Tamms controversy resonates

By Contributing Writer

Angelica Sanchez

The debate about whether Tamms Correctional Facility tortures its prisoners resurfaced Oct. 10 when a southern Illinois judge extended a court order blocking Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal to close seven state prisons.

Anti-Tamms activists are now pushing for the U.N. to determine if the prison meets the international definition of torture because it uses solitary confinement as a means

of punishment.

Quinn proposed closing the facility to save taxpayers $26.6 million annually, as reported by The Chronicle April 9. Anti-Tamms activists rejoiced at the proposal but now worry their efforts to raise awareness about the prison’s practices may be stifled by Associate Circuit Judge Charles Cavaness’ order.

“Gov. Quinn remains committed to saving the taxpayers of Illinois money by closing empty or half-empty prisons and juvenile facilities,” said Abdon M. Pallasch,

Quinn’s assistant budget director.

“Keeping these facilities … open is costing taxpayers $7 million a month.”

Cavaness’ order was a win for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the national labor union representing nonfederal government workers. AFSCME has argued that Quinn’s proposal would create dangerous working conditions because Tamms’ prisoners would be relocated to overcrowded facilities if it were to close.

Activists with Tamms Year Ten, an organization opposing the prison, argue that the prison violates human rights by forcing inmates to live in isolation, cutting off all contact with the outside world.

“Human dignity is the issue here, not jobs,” said Tamms Year Ten organizer Laurie Jo Reynolds. “It’s inappropriate for AFSCME to consider themselves a progressive union if they are fighting to keep a prison open that violates international standards for the treatment of human beings.”

Members of Tamms Year Ten have pushed for the U.N. to launch an investigation of the prison.

“I have received many complaints about many solitary confinements in the United States, including Tamms,” said Juan E. Méndez, who investigates torture for the U.N. “I’m treating these complaints under special procedures [through] a confidential exchange of notes between the government of the United States about the veracity of those complaints to eventually produce a report.”

Méndez said he’s interested in researching Tamms and other U.S. supermax prisons.

Jean Snyder, an attorney who drafted a letter to the U.N. on behalf of Tamms Year Ten, said it is unlikely the prisons will close, despite the group’s efforts.

She said although solitary confinement causes mental problems, Tamms will likely remain open because the U.N. has no authority to close a U.S. prison.

“Although Méndez can have an investigation [of Tamms] and it can cast a shadow over the prison, it doesn’t trump a selfish union,” Snyder said.

AFSCME officials could not be reached for comment.

To show the struggles of inmates, Tamms Year Ten is sponsoring an exhibit at Sullivan Galleries, 33 S. State St., that features photographs of men who were or still are in the supermax prison.