with other prisoners. In July 2010, the judge ruled that Tamms inmates were indeed entitled to hearings, and they began to get them.

Judge Murphy noted in his ruling that Tamms inmates weren't supposed to communicate with each other on the rare occasion they were out of their cells. But they sometimes called to each other over the wall of one yard into the adjacent yard. And inside their cells, they'd stand at the front and speak loudly through the door, hoping to be heard by the inmate in the next cell.

Alan Mills, the legal director of the Uptown People's Law Center and the lead attorney on the lawsuit, told me the disembodied voices "would be weird for anyone" and could be troubling for a schizophrenic prisoner who might wonder if they "were from an actual person he could not see and had never met, or were from inside his own head."

Judge Murphy concluded that the "intense deprivation of human contact at Tamms exacts a toll on the psychological well-being of the inmates." And the toll was sometimes lasting, he wrote: "The court could recount at length instances of former Tamms inmates who have experienced ongoing mental problems" because of their isolation at Tamms.

That isolation was intensified by the fact that the prisoners had no phone privileges and received few visits—the latter in part because most prisoners' families were in the Chicago area, and Tamms was 360 miles away. When prisoners did get visits, they were via an intercom through Plexiglas, and the prisoners were chained to the floor.

The prisoner I correspond with is bright, and spent endless hours at Tamms reading and writing. But this wasn't typical, as Judge Murphy observed: "The Court notes that a large population of Tamms inmates are poorly educated, if not illiterate, and therefore cannot beguile their time in isolation through activities like reading and letter-writing. For those inmates, the long hours that they must spend alone in their cells at Tamms must weigh especially heavily."

While the judge found evidence of "ongoing mental problems" for some inmates after they left Tamms, he noted that others testified to "significant improvement in their mental health" once they were transferred to "the less restrictive conditions of segregation at Pontiac."

Inmates in segregation at Pontiac spend their yard time in fenced-in "dog cages," Judge Murphy noted in his ruling. Although inmates are alone in the cages, the cages are adjacent to each other, he wrote, "so that inmates are able to talk freely and to interact."

"Everybody sees everybody, everybody communicate with everybody," an inmate told Judge Murphy in explaining his preference for Pontiac's dog cages over Tamms's concrete yards.

Mills, the attorney in the lawsuit, told me he's heard from many of the inmates recently transferred out of Tamms "about how much better Pontiac is. The ability to go on visits without being shackled and to see other people on the yard are two things we have especially heard about."

While some of the cells at Pontiac have Plexiglas doors, most of the cells on the old death row simply have bars—and bars significantly lessen the isolation that was inherent in the steel doors at Tamms. In testimony during the lawsuit, one former Tamms inmate explained to Judge Murphy how the barred doors at Pontiac allowed prisoners in adjacent cells to see each other as they conversed. "You could buy a mirror, a plastic mirror. You could stick your mirror out and look at [the other prisoner] and conversate all night."

Inmates in adjacent cells at Pontiac can also reach between the bars and touch hands, this prisoner told Judge Murphy. "If you have been isolated for so long, just putting your hands on another human being was like . . . wow. You know the feeling if you ever been thirsty and you just drink a cold glass of water?"

Steve Bogira writes about segregation every Thursday.

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