JCUA Supports Quinn’s Plan to Shutter Tamms Supermax Prison

By Jane Ramsey
President, JCUA 

The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs applauds Gov. Quinn’s proposed closure of the Tamms Correctional Center Supermax prison and urges the Illinois General Assembly to support this long overdue action.

(The Supermax prison is one of many state facilities proposed for shutdown in the governor’s 2012 budget message.)

For more than 10 years, JCUA and many of its allies have advocated for the closure of Tamms, an institution where inmates are held in complete solitude in 7 x 12 foot cells for 23 hours a day with virtually no human interaction and a lack of environmental stimulation.

Built in 1998, Tamms houses approximately 200 inmates and costs $33 to $35 million a year to operate. Designed originally as a prison for short term stays for what the state labels “the worst of the worst,” Tamms has instead housed a broad range of inmates, including the mentally ill, for many years.

International human rights bodies and experts affirm that prolonged isolation is a human rights violation that can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prohibited by the United Nations Convention against Torture.

According to Laurie Reynolds of the Tamms 10 Year Committee, “From the day it opened, Tamms has been a financial boondoggle and a human rights catastrophe. The staff-to-prisoner ratio is the highest in the system and the mental health worker-to-prisoner ratio is vastly higher. Because men can’t work or leave the cell, we just pay for excess correctional staff to shackle them, move them around, and push food into their cells. Then we pay to treat them when they become insane due to the isolation.”

Mark Heyrman, chair of public policy for Mental Health America of Illinois, said it would be smarter, cheaper and better for everyone to close Tamms and improve mental health services provided at other facilities.

Heyrman underscores that the people who often end up in Tamms have not committed horrific offenses, but are unable to comply with prison rules due to untreated mental illness. Tamms’ environment compounds the problem because of the sensory deprivation.

According to the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, “The level of sensory deprivation employed by Tamms and other Supermax facilities can cause severe physiological and psychological damage including appetite and sleep disturbances, anxiety, panic, rage, loss of control, paranoia, hallucinations, and self-mutilations. A number of men in Tamms have reported experiencing these symptoms as a result of the extreme nature of their confinement. One Tamms inmate has reportedly engaged in self-mutilation hundreds of times since first entering the facility seven years ago, frequently requiring hospitalization.”

JCUA urges our members to immediately contact your state representatives, asking them to support the closure of the  Supermax facility, which will eliminate as well the human rights violations occurring daily at Tamms.

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