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This is the unspoken argument of legislators who want to save Tamms, the supermax at the southern tip of Illinois. Governor Pat Quinn has proposed closing Tamms—not for humanitarian reasons, but to save the state money. Most of the Tamms inmates would be moved to maximum-security prisons, where housing them would be cheaper. There's been legislative opposition to Quinn's proposal, however, because guards would lose their jobs. The verdict is imminent.
Representative Brandon Phelps, a downstate Democrat, this week proposed converting Tamms to a regular prison in order to keep it open. As the Southern Illinoisan reported Wednesday, this plan would "appease" those who believe the prison should be closed because the long-term isolation that inmates are subjected to "purportedly causes mental illness." Phelps has made clear he's more concerned about the jobs than the mental illness: "My main deal right now is to keep Tamms open, whether it's just a super-max or regular facility, because southern Illinois cannot afford to lose those jobs or that revenue." Phelps's proposal is unlikely to fly because of the retooling costs.
Most legislators who agree with Quinn that Tamms should be closed have been quiet about it. State legislators may not be a brilliant lot, but they're smarter than they're courageous, and they recognize the wisdom in never favoring anything that could possibly make them look soft on crime.
Is long-term isolation torture? Senator John McCain was a prisoner of war for five and a half years in Vietnam, during which time he was beaten regularly; a broken arm was broken a second time. McCain stressed his solitary confinement when he later wrote about his experience: "It's an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment." McCain added that adjusting to solitary involved "devising various methods to keep your mind off your troubles and greedily grasping any opportunity for human contact."
For several years I've corresponded with a Tamms inmate—someone I wrote about before he was in Tamms. He's doing time for murder. Each Christmas, I send him a small check so he can buy himself something from the commissary. Early in December 2008, I got a letter from him. "Let me apologize in advance if what I'm about to say is presumptuous," he wrote. He wondered if I'd do something else for him for the holidays instead of sending money: photocopy the parts to Monopoly.
"It's really, really boring here," he wrote. "It's a struggle to stay positive for most guys." Inmates were able to yell to each other from cell to cell, but "there is a lot of arguing and negativity," he wrote, which he attributed to the boredom. "A game like Monopoly will call for group participation and will help relieve stress as well as help guys socialize better with each other."
I photocopied the rules, the board, and the community chest, chance, and property cards, and sent them to him. He'd advised me not to send any Monopoly money: even play money was prohibited at Tamms. In the note I sent with the copies, I mused that the Get Out Of Jail Free card probably wouldn't do him much good. I also asked him how he and the other prisoners were going to manage to use the copies to play the game.
He wrote me again early the following January. "I received everything just in time for the New Year," he said. "It was a blast—thank you very much."
As for how they managed to play: "Here in prison we are not lacking on creativity," he wrote. He said he described the board to other prisoners, who drew their own copies. He saved the cardboard tops of the cereal he got each morning, tore them into small rectangles, and used the green cornflakes tops for houses and the red bran flakes tops for hotels. He used chess pieces he had for the top hat, the iron, the thimble, and the other playing tokens. The prisoners relied on playing cards for dice: all four aces, plus a pair of twos, threes, fours, fives, and sixes. "We put them in a stack and pull off two at a time as if they were dice. It's not the same as the real thing but it works just as well." For money "we just write down how much money each player has after every transaction."
Like most supermax inmates, the 180 prisoners in Tamms spend 23 to 24 hours a day alone in their cells, many of them for years. While the creativity of prisoners in longterm isolation can be remarkable, many studies have shown that this prolonged isolation promotes psychoses and other mental illnesses. The John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, visited Tamms in March and found "overriding evidence of inmates experiencing undue suffering and degenerating mentally and physically" and "displaying overt symptoms of severe mental illness," the group said in a report it released this week.
Defenders of supermaxes have maintained that they're necessary for the protection of guards and other inmates, but other studies have called this into question. Atul Gawande observed in a New Yorker story three years ago that prison violence is largely a function of overcrowdedness and idleness—both of which have increased in recent decades, in which there's been a boom in incarceration in the U.S. and a decline in rehabilitative programs.
Gawande also noted that Britain, which used to rely extensively on solitary confinement, began switching in the 1980s to a strategy that emphasized preventing prison violence instead of punishing it severely. The British gave dangerous prisoners more control instead of less. Prisoners were housed in individual cells, but in small units with other inmates with whom they could interact. They were given opportunities for work and education, and provided special programming aimed at increasing their social ties and skills. "The results have been impressive," Gawande said. "The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible." There are now fewer prisoners in long-term isolation in all of England, he wrote, than there are in the state of Maine. "And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome."
I've worried how Tamms is affecting the inmate I correspond with, for both his sake and society's. Like most supermax inmates, he likely will be free again one day; he's in his mid-40s, and has a dozen years left to serve. He's clearly bright, and with the right rehabilitative programs, I think he could learn to contribute to his community. He also has longstanding psychological and emotional problems, he's acknowledged, that need to be addressed. What will he be like when he's released if he simply continues to rot in Tamms?
"Today a guy tried to kill himself," he wrote last month. "He tied a plastic bag over his head. Supposedly he almost accomplished his mission."
He talked about the debate regarding the governor's proposal to close Tamms. "The prison correction staff is protesting," he wrote. "Their number one reason to keep Tamms open is because they want to save jobs in southern Illinois. Can saving jobs in southern Illinois be justified on a moral level when incarcerated guys are mentally, physically, and emotionally deteriorating daily due to the conditions we are forced to endure? Don't get me wrong. I'm in prison and prison is supposed to be rough. But do the people that work here have the right to create a career off my misery?"