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Hell in a Cell

Tamms supermax prison was built to punish disruptive inmates with temporary solitary confinement. Yet Reginald Berry spent the better part of eight years there—and he was luckier than many.

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There were 460 dime-size holes in the door of Reginald Berry's cell at Tamms Correctional Center. He knows because he counted them over and over. The door also had a slot for his meals to travel through, but other than that it was solid steel, and the view through the holes was of a concrete wall. Between 4 and 4:30 AM the electronic door to his pod would whir and clang, signaling that breakfast was on the way—boiled eggs on Monday, farina on Tuesday, cold cereal on Wednesday, etc. Breakfast was followed by a sea of time. He had no job, no phone calls, and no visual contact with other prisoners. But perhaps worst of all, he had no idea how long it would all last.

In March 1998, Berry was 35 and had served 9 years of a 33-year sentence—30 for murder and3 for selling heroin—when he was transferred to Tamms from the penitentiary at Graham. Near the southern tip of Illinois, a good seven hours' drive for any Chicagoan who might want to visit, Tamms was a new supermax prison, designed to isolate the "worst of the worst," as its first warden, George Welborn, told the Chicago Tribune.

The first modern supermax prison, or CMAX, for closed maximum security, was created in 1983 at the prison in Marion, Illinois, when the whole facility went on lockdown after two guards were murdered there. In 1989 California opened a supermax at Pelican Bay State Prison, and by 1997 34 states had one. The federal system has only one, in Florence, Colorado.

In 1993 the Illinois Task Force on Crime and Corrections recommended that Illinois build a state-of-the-art supermax to house disruptive and violent inmates. The Tribune approved: "The proposed 500-bed supermax... would get the baddest of the bad—particularly those inmates who have attacked prison guards and other inmates—out of the regular system and into tough, restricted confinement." Tamms, which wound up costing $73 million, opened on March 8, 1998. The Illinois Department of Corrections says it costs about $60,000 a year to house a supermax prisoner at Tamms. That's more than twice the average at the rest of the state's prisons, but it's probably low, as the math includes the population in the minimum-security facility there as well.

What's the state getting for all that extra dough? A group of attorneys and concerned citizens, now called Tamms Year Ten in honor of the prison's tenth anniversary, is making the case that keeping inmates in extended solitary confinement doesn't do anyone any good, much less society as a whole. Advocates say the conditions there cause and exacerbate mental illness and that Tamms inmates are denied due process by being denied information about why they've been sent there and when or if they'll ever get out.

They hope their effort is the beginning of the end for Tamms, but Tamms Year Ten spokesman Steven Eisenman, a Northwestern art history professor and the author of a book on images of torture, The Abu Ghraib Effect, says they don't expect miracles. "We're not naive, we don't think it will happen overnight, but one builds up a movement, and in Illinois the actions of a few individuals grew and grew to make it such that the death penalty was put into moratorium. And we think that issues of morality and practicality and politics and cost are sufficiently compelling in this case that in a period of time, we hope not too long in the future, Tamms prison will be either changed or shut down."

Berry came home in 2006 and since then has joined the activists in their efforts at reform.. On April 28 he'll join the Year Ten Campaign and others at an "issue hearing" of the General Assembly's recently re-formed Committee on Prison Reform at the James R. Thompson Center. Now that he's made it out of Tamms, he wants to help spread the word about what's happening there.

According to Illinois law, inmates who have"engaged in the following activities or who may be planning to engage in these activities" are eligible for transfer to Tamms: assault, escape or attempted escape, engaging in dangerous disturbances, having influence in a gang, engaging in nonconsensual sex, or possessing weapons. Berry says he doesn't know why he was sent to Tamms, but he fit into a few of those categories: he was a gang leader, a chief who'd risen to the rank of "five-star universal elite" in prison.

One of ten children in a working-class family, Berry grew up on the west side of Chicago, near Pulaski and Washington. He was an avid reader, got good grades (at Westinghouse and then Manley), and went to college for two years. He had a son with one woman, then met Denise, a girl from the neighborhood. They had a son and in the late 80s got married. He got a job at UPS.

But he led something of a double life. He'd started hanging out with the Four Corner Hustlers gang at 12 and through his teens and early 20s compiled a rap sheet "four pages long." He fought, pimped, sold drugs. "I'm having two cars, motorcycle, all the jewelry, the best amenities, VIPs in all the clubs, the restaurants," he says, "and I was, like, cool."

He was 26 when he killed a gang member in an alley shoot-out over turf. He claimed self-defense, and though witnesses testified that both men had pulled guns, a jury didn't buy it.

Berry was sent to the state penitentiary at Pontiac in 1989. Inside, he says, hedealt drugs and lived like a kingpin, hosting heroin parties in the gym and hiring other prisoners as attendants. "I'd say 'I need a laundry guy,' 'I need a cook,' 'I need a guy to shine my shoes,'" Berry says. "Everybody knew I was a big shot."

After two years he was shipped out. "I'd been involved in a couple of stabbings. I'd been stabbed myself; I'd been sliced with a razor across my neck." He went "on the circuit," 30 days at one prison, six months at another. He began to reconsider the choices he'd made. Denise was working and raising their son, whom she brought to visit regularly. If Berry stayed out of trouble, he might not grow old in prison. "So I started behaving, so to say."

According to his disciplinary records, after October 1996, when he was reportedly found to have "dangerous contraband" and given a year in segregation, Berry earned only two more tickets, given for violations: one on May 8, 1997, for disobeying a direct order, which got him 15 days in segregation, and one on February 14, 1998, for "intimidation, threats, insolence," which got him a one-month visit restriction.

A month later, on March 17, a team of tactical officers stomped down the hall yelling his name. "In ordinary circumstances they don't have a tac team," says Berry. "They give you a heads-up when you're leaving." But rumors had been circulating about the new prison, and he got a bad feeling. "I knew in my heart of hearts: I'm going to Tamms."

It was night when he arrived. In a room filled with officers in riot gear, he was strip-searched and examined by a nurse. "They shackled you up after getting strip-searched, kept you naked, put the handcuffs on you, had two boys come and hold you, and the nurse is like checking your ears and stuff and you're trying to cover up your private parts," he says. He was given clothing, a toothbrush, a comb, and a watch and led to his cell, a 70-square-foot room outfitted with a combination sink and toilet, a concrete slab for a bed, and a shelf that doubled as a desk. Besides the chuckhole in the door, it had an air-conditioning vent, an intercom, a light switch, and a horizontal slit of window seven feet above the bed. He stopped using the bed after his first night in Tamms, to remind himself, he says, that "every day I got to pick myself up off the floor."

Berry lived in one of eight pods in a wing housing eight inmates. He started in segregation, the most restricted treatment: he'd be taken out of his cell once a week for a shower and once a week for an hour in the yard. The yard was a rectangular enclosure not much larger than his cell, half covered by a metal roof, half by metal fencing. In the showers the water went off every few minutes and the prisoner pushed a button to get it going again. Showers were supposed to last 15 minutes, but Berry says sometimes just to mess with the prisoners the guards would strand them in there for longer. With good behavior you could earn less restrictive treatment—above segregation were levels one, two, and three. Level three meant four showers and seven yard visits a week, plus the right to buy a TV. Well-behaved inmates were also allowed to buy things in the commissary, like toiletries or a plastic watch.

It took Berry nine months to get out of segregation. He kept busy studying the Bible, doing push-ups, reading, and writing letters and poetry. He was isolated, but he wasn't alone. With some effort the prisoners on the wing could hear one another. Berry, who's also known as Akkeem, was always alert for a voice calling his name. "You want to be on point when somebody calls you, 'cause that's your introduction to a conversation that day."

Berry made it his mission to discipline himself. "I had laid down an agenda for every part of my day," he says. Three days a week he worked out with some of the others. "I'd call three guys who might have become cool. 'Hey Joe, it's ten minutes to two, you getting ready?' 'Yeah, I'll be ready at two.'" At two, the three men would be at their doors, ready to go, and Berry would call out, "On three, we gonna knock out 25 push-ups!' Then we all count together, 25, 30 seconds, like the military.

"You try to get communal things, to strengthen your bond with one another," he says. "We might play a game of historical naming pharaohs. You have guys who play chess. We can't move on [a] board, but if you're next door to me or down the hall, I'd say, 'Want to play some chess?' 'Yeah man, after I do my workout.'

"You occasionally would have a jerk that came on the wing who... wants to cause chaos," Berry says. "He'd take his shoe off and bang on the door." When the others complained, the banger would up the ante: "Man, fuck you!" Some inmates jabbered to themselves or screamed uncontrollably through the night. Berry says he never slept more than two or three hours at a time.

One day his neighbor Dice told him he couldn't take it anymore. "He got real quiet," then Berry heard bam! "You know the sound is somebody hitting the front part of the cell, 'cause it's got a little vibration. So, I'm like, 'Dice! Dice!'" No answer. He called the guards. Dice had run face first into the door. "Knocked himself out." Berry says he was transferred to a psych ward at Menard.

Berry thinks his routine helped him keep his grip. He'd been told by an assistant director of IDOC that with good behavior he'd spend only a year at Tamms.

Tamms was supposed to serve as a sort of shock treatment for inmates with severe behavior problems. The 1993 Illinois Task Force Report on Crime and Corrections specified that "the fundamental principle underlying the Super-max institution is that it is a management tool for addressing specific security problems that hinder delivery of essential services and anti-recidivism activities to the general population—it is not simply a place to put 500 inmates in an otherwise overcrowded system. To serve its purpose, inmates must move in and out, based on some objective classification and standards."

No one was supposed to stay more than a year. But in fact many stays are much longer, and advocates say the prison has been used not only to punish bad behavior but to retaliate for a range of other activities. A pending suit filed in March 2000 by Alan Mills of the Uptown People's Law Center on behalf of dozens of Tamms inmates alleges that their constitutional rights were violated by transfer and detention there. Some of the plaintiffs had organized or participated in hunger strikes or filed legal complaints about their treatment in the system.

Among them, for example, was Marcus Chapman, who had previously sued IDOC for violating his constitutional rights at Stateville. That suit was resolved in 1998 with a confidential settlement that involved a payment to Chapman. Two weeks later, without being given a reason, he was transferred to Tamms.

"Though the Department of Corrections is now required to give some explanation for why the person is transferred, a lot of people don't really know," says attorney Jean Maclean Snyder. "It's hard to mount a defense against something that you don't know."

Though the Tamms Web site says "CMAX houses some of the most litigious inmates in the department's custody," IDOC spokesman Derek Schnapp insists no one is sent to Tamms for being a jailhouse lawyer.

Marcus Chapman committed suicide at Tamms in 2004.

"Of the 270 or so prisoners currently at Tamms," Mills says, "111 were there before April 1, 1999. Of those, ten were transferred out of Tamms at some point and are now back.... This means that over one-third of the prisoners currently at Tamms have been there since the first year it was open. [That's] over nine years, and for many ten full years in supermax confinement."

Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who's examined prisoners in Tamms and other supermaxes around the country, calls this "monstrous." He goes on, "Despair is bred by these places. The environment itself causes depression and despair, but the lack of a time to be released, and, I might add, the conviction that it's unfair that they're being held there... the more prone they are to suicide."

The MacArthur Justice Center sued IDOC and various staff in 2000 on behalf of four Tamms inmates, alleging that what they'd been subjected to there amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and unlawful discrimination. Snyder, who wrote the brief, notes that legally speaking supermax conditions don't violate the 'cruel and unusual punishment' standard of the Eighth Amendment unless "they are applied to people who are seriously mentally ill.... You can do [anything] to prisoners, in terms of all conditions, without triggering the Eighth Amendment, as a general rule."

If, as her suit alleged, "the conditions at Tamms are designed to and do cause psychological damage," the door is open to future suits. But considering the legal teams and resources needed to bring them, Snyder says, they're not likely to be filed anytime soon, "and IDOC knows that."

One of the four plaintiffs, Ashoor Rasho, had a history of psychiatric problems. Originally imprisoned for burglary and transferred to Tamms in April 1998, he began hearing voices, saw his dead brother, and began keeping a live spider in his asthma inhaler as a pet. Things went downhill from there. "On August 20, 1998," the brief reads, "with his arms already swollen from infected self-inflicted wounds, Mr. Rasho again cut his arm and began eating small pieces of his own flesh in front of a correctional officer." He was accused of malingering but eventually moved to a special unit where his conduct could be better controlled. He was not treated for any underlying illness.

Faygie Fields, convicted of murder in 1984, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as an adolescent. In 1997 at Stateville, after being denied a request to attend his mother's funeral, he attacked a guard and the warden. He was transferred to Tamms, where, delusional and fearful of being killed, he attempted suicide several times, twice by swallowing a piece of a mirror. When guards found him trying to hang himself, the complaint says, "they gave him a ticket for destroying the sheet he had torn to make a rope; the Adjustment Committee found him guilty and ordered him to pay restitution for the torn sheet."

Robert Boyd had been in the mental health units at four prisons and had spent a year at the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute. First imprisoned for auto theft in 1993, he was transferred to Tamms in April 1998, where he hallucinated, cut and bit himself, and "screamed and talked to imaginary people in his cell, once explaining to staff that he was busy having a party." When his father died Boyd was placed on suicide watch, according to the suit, "a procedure in which the sole treatment consists of being placed in isolation in a cold, stripped cell, without clothes and without conversation, for several days in a row." After months of crisis Boyd was shipped out to the mental health hospital at Dixon, but he's back at Tamms now.

The fourth plaintiff, Brian Nelson, imprisoned for armed robbery and murder since 1983, had no history of mental illness. The suit reads, "Mr. Nelson has a major depressive illness and serious medical symptoms that require investigation. He cannot sleep or concentrate while awake; he cries often and feels hopeless and lonely.... Mr. Nelson expects that he will not survive to leave Tamms, and he is receiving no treatment that might convince him otherwise."

The suit alleged that the treatment of prisoners with mental illnesses included various forms of physical abuse, including beatings and pepper spray as well as being deprived of water and clothing. It also asserted that this sort of treatment "harms society as well as these prisoners... [who] will return to the streets sicker, angrier, and more violent."

The suit was settled in 2005. Without conceding any of the suit's claims, IDOC made some changes at Tamms. It began screening for mental illness in transferees; if serious mental illness was found, the inmate could be denied admittance to Tamms or sent to its mental health unit, opened in 2000. It mandated mental health review of disciplinary infractions, and, since most psychological interviews were conducted at the front of the cell, where other inmates could listen in, guaranteed a private place for consultation if requested by the psychologist and the inmate. In addition, a treatment program administered by the chief psychologist at Tamms, was drawn up for Nelson and Fields.

A year and a half into his stay at Tamms, in October 1999, Berry came as close as he would to cracking. He was awakened by pounding on the door and a voice calling his name: "Berry!"

"Yeah," he answered groggily. "What's up?"

"You want a phone call?"

What? To say the offer surprised him would be an understatement. "Yeah," he yelled, "I want a phone call!" The voice on the other side of the door said, "OK, get dressed." Mind racing, he scrambled into his clothes. The inmates had sent a grievance to the warden asking for phone calls; maybe he'd given in.

Berry peered through the holes in his door, but he couldn't see the guard's face when he added, "And by the way, your mom is dying."

At first Berry thought the guard was trying to screw with him. "I said, man, listen, get off my motherfuckin' door, playing games with me, man," he recalls. "That's my mom." The guard replied that she was in the hospital and repeated the question: "Do you want a phone call?"

Berry was taken out of his cell to speak to his mother, who was indeed dying. On his way back other inmates spoke to him gently through their doors. A guard asked if he wanted to go to the yard. In an extraordinary expression of sympathy the other inmates on the pod had given up their yard time, and the guards were going to let him use it till the end of their shift. He stood there for hours, singing songs his mother liked to hear him sing, praying, and crying until the guards came to get him.

Berry got her obituary in the mail a week later and set it up in a small shrine on his desk. But after an appointment with the prison dentist, he returned to find that his cell had been shaken down. On the floor, stamped with a boot print, was the obituary. Berry snapped. "I was like, fuck the world. You ain't got no respect. Fuck the world."

"Which one of you bitches disrespected my mama?" he screamed. "Come on up in here, show me how tough you is! Come on, bring the fuckin' tac team! Come on, bitches!" His voice reverberated through the gallery.

Despite the arrival on the scene of a lieutenant looking to quell the disturbance, it took a while for Berry to calm down. Some consolation came in the unlikely person of convicted murderer Richard McCue, a person Berry describes as "Aryan Nations penitentiary." Berry says, "Me and this guy... we're supposed to be nemeses, arch rivals, but our intellect allowed us to rise above that.... He kept me focused. 'Listen, nephew, you're going home, you got an out date, don't end up like me, this is my home for the rest of my life. It can be yours if you kill one of these police. Stay focused. Not just for you, for your wife, for your kids.'" Luckily he didn't receive a ticket for the outburst.

After a couple years Berry earned his way to level three and stayed there. Every year he was taken to the basement for a teleconference hearing on his eligibility for release to a regular maximum security prison. Every year, he says, he was told the same thing: "The warden denies you."

In a letter to IDOC deputy director Dwayne Clark dated December 16, 2002, Denise Berry noted the six infractions her husband had been charged with over the years, such as "intimidation or threats" (when his legal mail was opened, Berry told a guard he'd contact internal affairs) and "gang or unauthorized org. activity" (Berry had written a manuscript telling the story of his life titled "The Life and Times of an Original Four Corner Hustler").

"There you have it, Sir," she concluded, "it's evident that Reginald hasn't been problematic throughout the 5 years he's been at Tamms.... Prayerfully, you'll conclude likewise, blessing Reginald, our sons & I with the opportunity to move forward in our lives."

Her plea wasn't heeded, but with the help of Berry's father, who'd joined the movement to reform Tamms, and state representative Lou Jones, in 2005 Berry was transferred to Menard. That lasted all of 90 days before he crossed the authorities again and was sent back to Tamms. They say he was involved in gang activity; he says he was asked to inform on a gang member and refused. He didn't get out of Tamms for good until a little more than halfway through his sentence, when he became eligible for parole. He was transferred to Stateville in July 2006, and he went home on parole that September. He had spent almost eight years in solitary.

While he was in prison, Berry says, his reputation grew larger than life back home. "When I was on the circuit I got more respect than anything in the town. Then, when I went to the supermax, I'm a legend.... And when I came home, guys were calling me Chief." But he wasn't interested in returning to his old life. "I immediately denounced that."

He was referred to a psychiatrist for anger management counseling, which he was obligated to attend. "I needed anger management going into prison," Berry says. If he'd learned anything while he was there, it was how to control his anger.

But going from sensory deprivation to sensory overload wasn't easy. "When I first came home I used to laugh real loud. 'Cause if you're in cell one and I'm in cell five and you tell a joke, I got to laugh loud enough for you to hear it.... I had to laugh HAHAHA! I didn't hear myself until I came home."

He wears glasses now, which he blames on staring out through the holes in his door for hours at a time. His palms sweat when he meets new people. Occasionally he slaps himself in the back of the head.

Denise, who took a month off work to help him with the transition, says there have been other issues: "He doesn't like it when I talk loud. He says I sound like a guard." And she believes he has some short-term memory loss, though "it's gotten better in the last year."

Before Berry was released, other family members of Tamms inmates who'd been released told her to be on the lookout for strange behavior. "Some of them just sit staring into space," she says. "Reggie isn't like that."

If anything he's been the opposite. "My wife told me I'm a neat freak," he says. "Because I'm used to being in a small environment, I know where my shoes are, I know where my toothbrush is, I know my deodorant is lined up."

Berry and Denise and their pit bull live in a three-bedroom house on the west side, not far from where they grew up. Denise works for the Illinois Department of Revenue and Berry has two jobs: he's a case aide for the Chicago Christian Industrial League, leading discussion groups with men between the ages of 20 and 35, and a conflict resolutionist with Ceasefire, the group that brokers peace treaties with gangs.

But whenever Berry's not working he's thinking about his own project, Saving Our Sons. He says the idea came to him at Tamms. "I had a dream about a ship being in a turbulent sea in distress, and as all ships do, it sent up an SOS. And the metaphor I got from that the next day was, that ship is my son, and the environments thereof was turbulent, and he was sending up words, SOS, saying daddy, I need your help out here."

His sons have done well for themselves—one's in college and one's teaching high school. But Berry remained committed to the idea of saving other people's sons. Once he got out, Alderman Ed Smith introduced him to state senator Rickey Hendon, who helped him get a grant from the state board of education to educate kids about violence with presentations in schools. A few of his old friends who are still in prison have made donations as well.

For his presentations, Berry, accompanied by the occasional guest speaker, enters a classroom or school auditorium handcuffed, shackled, and flanked by cops from the local CAPS office. One yells, "To your knees, convict!" Berry falls to his knees. "Don't move!" shouts the officer. He removes the cuffs and sits in a corner, warning Berry, "I'll be right here."

Then Berry tells the audience about his life and times. He talks about gangs, murder, and prison. He's been to Marshall, Ryerson, McKinley, and North Lawndale College Prep, among others. He says he was preparing a presentation for Crane just before Ruben Ivey was killed in a gang shooting on March 7. It was canceled at the last minute because Berry was a felon, but he hopes that his status as an ex-offender will help get kids' attention. "Let a guy come in there who already walked that walk and that kid'll go home and say, daddy, a man came to our school today named Akkeem, he say he was the chief of the Fours, and dad will say, yeah, that guy was."

Berry hopes adults will be interested in hearing what he has to say as well. At the first hearing of the House Prison Reform Committee of the Illinois General Assembly, April 28, 11 members of the Illinois house will hear Berry and other ex-prisoners, prisoners' family members, lawyers, and representatives from community groups testify about conditions at Tamms. The following day he'll appear with Snyder at a conference at Northwestern on Tamms and torture.

Kupers, who's appearing before the house committee as well, says the national trend is against supermax confinement. "Mississippi is the latest—they've reduced their supermax confinement at Parchman, which is called Unit 32, from 1,000 cells to 160." Virginia has converted its supermax facility to a maximum security prison. "That's the best that prison reformers can expect," he says.

"We were created to be communal people," Berry says. "I would dare the director of IDOC to lock himself in his bathroom for a week. And have someone come and slide his food through a chuckhole, just for a week. Without any phone, without touching anybody, without smelling anything, without seeing anything besides that bathroom over and over. He would probably go crazy in a week."v

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