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Belleville News-Democrat (Illinois)

Hundreds Protest 'Supermax' Prison's Solitary Conditions

George Palaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer

Tamms Correctional Center, in deep Southern Illinois, is the state's only supermax prison - Zia Nizami/BND

More than 250 calls came into Gov. Pat Quinn's offices Thursday during a statewide protest concerning conditions at the Tamms Correctional Center prison, where many inmates have been held for longer than 10 years in continuous solitary confinement.

The protest, organized by the Tamms Year Ten Committee, was sparked by a News-Democrat investigative series -- Trapped in Tamms -- which ran Sunday and Monday. Protesters were urged to call the governor's offices in Chicago and Springfield.

The call-in total as of 3 p.m. was officially put at 258 telephone calls, according to Quinn spokeswoman Libby White. She said Quinn had no comment concerning the protest.

White said 103 calls came to the Chicago office number -- 312-814-2121, and 155 came to the Springfield office number -- 217-782-0244.

One of three operators taking calls at the governor's office in Chicago told the News-Democrat at 3 p.m. that she alone had taken more than 80 calls.

Laurie Jo Reynolds, of the Tamms Year Ten Committee, said more than 20 church groups and civic organizations participated. She estimated that 600 persons made calls to the governor's offices.

Citing the newspaper's series, the committee issued a news release that stated several demands, which included:

* Exclude seriously mentally ill prisoners from Tamms.

* End "indefinite isolation."

* Establish "clear standards and procedures" for transfer to the supermax.

* Require "independent mental health reviews" of all of the lockup's current inmates.

A spokeswoman for newly appointed Department of Corrections Director Michael Randle, who Quinn asked to investigate Tamms, said in a written statement, "Director Randle is conducting a comprehensive review of the operations of Tamms and will be making recommendations in the near future."

The newspaper reported that 54 of approximately 250 inmates at Tamms have been held for at least 10 years including 39 who arrived when the prison opened in 1998. All Tamms inmates are held in solitary confinement and all but a few spend 23 hours of each day in a cell. It is the most expensive prison to operate at an annual cost of $64,700 per inmate.

The newspaper also reported that despite IDOC claims that the lockup, located in Alexander County in the southern tip of Illinois, holds troublesome inmates or the "worst of the worst," 138 had not been convicted of crimes within the prison system. The stories also reported that of the remaining 109 Tamms inmates who were convicted of crimes in prison, 55 committed acts such as throwing feces and urine, struggling with guards or carrying homemade weapons, acts that could be attributed to mental illness or a need for self-protection.

State Rep. Julie Hamos, D-Evanston, sponsor of proposed legislation to ease conditions at the supermax, said, "I can tell you that there is very active interest on the part of legislators to make sure that seriously mentally ill don't get to Tamms in the first place, where they will only worsen." Nineteen legislators have signed on as co-sponsors of Hamos' bill.

Rep. Tom Holbrook, D-Belleville, has said that while he has "no sympathy for inmates," he favors asking Quinn to conduct a further review of the supermax prison.

Joy Price, of Carbondale, called the Chicago and Springfield numbers.

"I have known about the deplorable conditions there for several years. Now it seems that something can actually be done to change that, and I am delighted," she said.

Scott McFarland, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Chicago, said he called and urged Quinn to read the newspaper's series.

McFarland told the receptionist that a mentally ill inmate featured in one of the articles "was a poster child for the IDOC's incompetence in dealing with mentally ill prisoners and that I was appalled that the IDOC's (psychologist) testified that the inmate was cutting himself 'for fun,'" he said.

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