Tougher than Guantanamo
Illinois supermax prison with no way out
On paper, Michael Johnson fits the profile of dangerous inmate. Reputedly a high-ranking El Rukn gang leader, he was a few months into a 35-year sentence for kidnapping and murder when he was indicted in 1987 for ordering a hit on Pontiac Correctional Center superintendent Robert Taylor. Johnson was eventually convicted and moved to Menard Correctional Center, were he mingled with the general population, taking college courses and becoming president of the Afrikan American Culture Coalition.
Six years later, in the wee hours of March 31, 1998, Johnson was rousted from his bunk by a captain and three correctional officers and taken to a holding cell where he was joined by three other inmates. The next morning, the four men were transported by van about 85 miles south to Illinois’ then-brand-new “supermax” prison, Tamms Correctional Center.
In a booklet published by his mother later that year, Johnson described his
arrival at Tamms: “Eight C/Os [correctional officers] in black, bulletproof vests took us from the
van, one at a time. Hands-on, they escorted us through the glass doors. They
told us to put both feet on the yellow line and to face the wall,” he wrote. “As soon as a man walks through these glass doors, the psychological torture
After a brief introduction to the Tamms curtsy — a ritual in which the guards count to three, drop the inmate to his knees,
apply (or remove) handcuffs and shackles, then count to three again and bring
the prisoner up to a standing position — each man was put into a small cell and ordered to remove all clothing, Johnson
wrote. “Then they searched me — fingers through my hair, opened my mouth, they said lift your tongue, top lip,
bottom, behind the ears, lift your arms, wiggle your fingers, turn around,
raise your left foot, your right foot, and ‘spread ’em.’ ”
By now, a decade later, Johnson has undoubtedly grown accustomed to these rites
of humiliation. At Tamms, every prisoner must undergo this kneeling, cuffing,
poking, prodding genuflection every time he leaves his 7-by-12-foot cell for
anything other than his shower (five times a week if he’s had good behavior, twice a week if he hasn’t) or, if he’s earned the privilege, his private hour-long visit to the mesh-topped barren
concrete enclosure euphemistically called “the yard.”
The rest of the time, Tamms inmates live in solitary confinement. They have no
telephone privileges. They have no religious services. They have no communal
functions of any kind. Reading materials, family photographs and art supplies
are limited — an inmate can have 20 magazines, 15 photos and the flexible plastic tube of ink
from the inside of a ballpoint pen. They receive each meal on a tray through a
slit in their cell doors — an event one former inmate describes as the “activity of the day.”
Tamms' location has the effect of placing its inmates — 70 percent of whom are from the Chicago area — as far away from their loved ones as possible. Any prisoner fortunate enough to have a visitor willing and able to drive to the tiny town in the southernmost toe of Illinois will be thoroughly strip-searched both before and after the visit, even though he and his guest sit in separate secure boxes, communicating via intercom through a thick glass slab, never allowed to touch. For this reason, many inmates discourage loved ones from visiting.
But that’s not the worst part. For most men at Tamms, the worst part is not knowing when,
if ever, they’ll get out of this intense isolation. Many prisoners, including Johnson, have
existed in solitary confinement now for more than 10 years. Many, like Johnson,
appear destined to spend the rest of their lives alone in Tamms.
Tamms Correctional Center is a prison complex consisting of a 500-bed closed maximum-security, or CMAX, facility and a 200-bed minimum security unit on a 236-acre campus located just north of the town of Tamms (population approximately 750). The minimum security unit opened in 1995; the CMAX opened in March 1998.
Designed to house the Illinois Department of Corrections’ “most disruptive, violent and problematic inmates,” Tamms CMAX isn’t supposed to be a nice place to live. “Inmates approved for placement at CMAX have demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to conform to the requirements of a general population prison,” according to the IDOC Web site.
It’s not their crimes in the free world that have sent these men to Tamms; nobody ever goes straight to CMAX. Instead, inmates are transferred to Tamms because of infractions they have committed while incarcerated in another IDOC prison, or “for having influence in activities of a gang or other unauthorized organization,” according to state administrative code.
“They’ve earned their way there,” says IDOC spokesman Derek Schnapp.
Under current state code, a prisoner can be assigned to Tamms CMAX if IDOC has
determined that he has or plans to attempt escape, assault staff or inmates,
influence gang activities, engage in non-consensual sex, or possess weapons — “among other matters.” That phrase leaves it wide open.
Tamms was conceived in the wake of chaos and riots that rocked IDOC in the early 1980s and ’90s and led to the revelation that IDOC’s lax policies were allowing gangs to run amuck (for example, Larry Hoover, chief of the Gangster Disciples, ruled a drug ring that made $100 million per year, from inside prison walls).
Embarrassed by such scandals, Illinois jumped on the supermax trend begun by California’s Pelican Bay prison and in 1993 passed legislation to create Tamms. By the time it opened five years later, IDOC had instituted reforms that had the gang problem under control. Yet what IDOC had built, it needed to fill.
To date, Tamms has never been full. Schnapp puts the average occupancy of this
500-bed prison at 250; it’s currently 244.
The main complaint among former inmates, family members, and human rights activists is the lack of any clear criteria for inmates to earn their way out, back into a traditional facility. Under the prison’s charter, inmates demonstrating cooperative behavior at Tamms for a year or two could return to the general prison population at Pontiac, Menard, or Stateville. In practice, though, such “step down” transfers are rare — only 72 since 2005, Schnapp says — and the criteria for securing a transfer are foggy. At least 80 inmates, like Johnson, have been marooned at Tamms ever since it opened, more than 11 years ago.
Tamms’ open-ended solitary segregation has drawn criticism from scores of prison
watchdog groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Catholic
Relief Service, National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Illinois
Psychiatric Society. In fact, when the same brand of indefinite isolation was
instituted at Guantanamo Bay, the Pentagon determined that such seclusion
jeopardized prisoner safety and failed to meet the humane treatment terms of
the Geneva Convention. Consequently, suspected terrorists at Gitmo are now
allowed social interaction and phone calls, while inmates at Tamms are not.
In May 2008, State Rep. Julie Hamos, D-Evanston, introduced HB2633, known as the Supermax Accountability Bill.
“I have not approached this from the perspective that we don’t need Tamms. What concerns me is keeping people in this very extreme
environment for extended periods of time,” Hamos says. “That’s what, to me, comes very close to a human rights concern. I think it’s inhumane to treat anybody that way.”
Instead, her bill would simply restore the policies promised by IDOC when Tamms was built — providing inmates with an explanation of why they’re sent to Tamms, making one year the standard stay for inmates who become cooperative, and establishing criteria for inmates to earn their way out of CMAX. Though the bill attracted a strong group of 24 cosponsors, Hamos this month agreed to pull the legislation back from consideration long enough to give Gov. Pat Quinn’s newly-appointed IDOC director, Michael Randle, the opportunity to take action.
"Our new director has already been to Tamms," says Schnapp. "He plans on going there again soon, and he’s working on a review of that facility."
Study after study warns of the dangers of prolonged solitary confinement. It is
proven to produce panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, insomnia, chronic
lethargy, short-term memory loss, an inability to concentrate, and, ironically,
an oversized anger at the intrusion of small sounds such as plumbing,
footsteps, or light switches. Some prisoners respond by “acting out;” they throw food or bodily fluids at the guards, smear feces on the cell walls,
cut themselves, swallow glass or razor blades, attempt suicide.
Inmates can request counseling services, but Schnapp says it’s up to the mental health workers to decide whether to provide a private counseling session. For the most severely mentally ill inmates, Tamms has a 60-bed section called J-Pod, in which the men get to leave their cells for four hours a day, and have a type of “group therapy” with their individual cages arranged facing a therapist. There’s also an “elevated security wing” where the walls are specially treated to be easily washed, and the cell doors are covered with plexiglass to prevent inmates from pelting the guards with excrement.
Dr. Stuart Grassian, a forensic psychiatrist on the faculty of Harvard Medical
School, has observed inmates in solitary in several states, and found that “incarceration in solitary caused either severe exacerbation or recurrence of
preexisting [mental] illness, or the appearance of an acute mental illness in
individuals who had previously been free of any such illness.”
Psychology professor Craig Haney, who studied 100 inmates at Pelican Bay, summed
up the hazards of solitary segregation in a 2003 article in the journal Crime and Delinquency: “Supermax prisoners are literally at risk of losing their grasp on who they are,
of how and whether they are connected to a larger social world.”
In 2006, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons — a national bi-partisan task force — recommended tightening admissions criteria for supermax units and providing “regular and meaningful human contact” for prisoners in solitary confinement. “To the extent that safety allows, give prisoners in segregation opportunities to
fully engage in treatment, work, study and other productive activities,” the task force recommended, and above all, “[transition] inmates out as quickly as possible.”
This recommendation would come as no surprise to the Illinois Task Force on
Crime and Corrections, the 1993 panel that proposed construction of a supermax.
In its final report, the task force emphasized: “To serve its purpose, inmates must move in and out, based on some objective classification and standards.”
If IDOC has objective standards for moving inmates in or out of Tamms, it isn’t apparent. For example, Michael Johnson, the inmate sent to Tamms six years after being convicted of the murder of a Pontiac prison superintendent, was never accused of killing the superintendent himself; rather, he and another inmate, David Carter, were accused of recruiting inmates Ike Easley and Roosevelt Lucas to carry out the killing. Easley, who stabbed superintendent Taylor six times, is currently locked up in Tamms. But an Illinois Times search of IDOC records shows that Carter, who conspired with Johnson, and Roosevelt, who beat superintendent Taylor with a lead pipe, are both at the more traditional Stateville Correctional Center.
Evan Griffith is another offender who seems to fit Tamms’ criteria. He was convicted and sent to Death Row for the 1990 fatal stabbing of a fellow inmate at Pontiac Correctional Center. Yet when former Gov. George Ryan issued a blanket commutation for all Death Row prisoners, Griffith was sent to Menard Correctional Center, not Tamms. Wilford Mackey, convicted of armed violence in the same slaying, also never went to Tamms, and is currently housed at IDOC's high-medium security facility in Danville. Robinson Wesley was convicted of murder for the 1988 beating of a prison commissary worker at Stateville, yet he has never been sent to Tamms. Nor has Domingo Perez, convicted of killing a fellow inmate in Stateville.
Anthony Hall seems overqualified by the state code’s definition of CMAX candidates: Convicted of the 1983 stabbing to death a beloved Pontiac cafeteria supervisor named Frieda King, Hall has also punched a judge in the face and used a chair to beat an attorney. He is currently incarcerated at Menard.
Johnnie Walton, on the other hand, has never killed anyone. His rap sheet includes 13 armed robberies, all committed in the 1970s, a 1986 escape and a 1987 felony charge for selling PCP (that conviction was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in March of 2004.) A former Vice Lord, 58-year-old Walton claims he gave up gang life in 1988, when his son was murdered.
In prison, he earned an associates degree in auto mechanics and was so well-behaved that he was given the privilege of working in Illinois Correctional Industries. “To qualify as an ICI worker, inmates must demonstrate good disciplinary status; have at least a GED; not be an escape risk; [and] have received a positive review by Internal Affairs,” according to IDOC’s Web site.
“We made the mattresses for Tamms. We were the good guys,” Walton says. “So when they shipped me to Tamms, that was a great surprise to me. I had been a
model prisoner for 18 years.”
Schnapp says IDOC staff must have had some cause to place Walton in solitary confinement. "Every person placed at Tamms, it was reviewed by our executive staff and there was a reason for them to go there," he says.
Walton believes he was targeted by a prison staffer who read letters he was sending home in anticipation of his release, organizing a gang prevention program called Universal Brotherhood. Prison officials deemed his letters “unauthorized gang activity.” He spent more than three years in Tamms, beginning in February 2004, one month before his conviction was reversed. He was released in 2007.
He received an annual step-down review, but says it was meaningless. “They tell you that you have to renounce the gang. I say renounce what? You have to give them information on where the gang is, what they do, and if you do that, you’re a dead man,” Walton says. He knows three men who agreed to renounce their former gangs, and provided information, only to be told the review committee didn’t believe them. Walton says two of those men are still at Tamms.
Steve isn’t sure why his younger brother, Mike, has been in Tamms since 2000. He asked that their surname not be published, for fear of retaliation, but he provided a reporter with his brother’s prison identification number. Mike’s rap sheet shows he was convicted of a 1988 murder plus a class 3 aggravated battery while in Pontiac. His tattoos, listed below his mug shot, suggest that he was a member of a gang. Steve, a soft-spoken 41-year-old, doesn’t minimize his brother’s crimes.
“He pled guilty. He’s not upset with the system for putting him in prison. He did wrong and he knows
it. That’s his sentence and he’s serving it,” Steve says. “But this is something entirely different. This is like a sentence on top of a
Like many inmates, Mike was told upon arrival at Tamms that good behavior would
earn him a transfer out after a year, but it hasn’t happened. He would be required to provide information on his gang, and Steve
says Mike simply can’t. “What information does he know? He’s there. He doesn’t have any information from anybody,” Steve says. “After nine years [in Tamms], you don’t know anything.”
Mike is scheduled to be released in 2012, and when that happens, he will most likely come live with Steve and his two young children. Steve describes his brother as “very quiet, very kind, a good-hearted person who just got caught up in city life;” still, Steve frets about how his brother — or anyone who has spent a decade in solitary confinement — will function in the free world.
“My concern is that when they eventually do get out, there’s no rehabilitation in there. How are they going to adapt to society?” Steve asks. “I can’t see that those guys are going to come out, like, normal.”
Steve has joined Tamms Year Ten, a coalition of ex-prisoners, inmates’ families, educators, attorneys and other activists formed in 2008 (Tamms’ 10th year of operation) calling for reforms at the CMAX. The group has worked with legislators and IDOC officials, and has weekly meetings at a storefront office in Chicago’s Humboldt Park. The group was organized by Laurie Jo Reynolds, an adjunct professor of film and video at Columbia College. Reynolds, whose undergraduate degree is in public policy, says the perspective of people like Steve and other Tamms families is the factor that was missing during the creation of Tamms.
“People never imagine that their own children could make a mistake and end up in
prison,” she says. “They only imagine their children as victims. That’s how we end up making these bad policies.”
Darrell Cannon paused just long enough to have his picture taken for this paper outside the Rainbow PUSH headquarters in Chicago. He had just wrapped up an hour-long television interview with an Indiana station, and was trying to return phone calls before heading off to a radio appearance with the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Cannon, one of the first inmates incarcerated at Tamms, doesn’t miss any opportunity to educate the public about the prison.
“It’s a hellhole,” he says, during a late-night phone interview, squeezed in after his shift as an
outreach worker for a gang intervention program called Ceasefire. “It’s a place designed to break you mentally, spiritually and physically, and if you’re not strong enough, it happens.”
Cannon sums up his criminal history this way: "I've never been an angel, nor have I been a monster." He can't discuss details due to a pending and hard-won suppression hearing that could set a precedent for scores of other men who had the misfortune to encounter officers from Chicago Police Department's notorious Area Two violent crimes unit, led by Lt. Jon Burge. Cannon's encounter came in November 1983, when he was on parole and two of Burge's officers picked Cannon up to question him about a shooting. At his trial in 1984, Cannon told the judge that the officers drove him to a remote area, showed him what appeared to be a loaded shotgun, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger, three times. Then they stretched him across the back seat of a squad car, pulled down his pants, applied a cattle prod to his testicles, and soon obtained a confession.
Years later, Cannon’s tale of torture and scores of others much like it were confirmed by investigators and acknowledged by judges. Burge was fired, and the city of Chicago paid more than $20 million to settle claims from his victims.
Cleared for release in April 2007, Cannon was given one weekend of lockup in Stateville to transition between nine years of solitary at Tamms and the city of Chicago.
“I have tons of frustration, anger, hatred, all those things built up in me. It’s a wonder that I don’t have a bleeding ulcer,” Cannon says.
But asked if he knows anyone who deserves incarceration at Tamms, Cannon is
adamant that his answer is no. “There are people who deserve to be in prison, but no one deserves to be in
Tamms. Not even an animal,” he says. “They’ve created some monsters that are sitting dormant. Sooner or later they’re going to get out. Politicians better do something. They better give these men
some light of day.”
Like Cannon, Michael Johnson was also brutalized by the Burge crew. Johnson’s mother, Mary L. Johnson, blames herself: she filed a complaint against officers back in 1970, when she says Michael and his friends were approached by CPD in the park, and Michael was beaten up. He was 16 at the time. Soon after his 17th birthday (when he was old enough be charged as an adult), he became a target of police, arrested 17 times within six months and charged with petty infractions like loitering or disturbing the peace. When he wore a hat with a pin in it, he was charged with possession of a deadly weapon, Mary says.
She admits that her son wasn’t a saint. “He was really into gangs when he was a young person. He found out the police respected gangs more than they respected me,” she says. Michael’s 56 now; when he was a child, the Blackstone Rangers ruled his neighborhood, using a federal grant to hand out summer jobs for kids. The Rangers’ founder, Jeff Fort, was treated like a community organizer, and was even invited to the inauguration of President Richard Nixon.
At age 17, Michael was sent to prison on a shooting charge. Mary believes he was innocent of that charge (he was working as a porter at the Palmer House Hotel at the time), but she says he came out of prison at age 19 using drugs and primed for a life of crime. He returned to prison after his brilliant scheme to hold up a drug house went awry. Within a few months of his arrival at Pontiac, Superintendent Taylor was killed.
Mary has reams of detailed documents that she believes prove that Michael was framed for the Taylor murder. He refused four plea bargains, from 15 years down to 10 and finally, “is there any number of years that you would accept in your case?” Mary says Michael responded that he wouldn’t accept a plea bargain for 15 minutes if it meant confessing to something he didn’t do. At trial, he was given a life sentence.
Yet despite her staunch belief in her son’s actual innocence, and in the face of his probable life sentence in Tamms, she says Michael may be better off there than in a general population joint where he could be “set up” like he was with the Taylor murder.
“My son is not the poster boy for Tamms,” she says. “It’s so cruel for other people. But my son can spend the rest of his time there — if they would just let him come out periodically and hug me and his children.”
She’s a smart woman, and she smiles as she speaks. Somewhere in her soul, though, Mary L. Johnson knows that as long as her son is incarcerated at Tamms, he will never be allowed to hug her or his children.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at firstname.lastname@example.org