Tamms reforms on the way?

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Momentum appears to be building for a reexamination of policies at the most restrictive prison in Illinois. 

In April Jeffrey Felshman wrote about Reginald Berry, a former inmate at the Tamms supermax prison. No one is supposed to stay longer than a year at Tamms, where prisoners are kept in permanent solitary confinement, yet dozens have been there since it opened in 1998. While corrections officials stress that only "the worst of the worst" criminals are sent to Tamms, a group of advocates known as Tamms Year Ten has called for reforms, saying treatment of prisoners there is cruel, illegal, and counterproductive. According to Felshman, "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 . . . alleges that some of the plaintiffs had organized or participated in hunger strikes or filed legal complaints about their treatment in the system."

The group and Felshman's story caught the attention of state representative Julie Hamos, an Evanston Democrat who sits on the house's new prison reform committee. She was easily persuaded that policies at Tamms go well beyond being tough on crime. "When we explain its prisoners are in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, when we explain it's not just a supermax prison but a home of psychological torture, people start to get it," she said during a break in state budget negotiations Thursday. "At this point I think the burden is on the department [of corrections] to prove that it's necessary."

On April 28 members of the prison reform committee gathered at the Thompson Center to hear testimony about Tamms from attorneys, ex-prisoners, prisoners' family members, and others; on May 22, Hamos introduced HB 6651, which would clarify rules for transferring prisoners to Tamms and require hearings for anyone held at the facility longer than a year. The bill quickly picked up 13 additional sponsors, mostly members of the prison reform committee and Democrats from Chicago. Last weekend Hamos held a press conference to push the legislation, which she hopes will be discussed seriously this summer so something can come up for a vote by fall.

First, though, she wants the Department of Corrections to provide the committee with its current policies spelled out in writing.

Hamos said she doesn't expect Tamms to help her get re-elected from her North Shore district. "I'm not sure anybody from Winnetka is in the supermax prison," she said. "But I think this is a very serious problem and we have to deal with it."

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