SPECIAL REPORT: The Costs of "Supermax" Long-Term Isolation

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is proposing to close the only Supermax prison in the Illinois Department of Corrections. This just-released report from the John Howard Association details why. Supermax imprisonment is a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

Charles Shaw
23 May 2012

Supermax imprisonment is one of the most controversial developments in corrections of the last 20 years. This form of 24 hour a day isolation has been shown time and time again to cause psychosis. Still, the practice is in full effect, particularly in places like California, where use of the "SHU" (Security Housing Unit) is rampant in prisons like Pelican Bay and Tahatchapee. The US Federal goverment has also adopted the practice for use in their "CMU"s (Communication Management Units), which, in one example of many, houses environmental activists from the ELF and ALF (Earth & Animal Liberation Front), who have harmed no one in their attempts to thwart logging, end the use of Hummers, or shut down a factory farm. "CMU"s are where America's political prisoners disappear, unable to communicate with the outside world. 

With budget crises in full effect, many States are being forced to cut their DOC budgets, and nowhere has this been a bigger struggle than in Illinois. I detail these developments in Chapter 3 of my book, Exile Nation, and one of the topics covered is Supermax prisons. I mention the Tamms facility in particular as an egregious offender. Now it appears that the Governor of Illinois might be listening. Thanks to a new report by the prison-watchdog group, The John Howard Assocation (featured in The Exile Nation Project), which details the litany of systemic abuses being perpetrated daily at Tamms, it seems like Illinois--the 4th largest prison system in America--might have reached a critical turning point. Let us hope State lawmakers agree. ~ CS



Among Illinois’ 27 correctional facilities, Tamms C-Max is unique. The facility opened in 1998 as the state’s only “supermax” prison in the Illinois Department of Corrections’ (DOC). It is dedicated to housing “the . . . most disruptive, violent and problematic offenders . . . who have demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to conform to the requirements of a general population facility.”

This mission comes at a high cost to taxpayers. According to DOC, Tamms’ operating budget in fiscal year 2012 was more than $26 million. This means that taxpayers spend almost $65 thousand a year to house an inmate at Tamms, which is three times as much as what it costs to house an inmate at one of Illinois’ maximum-security facilities.

The primary reason for Tamms’ high costs stems from the fact that the facility was built with the aim of eliminating inmate movement and providing all services in-cell, which requires much higher staffing levels than other prisons. In Tamms, inmates spend 23 to 24 hours a day alone in concrete cells behind perforated steel doors that severely restrict the ability to see or hear anything of the world outside. There are no vocational, educational, religious, leisure, or communal activities in any conventional sense. Exercise consists of an inmate being taken alone to an enclosed outdoor concrete pen to pace. A class consists of an inmate watching pre-recorded instructional tapes in his cell or filling out worksheets. The newly implemented congregate religious services consist of inmates being moved from their usual isolation cells to an identical set of isolation cells in a different wing where a pastor stands at the cell front to give a sermon.  Inmates can be held in these conditions for months, years, or indefinitely in the broad discretion of administrators without oversight by any authority independent of DOC.

These conditions of confinement are not only expensive to sustain, but they also produce harmful effects that go beyond the legitimate purposes of punishment of incapacitation, deterrence, retribution, or reformation. When Tamms first opened in 1998 at the height of states’ enthusiasm for supermax prisons, less was known about the effects of long-time isolation on inmates’ physical and mental health and the impact on mentally ill inmates.

Since that time, a compelling body of data, literature, study, and research has emerged establishing that long-term isolation can have severely detrimental effects on inmates’ physical and mental health, and is particularly hazardous for inmates with preexisting mental illness.

Even the courts, which by nature are conservative bodies and usually last to acknowledge consensus on issues of empirical fact, now uniformly recognize that long-term isolation causes grave psychological and physical harm.

The accuracy of these findings was born out during JHA’s visit. In observing, visiting, and communicating with Tamms inmates, JHA found evidence of inmates suffering damaging effects to their mental and physical health related to long-term isolation. We found multiple instances of inmates decompensating mentally and physically and engaging in acts of auto-aggression and self-mutilation. We found seriously mentally ill inmates housed in long-term isolation convicted of lower-level offenses who would be more accurately described as the “sickest of the sick” rather than the “worst of the worst.” Price Illinois Cannot Afford: Tamms and the Costs of Long-Term Isolation

In spite of these conditions, supporters of Tamms have argued that the facility is necessary to protect inmates and staff from the disorder and violence that typified the state’s correctional system in the 1980s and 1990s. During this period gangs controlled the prisons; inmates’ personal property was largely unregulated, leaving facilities rife with drugs, contraband, and weapons; and the movement of inmates was unstructured and uncontrolled. However, these arguments to justify Tamms ignore the operative fact that independent of, and preceding, Tamms’ opening in 1998, numerous reforms were also put in place that restructured the Illinois correctional system and effectively re-vested power, order, and control in the hands of DOC administration and correctional staff.

It was these comprehensive reforms that restored lasting order to the Illinois correctional system, causing the decline in prison violence.

To date there is no evidence that Tamms or supermax prisons in general achieve the goal of reducing violence or improving system-wide order and safety.

Indeed, there is evidence to the contrary that supermax prisons increase institutional violence and rates of violent recidivism.

This latter fact is particularly troubling, given that the majority of Tamms inmates will be released and returned to the community.

Based on personal observations, data, and an overriding body of evidence in the fields of criminology, medicine, science, psychology, and sociology linking long-term isolation to the exacerbation and development of serious mental and physical illness, JHA believes a sea change in Tamms’ policies is required to reflect this consensus.

At the same time, however, JHA is skeptical that that the facility can be reformed.

Tamms was specifically built to be a “supermax” prison. The facility is well-suited to holding inmates in long-term isolation, but little else. There are no social spaces that would allow for communal education, eating, activities, or exercise. The principal function of the facility’s architectural and technological design is to drastically limit staff and inmate interaction. Repurposing Tamms for other correctional ends is impractical because it would entail modifications that are cost-prohibitive, particularly in light of the fact that DOC has been asked to cut more than $110 million from its fiscal year 2013 budget, an almost 10 percent reduction from 2012.  

JHA thus supports Governor Quinn’s proposal to close Tamms and DOC Director  Godinez’s attendant recommendations to relocate C-Max inmates to maximum-security facilities and reassign Tamms’ staff to other nearby facilities where their assistance is badly needed. While the Governor’s proposal is supported by strong fiscal arguments, JHA believes that his decision is not just about cutting costs. By closing Tamms, Illinois will take a critical step toward reforming the state’s prison system to the benefit of public safety, security, and the state’s fiscal health.

This report covers the following issues: Screening and Placement of Inmates at Tamms; Housing and Living Conditions,  including Physical Conditions, Activity, Educational Programming, Library  &  Legal Services, Visitation, and Congregate Religious Services; Observations  and Interviews with C-Max Inmates, including Self-harming Behaviors Among C-Max Inmates and Experiences of  C-Max Inmates;  Mental Health Care; Medical, Dental & Eye Care; and Population Demographics.


• JHA believes that Tamms is unnecessary to protect the safety of inmates, staff, and the general public, and that it would be cost-prohibitive to repurpose the facility for other correctional purposes.  JHA therefore supports the Governor’s proposal and DOC Director Godinez’s corresponding recommendations for closure.

• To ensure accountability, transparency, and the protection of inmates’ rights in the administrative decision-making process, JHA recommends that the Governor and Legislature, in conversation with the DOC, pursue creation of an independent oversight committee, comprised of individuals external to DOC, to review decisions to place inmates in long-term isolation.

• In line with the United Nations, the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners, and expert medical authorities, JHA recommends that use of indefinite long-term solitary confinement and use of long-term isolation for mentally-ill inmates should be banned altogether and a per se prohibition placed on holding inmates at Tamms who have a history of mental illness.   

• Based on high incidence of staff assaults and forced cell extractions, coupled with the high incidence of mental distress and mental illness JHA observed among Tamms’ population, JHA recommends that increased training and professional support should be provided to all staff on issues of mental illness, self-harming behaviors, and psychiatric symptoms associated with long-term isolation. 

• While JHA commends DOC and Tamms’ administration for implementing GED programming, we recommend that educational programming be increased and provided to a greater number of inmates. We further recommend that some form of genuine communal activity be provided to all Tamms inmates on a regular basis, and that the congregate religious program be expanded and diversified to include both secular programs and religious programming for non-Christian inmates.    

• JHA recommends that efforts be undertaken to: (1) organize, enlarge, and improve the quantity and quality of Tamms’ library’s holdings; and (2) facilitate inmates’ ability to access library materials by providing them with a list of titles, authors, and subjects included in the library’s holdings. 

• JHA recommends that Tamms: (1) review its visitation procedures to determine whether they could be simplified and made more understandable, accessible, or flexible; (2) ensure that all visitation procedures are published on DOC’s website; and (3) consider increasing visitation for all Tamms inmates and whether modifications to visiting areas could be made to make them more inviting and comfortable without comprising security.   

• JHA recommends implementing electronic medical records and data sharing among DOC facilities, county jails, and state and county medical and mental health providers, and encourages the Illinois Governor and Legislature to do the same. States like Rhode Island and Texas that have switched to electronic medical records in their correctional systems report better patient care and tremendous cost-savings. For instance, the creation of an integrated electronic medical records system in Texas increased the quality of inmate medical care and saved more than $1 billion in taxpayer funds.




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