Tamms, known as a “supermax” prison, symbolized the ever more punitive, dehumanizing, and ineffective state of our criminal justice system where entire institutions are built to hold prisoners in extreme solitary confinement.
The closing of Tamms is a major victory first and foremost because of the abhorrent and terrifying psychological consequences of such extreme and continuous solitary confinement. Spending over 22 hours a day alone in a cell has a negative psychological impact on all inmates, but is especially devastating for mentally ill persons, who are disproportionately represented in “supermax” prisons. Indeed, the American Psychiatric Association says that prisoners with serious mental illness should not be placed in segregation except in the rarest of circumstances and then only with special clinical supports. Unfortunately, at Tamms and other “supermaxes,” seriously mentally ill prisoners have been placed in solitary for months, years, and even decades. Before Tamms closed, an estimated 25% of the “supermax” prisoners had been in continuous solitary confinement for over ten years.
Closing Tamms also means that state lawmakers are beginning to recognize that the exorbitant costs associated with “supermax” facilities are an unjustifiable drain on public resources. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, “one of the reasons Tamms was chosen for closure is because it is by far the most expensive facility to operate” – indeed, closing Tamms will mean millions of dollars in savings for the state and its taxpayers. Data shows that Tamms was the least cost-effective of all Illinois’ facilities. Research from around the country tells the same story as in Illinois: solitary confinement is the most expensive form of incarceration and it neither deters violent behavior in prisons nor prevents recidivism.
The closure of Tamms is yet another example of states re-examining priorities and trying to do better with less. Indeed, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn intends to shift the cost-savings from Tamms’ closure to increase funding for important child protective services.
Illinois’ decision to close Tamms did not happen in isolation; there is a larger criminal justice dialogue taking place across the country about the need for reform. Spurred by growing budget deficits, costly litigation arising from unconstitutional treatment, and the public’s objection to inhumane conditions, several states are changing their prison systems to limit the use of long-term solitary confinement. Some selected highlights:
- The Maine Department of Corrections cut its “supermax” population by over fifty percent and provided prisoners expanded access to programming and social stimulation.
- Over the last few years, Mississippi reduced the “supermax” population of one institution from 1000 to 150 and eventually closed the entire unit.
- In the last year, Colorado reduced the number of prisoners in solitary confinement by 36.9% and recently announced the closure of a 316-bed “supermax” facility, which is projected to save the state $4.5 million in Fiscal Year 2012-13 and $13.6 million in Fiscal Year 2013-14.