End the use of long-term solitary confinement in Illinois!

| February 22, 2012 | 2 Replies

Tamms Correctional Center in Tamms, Illinois (published with permission)

Hey all. I haven’t been posting since last summer, mostly because I’ve been drowning in graduate school duties. One of these duties has been interning at Chicago’s Cook County Jail. There, I sit in on group therapy sessions for inmates with drug-related offenses. I’ve been consistently touched by the philosophical and psychological depth of these men, their gentleness and the span of their regrets. These are men who will sit down and opine for hours on topics you wouldn’t expect low-SES drug dealers and addicts to have much knowledge of: gender identity is a big topic, for example (these guys live firsthand the consequences of masculinity). And when it comes to living with shame or regret, these guys are almost the best resource you can find.

The only place where you can find more affecting people, I think, is at prisons. I’ve  been volunteering for a Chicago-based group called Tamms Year Ten, which advocates for prisoners housed in long-term solitary confinement. I write and read inmates’ letters, respond to their requests for photos and magazines, and read their countless reports of abuse– from medical staff, from Corrections Officers, from mail room staff,  and from the state itself.

Let’s be clear on what “long-term” solitary confinement means. These men at Tamms are housed alone for 23-hours a day, with zero human contact, for decades. Some have been locked up alone for 23-28 years.

The psychological deterioration is striking. These men have no one to talk to, and usually no radio or TV. They count the bricks and the dots on the ceiling. They befriend moths and spiders, and talk to them. They flood their cells by clogging the toilet and stuffing the door with paper. They self-mutilate so a nurse will have to attend to them, just so they can experience brief human contact. They go on forty-day hunger strikes. One man cut out a testicle and handed it to the Corrections Officer through the food slot.

From a Tamms Year Ten "mudstenciling" event (click for artist's page). Photo by Sam Barnett.

This facility, as you might imagine, is horrifically wasteful. It costs an estimated $25-35 million a year to house and torture 200 people at Tamms. It’s the least cost-effective facility in Illinois. That’s the price of driving people irreparably insane. As an Illinois taxpayer, I feel the blood on my hands.

The reason I’m sharing this dismal information with Dangerous Intersection is because Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has leaked to the press that he will be shutting Tamms down.

This is going to be a controversial call– the people of Tamms, Illinois rely on this torture chamber for jobs. Tough-on-crime politicians love it. If the response to Tamms’ shutdown is too negative, Quinn will balk, no question about it. I’ve already called Quinn at his Springfield and Chicago offices and left messages supporting the closure of Tamms.

If you’re a current or former Illinois resident, you can help support the closure of Tamms and keep Quinn from waffling by calling and sending messages. Visit here: http://tinyurl.com/closetamms or call Quinn’s offices: Springfield: 217-782-0244  Chicago: 312-814-2121

There is an amazing video report by the Dart Society on the use and effects of long-term solitary. For some reason it can’t be embedded, but check it out here: The Grey Box.

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About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (2)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: I just finished watching the video. The former prisoners seemed incredibly human, and those who let them rot in solitary seemed inhumane.

    You’ve picked one of those topics I hadn’t thought about much before and made it incredibly vivid. I can’t imagine being locked in a small bathroom for a week, much less a hostile small place for decades. This is torture, without a doubt. Just because they get into fights doesn’t mean that you need to deprive them of all human contact and all control over their situation. Shutting them into little spaces with those lights blaring and buzzing couldn’t possibly rehabilitate them.

    The prisoners were eloquent and thoughtful. Their art was amazing. Thank you for opening my eyes to this dreadful situation. If I were an Illinois citizen, I would be on the phone first thing tomorrow. I do hope that some DI readers take a few minutes to inform themselves of this situation and then make a phone call to Governor Quinn.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    National Geographic also has an excellent documentary on solitary confinement. 80,000 people are in solitary confinement today in the United States. That video is available here.

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