Good news from Illinois
Fifteen years after it opened, Tamms CMAX is officially closed. The last five inmates in the high security unit were transferred on 28th December 2012 to Pontiac Correctional Center, Illinois.
The campaign to close the facility which was launched on the tenth anniversary of its opening in 2008, and which Amnesty International joined in 2009, has been protracted, and in recent months, tumultuous.
In February 2012, after years of sustained campaigning headed by Tamms Year Ten advocacy organization, which drew state and national attention to the inhumanity of a prison regime which kept inmates confined in prolonged isolation in their cells for 23 to 24 hours a day, Illinois State Governor, Patrick Quinn, proposed the closure of the facility because of fiscal concerns.
Despite steadfast opposition by some state legislators, elements of the press, and the local guards union –which eventually played out in court, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in December 2012 that legal action by the union could not longer hold up the governor's closure plans.
According to Laurie-Jo Reynolds, Organizer of Tamms Year Ten:
"Amnesty International's public statement defined Tamms supermax as a human rights catastrophe. Their findings became a fundamental part of our campaign message: the conditions at Tamms supermax flout international standards for humane treatment. These words were echoed by legislators and even the governor's office in the struggle for closure. There is nothing like having the International Secretariat of Amnesty International contact state legislators to make them realize that the whole world is watching.
During the final, crucial closure campaign, Midwest Regional Director of Amnesty International USA, Debra Erenberg, gave moving testimony at press events, protests and hearings. She brought the moral force of Amnesty and the power of international human rights conventions into the Illinois statehouse".
Here are some words from Brian Nelson, who was incarcerated in solitary confinement in Tamms for twelve years and released in 2010. Tessa Murphy, US Campaigner had the privilege of meeting him on a number of occasions, including just after he was released when he struggled to sit in a room filled with people, or feel confident in public spaces. He has spent the last two years tirelessly working on the campaign to close Tamms. He has written the following for Amnesty members:
"As a survivor of Tamms Supermax the experience of being one of the first men sent there and then to be privileged to fight for the closure for my brothers that were still there is overwhelming.
The effects of the twelve years I spent at Tamms are always with me, like a dark cloud hovering over my head. Not a day goes by that I don't fall backwards into that gray box, now knowing that it sits empty torturing itself and the captors that held us there that wanted to keep it open. Strangely now Tamms tortures them. Nobody that ever spent time in solitary is ever the same.
Working at the Uptown People's Law Center we now have Federal Adjudicators ruling that men released from Tamms are mentally disabled and cannot work. These men are now being awarded Disability benefits due to serious mental illness cause by the time that they spent in Tamms. Ironic that the State is now creating dungeons that destroys the mental well being of its wards.
Where is the justice in this or the rehabilitation? Solitary confinement needs to be outlawed world wide for humanitarian reasons. I will never be the same or normal to the point that Tamms leaves me alone for an entire day and I have been physically out of solitary for 31 months. Yet not for a single day mentally have I been free from it."
The following testimonies show the deep relief and happiness felt by families of inmates who have just been transferred out of Tamms:
Feeling of Relief
"I just received a call from my son. What a difference in his voice! He said the staff at Pontiac have been very responsive. He said there was such a feeling of relief when he walked through the doors at Pontiac. He said he has not stopped smiling! He is even smiling in his new IDOC photo!"
"My son called at 18:04 tonight. Things seem good at Pontiac. They were passing the phones around, and it was not an automatic cut-off. The guard came and told him his time was up. We had a wonderful visit on the phone. He and many others received their personal property on Sunday. Some have already gone out to the yard. He also had two oranges, fresh fruit! He was happy that he was given a real toothbrush and a regular pen instead of the little short ones. He said that it is the small things that matter. He is behind bars and not the steel doors and will have to adjust to the noise".
Warden Has Made Himself Available to Help With Problems
"I've been able to talk to him twice since he's been in Pontiac and he sounds good. He said the Warden has come to see him at least ten times to check on him and has gone out of his way to help with his inhalers and medication. It's really good to hear him so relieved. The first phone call he sounded very stressed and anxious but last night's he was really happy and was feeling great about the move. He wanted me to tell everyone Happy New Year and thank you so much for the support".
Inhumanity Has No Place In Our Great Country
"On Friday, December 21, I received a phone call telling me that my son had been transferred from Tamms to Pontiac. I was so elated that I called every member of my family giving them the good news. We all cried and laughed because this was the best Christmas gift we could have ever received. I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders, I slept in deep sleep like I hadn't for such a long time.
I have great respect and an unending love and gratitude to each and everyone who made this miracle happen! Thank you Governor Quinn for standing firm and not ever giving up on this accomplishment, of showing the world that inhumanity has no place in our great country!"
From mom Anne – It Is A Day We Should All Etch In Our Memories
"It certainly was a sequence of events. TAMMS IS NOW EMPTY! VICTORY! A BATTLE WON—David and Goliath! TAMMS YEAR TEN vs. AFSCME AND STATE LEGISLATORS! Governor Quinn joined the good guys! It is a day we should all etch in our memories. PRAISE GOD! "Happy New Year!" May your Angels protect all of you and the men from Tamms! It is time for all hearts to be changed, I pray!
Tamms Year Ten members that fought for reform and closure of Tamms are a people with heart and conscience! Family members and friends of Tamms inmates saw "Man's Inhumanity-to-Man" at its worst. We experienced it! We felt it! We had to watch it! A living hell has been shut down! PRAISE GOD! May no man ever have to enter through those gates of hell ever again."
From sister Janice – Like A Reprieve From A Death Sentence
"The last man was transferred out of the notorious Tamms Supermax prison yesterday. Praise God! In addition to honoring the Creator for all he does, I have to send up special praise because the long overdue closure of this torture chamber is nothing short of divine intervention…throughout this ordeal of meetings, hearing, marches, and lawsuits, I believe that prayer brought us to where we are today. I can honestly say that the closure of Tamms feels like a reprieve from a death sentence for families and the inmates themselves".
From mom Brenda – The Feeling That Anything Is Possible
"I will try to put into words the jubilant feeling that I am having. When I heard about the first 25 being transferred out, the next 25 and so on my heart was overjoyed – at last an end to what is being called "the era of the notorious Tamms Supermax prison" (Fox News). Words cannot express how I feel, my son has been in that place for almost thirteen years. I am happy for all the families whose loved ones have escaped that hell. It is a feeling that anything is possible."
Thank you so much to everyone who was involved in this campaign. Positive change within the sphere of solitary confinement in the US is rare and has largely been achieved as a result of legislative action through the courts. This is the first time that a state governor has brought about the closure of a supermaximum security prison based on fiscal responsibility alone. The financial argument against the high cost of such prisons in a time of economic crisis may well be the strongest tool in the armoury for change.
The wider campaign to end the use of prolonged isolation in US prisons continues. Please look out for an update to our action on conditions in California's security housing units.