The Supermax Solution

by Regan Good

The Nation magazine, March 3, 2003


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. The decision in that case stated that the mentally ill could not and should not be made to endure supermax conditions. Haney remembers the day he and a colleague first toured the facility. "We drove most of the two hours back to the airport without saying a word. It was as though we had seen the face of the future of American corrections, and it was terrifying. They had come as close as humanly possible to creating a long-term storage container for people."

Inmates are not sentenced to supermax; they supposedly "earn" their way in through violent behavior, gang affiliation and an accumulation of disciplinary infractions in other prisons. The corrections sector insists these prisons work to keep both guards and other inmates safe, and historically, courts have deferred to their opinion. Currently, thirty to thirty-five states have supermax facilities, either existing as freestanding prisons or blocks of isolation cells in lesser-security prisons. At any given moment, there are about 25,000 people in long-term solitary confinement in the United States.

Because they provide J-Pod for their most desperate inmates, Tamms officials believe the prison is both escape- and litigation-proof. After three years in operation, Tamms remains about half full, currently holding 265 inmates, though it has room for 500. The Illinois Department of Corrections says this is evidence of its careful and judicious selection; critics say it is evidence of gross overbuilding.

Under current Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, healthy inmates have no meaningful legal recourse. Attempts like Snyder's to file challenges on behalf of seriously mentally ill inmates have better prospects. Snyder, who is now waiting for a trial date, has ample evidence of the brutal conditions and paucity of treatment facing her mentally ill defendants (although the Southern District of Illinois is a difficult place for inmates to get a fair hearing). A recent decision in Boscobel, Wisconsin, made it clear that the state must keep the mentally ill out of its supermax; another recent case in Florida was settled, with the main concession being, once again, that mentally ill inmates have no place in supermax confinement. Still, in each of these cases the basic supermax paradigm was reaffirmed. So the "normal resilience" inmates will remain in their cells, keeping track of time by the sound of the metal meal carts clanking down the wings. Ironically, their best hope for transfer or legal redress may be their own psychological collapse.


Regan Good is a writer based in New York City.

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