Ten Years Too Long

Ten Years Too Long

Monday, April 28th

by Daniel Tucker (Unpublished Report Back)

Mary L Johnson, hasn’t been able to touch her son for ten years. Living on a fixed income, she tries to go visit him at Tamms C-Max Prison whenever she can. But Tamms is in the very southern tip of Illinois and Johnson lives in Chicago, 360 miles away. It takes over seven hours to drive there. “I often have to sleep at rest-stops when I go to Tamms, because I cannot afford the hotel. And I have endured all the humiliation it takes just to get approved to go into Tamms” in order to visit her son. No phone calls are allowed to the men at Tamms. She believes that if the legislators in Illinois had family members in the same cages that her son and others are forced to live in at Tamms, that they would join her in her fight for justice.

Early Monday morning, a group of nearly 50 gathered in the rain in front of the Thompson Center to protest the conditions Tamms C-Max, at a downstate “supermax” prison. The prison opened ten years ago this year and the coalition of concerned citizens, family members of the incarcerated, lawyers, human rights activists and formerly incarcerated men say that it has been “ten years too long.” The multi-racial crowd gathered to rally before a press conference and hearing with the Illinois Prison Reform Committee inside the Thompson Center.

Once inside, we heard from Illinois State representatives like Eddie Washington (60th District) and Elga Jeffries (26th District). Allan Mills, a lawyer with the Uptown Community Law Center, said that “40 % of the population at Tamms has been there since the first year it opened” despite promises from Illinois Department of Corrections and the State Legislature that it would have clear ways in and clear ways out and no inmate would be held longer than one year.

Tamms Year Ten, the coalition that has formed on the occasion of the 10th Anniversary of the opening of Tamms, hopes to draw attention to the 23 hours isolation that the inmates live through every day. Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and professor from San Francisco, has suggested that the kind of isolation and deprivation experienced in Tamms is akin to the Torture debates raging around US prisons in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. The protestors echoed that correlation by demonstrating the black head-covers used to escort inmates, an image which is inextricably linked to our memory of the torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison.

In an interview with prison researcher and photographer Trevor Paglen, Dr. Kupers has elaborated previously on the history of how we got to this point in incarceration. He said, “In the 1930s and 1940, prisons were about rehabilitation. Yes, there was a lot of racism; yes, there was a lot of brutality; and yes a lot of people were killed by the guards. But, rehabilitation was also possible. Later in the century, the idea evolved that prisoners were incorrigible, that rehabilitation didn’t work, and that the best way to deal with prisoners was to lock them up and throw away the key. As that evolved as the reigning ideology in the California prisons and the prisons around the country, various self-interested people joined the bandwagon. Along came the guards union. Along came politicians giving inflamed rhetorical speeches about how what’s wrong with our society is not that we’ve messed up our education system, it’s not that we’ve dismantled welfare, it’s not that there are no jobs for poor people. It’s that there’s a bunch of criminals on the street and we should focus public attention on locking up criminals forever. Then there were the people who build prisons – there was a huge prison building boom in the 1980s. All of these people started making more money and gaining more power by causing prisoners to fail. The longer a prisoner stays in prison or, if he gets out, the sooner he gets put back in, the more money and more power these interested groups get. This is the idea of the Prison Industrial Complex: that the prison isn’t really there to rehabilitate the prisoner, prison is there to make the reputation of a politician, or increase the power or the money of these various interests.” (http://www.paglen.com/carceral/interview_kupers.htm)

A packed house poured out into the halls of the hearing room on Monday. Some gathered because they want Tamms shut down. Others gathered because they have family members there who are suffering from psychological disorders that result from the extreme isolation. Still others in the room were there because they cannot stand the thought that the kinds of torture acts they detest occurring in the War on Terror are happening to their neighbors and fellow Chicagoans with their tax dollars. The Northwestern University Law professor, Locke Bowman said that it costs Illinois tax payers over $90,000 every year to keep men in Tamms. That is nearly three times the amount that it takes to house inmates in regular maximum security prisons.

To follow up on the events happening this year to reform or close Tamms C-Max in southern Illinois visit www.yearten.org

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