Supermax prison maximizes mental health problems for inmates

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has been suggesting the closure of Tamms supermax prison facility due to budget concerns. The response from downstate Illinois has focused on the cost in lost jobs to local communities and the region. Neither side in the debate over the future of Tamms seems overly concerned with the welfare of mentally ill inmates, nor the residents of Illinois who will encounter recently released inmates who have been refused treatment for years.

Closing Tamms would save Illinois $26 million annually, a key consideration at a time when the state is attempting to decide whether to fund prisons or vital services for children. The original purpose of Tamms was to house “the worst of the worst,” but all too often now houses “the sickest of the sick”. Prisoners are placed in individual cells, only coming out for an hour a day to spend in an outdoor concrete box. By design, there are no common areas for inmates, and most interactions with staff take place through the cell door. This costs the taxpayers $64,000 a year per prisoner, who are selected for this treatment entirely at the whim of the Department of Corrections, with little to no oversight.

Lawsuits recently initiated on behalf of inmates at Tamms, and other supermax facilities reveal costs that are truly horrific. An article in The Atlantic describes the ordeal of Jack Powers. Powers made the error assisting a fellow inmate who had been attacked by members of the Aryan Brotherhood, a notorious prison gang. I say mistake, because the Department of Corrections (DOC) failed to provide adequate protection after the incident, allowing the gang to regularly harrass and threaten him. Mr. Powers had no prior history of mental illness, but he reports that the constant threats led him to begin cutting himself in order to seek an outlet for his stress. Mr. Powers has since been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and has cut off his own pinkie, carved skin off of his face, amputated his scrotum and one of his testicles, as well as attempting suicide more than once. Mr. Powers was sent to supermax due to self-harm and threats from the gang, where he is refused medications for his PTSD. DOC policies do not allow psychotropic medications in supermax, so his condition regularly worsens. He self-mutilates, is sent to a hospital unit where he is stabilized and put back on medication, and is transferred back to supermax where no medications are allowed, and the cycle continues.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is alleged to have a long history of ignoring mental illness diagnoses for inmates, and even recommendations of judges that the sentenced individual receive treatment. The current lawsuit on behalf of inmates details haphazard methods of administering medications and frequent slip-ups, scheduling doses incorrectly and even mixing up different people’s prescriptions. The BOP has also been accused of refusing access to life-saving medications when an individual has his own supply, and is in jail due to an old history of writing bad checks.

The current debate over whether to refit Tamms, or to close it entirely, centers around whether it is even possible to turn it into a general facility. Tamms was designed without any common areas, so there is no cafeteria, no gym, no classrooms, etc. In order to provide religious services (only recently instituted), inmates are placed in individualcells, with the chaplain giving sermons through the bars.

Proponents claim that supermax prisons have reduced violence and cut off some of the worst abuses by gang leaders who are removed from the general population. Opponents note that many of those sent to supermax facilities were originally convicted of relatively minor offenses and were transferred due to worsening mental health symptoms when refused proper treatment. A recent court ruling states that the public does not even have the right to know why a prisoner was transferred to Tamms in the first place. Inmates participating in lawsuits are reporting that prison officials are threatening them with “payback” if they do not drop their lawsuit. It certainly seems that a lot of effort is being spent to make sure that what happens at Tamms stays at Tamms.