Inside Tamms Prison

Ill. prison claims improved conditions
November 19, 2009 (TAMMS, Ill.) The prison says it is making some changes to improve conditions.

The state's lone supermax prison built just over a decade ago. It's where the state's execution chamber is located.

Tamms was built to house the worst of the worst - inmates who've attacked fellow prisoners, or guards, gang bosses, and others with serious mental health issues.

They live for the most part in solitary confinement in 7 by 13 cells for 23 hours a day. The other hour can be spent alone in an enclosed recreation yard. Contact with each other and the outside world is sharply restricted. There are limited eucational opportunities and no prison jobs. One inmate called it "complete idleness."

There may be little public sympathy for the living conditions of the worst of the worst but the intent of Tamms when it was opened was to serve as a short term stay for the most violent offenders - a year or two - then transfer them back. But what's happened are longer term stays here, averaging five years.

Prison reform advocates have argued that Tamms and other supermax prisons are warehousing the mentally ill, and that extreme isolation eliminates any notion of rehabilitation.

"You truly have to earn your way here through serious, predatory or violent behavior," said Michael Randle, director, Illinois Dept. of Corrections.

The state's new Corrections Director says since Tamms was opened, incidents and injuries at other state prisons have dropped significantly. He doesn't regard treatment here as inhumane, but does acknowledge that some changes need to be made, and they've already started . They include more frequent mental health sessions, group religious services, some new phone privileges based on behavior, and an active review process for transferring out the less dangerous.

"I can't say every case will be short period, but a lot of them will be a short period of time," said Randle.

But there are many here - like I-57 killer Henry Brisbon - who won't be leaving Tamms for other prisons simply because they're too dangerous. Their isolation here, Randle says, has made the state's other prisons safer.

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