The Supermax Solution. (Comment)

By Good, Regan | The Nation, March 3, 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Supermax Solution. (Comment)


Good, Regan, The Nation


The billboard at the east entrance to the remote rural village of Tamms, Illinois, reads "Tamms: The First Super Max," and below, in lowercase letters, "a good place to live." Inmates at Tamms, who live in a kind of state-sanctioned suspended animation, would tend to disagree. Confined to their cells, alone, twenty-three hours a day, inmates eat, sleep, defecate, urinate, read and write (if they are able), watch TV or listen to the radio (if they are allowed) in the same 8-by-12 cell, often for years on end. The monotony, sensory deprivation and mandated idleness of supermax confinement is especially torturous for inmates who have--or who develop during incarceration, as many do--a serious mental illness. It is this fact that forms the crux of the lawsuit filed against the prison in 1999 by Jean Maclean Snyder, a lawyer at the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago Law School. Snyder charges that the treatment of mentally ill prisoners at Tamms amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of their Eighth Amendment rights.

The lawsuit represents four plaintiffs, three of whom have attempted suicide. The MacArthur suit, like other challenges to supermaxes, was filed on behalf of the mentally ill among the Tamms population, but these suits are, in Snyder's words, "a surrogate for generalized legal challenges to supermaxes," which rarely prevail in court.

In what has been interpreted as a direct reaction to the MacArthur Center's lawsuit, Tamms opened a special mental health wing, called "J-Pod," in February 2000. This high-surveillance unit receives inmates who are broken enough, according to Illinois Department of Corrections standards, to be relieved of continual isolation--in essence, Tamms created a special unit to combat the effects of its policies, rather than consider reforming the regime. Here inmates are allowed daily contact with mental health staff and some interaction with other inmates. Even in J-Pod inmates must "earn" their way out of Tamms by correcting their behavior. But as Snyder points out, many mentally ill inmates can't "behave," by definition. And for those stuck in solitary confinement, she adds, "there is nothing to be good at, there is no behavior allowed." (Since Tamms opened in 1998, only fourteen men have "graduated" from the supermax and been sent back to lesser-security prisons.)

Craig Haney, a national expert on the mental health of US prisoners and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has watched as supermaxes have spread unchecked across the nation. Haney was one of the original witnesses in a 1994 federal district court lawsuit against California's notorious Pelican Bay isolation unit.

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