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Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009 04:10 pm

After prisoner’s death, supermax reforms promised

Mentally ill still held in solitary: “What kind of society have we become?

Robert Foor died on June 23 after nearly 11 years in Tamms. According to the autopsy report, his death was caused by hyponatremia, or “water intoxication.”
As Tamms Year Ten and other human rights organizations stepped forward to speak for Robert Foor, a 33-year-old who died in June after nearly 11 years in isolation at the Tamms Closed Maximum Security Unit, the Illinois Department of Corrections announced its plans to reform the southern Illinois “supermax” prison.

Last week, IDOC director Michael Randle introduced a 10-point plan for the Tamms CMAX — opened in March 1998 to house inmates who “demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to conform to the requirements of a general population prison.” Gov. Pat Quinn appointed Randle in May and requested a review of operations at Tamms, a controversial facility that keeps inmates in permanent solitary confinement, feeds them through slits in their cell doors and bans contact visits, telephone calls, religious services and communal activities [see “Tougher than Guantanamo,” June 18].

Randle’s new plan provides each incoming inmate at Tamms CMAX with a transfer review hearing, where they can appeal their placement in the supermax facility. Once placed, prisoners are given an estimated length of stay and told how to earn a spot in the “reassignment unit,” an intermediate step for inmates who demonstrate good behavior, or an eventual transfer. The plan also calls for extending inmates’ recreation time and adding congregate religious services, telephone privileges and General Educational Development (GED) testing.

One of Randle’s most talked-about reform measures will require that each inmate undergo a mental health evaluation within 30 days of their placement at Tamms CMAX and that mental health staff check weekly on inmates who may be “decompensating” as a result of their transfer.

Tamms Year Ten organizer Laurie Jo Reynolds told Illinois Times that the plan will lessen psychological effects caused by long-term isolation in Tamms CMAX, but offers no significant change for inmates with mental illness.

“Evaluations before and after transfer to Tamms, and periodically after that, are already carried out in some form, and yet many mentally ill men remain in solitary confinement, in an environment that exacerbates mental illnesses, and induces self-abuse and suicide,” according to a Tamms Year Ten statement. “The current review practices have failed. What are needed are clear rules forbidding the placement of seriously mentally ill prisoners at Tamms, along with independent oversight to ensure that the rules are followed.”

All prisoners at Tamms CMAX in southern Illinois are housed in permanent solitary confinement. They are only allowed to leave their cells to shower or exercise alone in a metal cage two to five times a week, depending on their behavior.
PHOTO BY JOHN SMIERCIAK/MCT
Jean Maclean Snyder, a Chicago attorney who filed a lawsuit on behalf of four mentally ill Tamms inmates in 1999, says the death of Robert Foor is “exhibit A” in what’s wrong with mixing mentally ill inmates and supermax prisons.

Foor had been in Tamms since July 1998 when he was found unresponsive in his cell on June 23. According to a recently-released autopsy report, he died due to hyponatremia, a condition in which there is not enough sodium in the blood (commonly referred to as water intoxication).

Two weeks earlier, Foor had filed a grievance with IDOC, alleging that Tamms had withheld his medication — he had taken 17 different types while incarcerated, he stated — and therapy as a form of punishment [see “Private hell, July 1]. In the grievance, he also affirmed that he had been diagnosed with personality disorder with antisocial, borderline and paranoid features, among other conditions.

“They’re hard for anyone to live in, particularly someone who’s mentally ill,” says Snyder, who often corresponded with Foor and his family. “The prison was an extraordinary challenge for him, and it’s one he didn’t survive.”

Nancy Meyer, a Chicago-area mental health professional who also corresponded with Foor, confirms that studies show that isolation increases psychotic behaviors — even in people who have never been diagnosed with mental illness.

“Bobby represents the mentally ill,” Meyer says. “What kind of society have we become that we’d put them in a place like Tamms?”

Tamms Year Ten maintains that independent monitoring of mental health diagnosis and treatment at Tamms, as well as clear criteria for placement in the supermax facility, are still needed. The organization continues to support the Supermax Accountability Bill, which prohibits the placement of severely mentally ill inmates at Tamms CMAX, institutes due process hearings and limits lengths of stay to one year unless a prisoner poses a risk to other inmates and staff. The bill, sponsored by 28 legislators, has been held up in the House since April.

Januari Smith, IDOC communications manager, did not return calls seeking comment by press time.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.,
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