Monday, April 01, 2013

DoC still working out policy for former Tamms prisoners

By Jamey Dunn

North segregation wing at Pontiac Correctional Center
By Jamey Dunn

Inmates who were transferred from a now-shuttered super-maximum security prison in Tamms  remain in relative isolation at the Pontiac Correctional Center with no immediate possibility of rejoining the general prison population.

The Tamms Correctional Center closed in January, and most inmates were transferred to the maximum-security facility in Pontiac. Pontiac Warden Randy Pfister said that for many of the prisoners, this was not their first time at Pontiac. “Many of the ex-Tamms offenders had already spent time at Pontiac Correctional [Center]. They’re very familiar with Pontiac Correctional Center,” he told reporters after leading them on a tour of Pontiac last Friday.

On the day of the visit, Pontiac held 1,948 inmates. According to the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, Pontiac is designed to hold 1,800 inmates. The Department of Corrections lists the prison’s capacity 2,152. It costs almost $32,000 to house a prisoner at Pontiac for a year. Pfister estimated that about half of the men serving time at Pontiac will be behind bars for the rest of their lives.

Former Tamms prisoners fall under two general categories. About 50 of them are in disciplinary segregation at Pontiac. Pfister said that serious infractions of the rules in the prison system, such as assaults or possession of contraband, land inmates in long term segregation. Inmates who rack up more than a year of segregation are typically transferred to Pontiac to serve their disciplinary time. “Violate the rules or the policies or procedures of the Department of Corrections; basically it’s the same as if you break a law on the streets.”

The former Tamms prisoners in segregation live under the strictest conditions at the facility. They spend the vast majority of their time and take all of their meals in small cells by themselves. The cell doors are covered in Plexiglas and metal grating. The addition of Plexiglas is one of the infrastructure changes made specifically for the former Tamm’s prisoners. Reporters were not allowed on the wings where the “worst of the worst” of former Tamms inmates are housed at Pontiac. “The North segregation [where former Tamms prisoners are held], it’s a different atmosphere,” said Frank Turner, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 494. Turner, who is a corrections officer at Pontiac, said prisoners in other cell blocks have more incentive to exhibit good behavior because they have more opportunities to earn rewards.

The inmates in North segregation are allowed five hours of recreation time a week. They take that in large rust-colored metal cages in the prison yard. Segregation prisoners are not allowed to bring anything into the cages, dubbed recreation pods by DoC. There is a pull-up bar, and Pontiac staff said prisoners often exercise or yell back in forth to prisoners in other pods when they are in the yard. There is a system at Pontiac for stepping down segregation prisoners to less restrictive conditions, but Stacey Solano, a spokeswoman for DoC, said that no former Tamms inmates have been placed under a different security classification than their status was at the super-max prison. Pfister said some inmates in segregation at Pontiac should never be returned to a general prison population because of the dangers that they present and their inability to follow the rules.

Cell in North cell house where Tamms prisoners reside
About 160 of the former Tamms inmates fall into a category called administrative detention. Those inmates are held outside of the general prison population because of safety and security concerns. One possible reason why an inmate might be placed in administrative detention could be gang ties that are causing rivalries or disputes in the general population. Many of the former Tamms prisoners who fall into this category get to take yard time with up to five other inmates. That means they can play games, such as basketball. When reporters entered Pontiac on a warm spring day last week, several former Tamms inmates where doing just that on courts that are surrounded by high chain-link fence topped with razor wire. They joked with reporters and greeted them.
Recreation pods where segregation inmates get yard time.

Inmates in administrative detention typically get more time in the yard than those in segregation Pfister said they can spend up to nine hours a week outside. Administrative detention inmates are reevaluated every 90 days to determine if they still need to be separated from the general population. However, DoC  has no plan in place for integrating any of the former Tamms inmates. Solano said that DoC is developing a policy to transition Tamms inmates back into the general population, but has no timeline for when that might happen. She said former Tamms inmates could earn additional privileges at Pontiac if their 90-day evaluations are positive.

Basketball courts where some former Tamms inmates play.      
Laurie Jo Reynolds, founder of the group Tamms Year Ten that was pushing for reforms at the prison but now supports its closure, said that DoC’s administrative detention policy was one of the group’s major concerns when it came to Tamms. She said prisoners under the classification could find themselves at Tamms with no explanation for how they got there because the prison intelligence that sent them there was classified and often flawed. “The thing about going to Tamms was there were no clear criteria. It was very unclear why people were at Tamms.” But she said, “At least people who were in segregation at Tamms knew why they were in segregation.” She said those in administrative detention did not have due process to challenge their status. Reynolds said those in administrative detention now are generally experiencing better conditions than at Tamms, but they still have no way of knowing when they might return to the general inmate population. “There’s way less men in administrative detention over at Menard [Correctional Center], but it’s the same situation over there.” While a few former Tamms inmates were sent to Menard, the majority of them ended up at Pontiac.

Former Tamms prisoners in both categories are restricted on how they can move around the prison when they are out of their cells. The warden said the prison is using a combination of security protocols pulled from rules applied at Tamms, under Pontiac's current segregation policy and on the former death row at Pontiac, which now houses Tamms inmates that are in administrative detention. He said former Tamms prisoners are always accompanied by a guard when they are moved, and a prison sergeant is always nearby.

Cell doors for segregation inmates from Tamms.
Pfister said that so far, the former Tamms prisoners have not made life much more difficult at Pontiac. “Other than that mass hunger strike, we have had absolutely no issues. There’s been no ex-Tamms offenders involved in any violent assaults or involved with any thing out of the ordinary that doesn’t occur here with regular segregation inmates,” he said. Several of the former Tamms inmates joined some Pontiac inmates in a hunger strike shortly after they arrived at Pontiac. The Tamms inmates complained that they were being treated differently from the other Pontiac prisoners.

Among their demands, they asked that private property that they had in Tamms be returned to them. “Many of the issues were property issues,” said Pfister. “Because we got over 100 of them in a two-day period, it took us a little while to get their personal property.” Segregation inmates from Tamms also asked that the Plexiglas be removed from their cells, a request that has not been accommodated. “We totally opposed that because those men were in Tamms, and they were not behind Plexiglas, and they were fine,” said Reynolds. Tamms Year Ten was not associated with the hunger strike, but the group is working to ensure that former Tamms prisoners do not encounter discrimination in their new placements at other prisons. She said that she thinks that Pfister is doing his best to treat former Tamms prisoners like the other inmates at Pontiac. However, she said there is also the possibility that inmates might have an issue with individual guards. “I really did fully believe that he was treating everyone the same. I really think that is his whole mantra in life.”

Pfister said of the inmates in his prison: “We just deal with them professionally and respectfully and treat them like a man. They’ve already been judged; that’s not our job.”

The warden said that the hunger strike has ended, but he said some prisoners held out for a long time. “I think the longest one was just under 50 days,” he said. Despite the hunger strike, Reynolds said that much of the feedback from inmates and their families after the move to Pontiac has been positive. “This is [a] very good experience that you’re seeing our guys having and that the family members are happy about.” She said that there was concern that DoC employees might take out their frustration over the recent prison closing on Tamms inmates. “We were so terrified that these guys were going to go there and be really treated badly, and they would act out, and there would be a lot of tension.” But Reynolds said the reality at Pontiac is very different. “The staff and everybody was so nice to the parents, they were just in shock.” She said the visitation process at Pontiac is much easier for families to negotiate. For Tamms visits, they have to mail in paperwork and undergo a screening each time. Often, they would make the trip to the prison in the state’s southern tip only to be turned away. “The Tamms visitation policy was such a circus of nonsense that they put family members through.”

Reynolds said she has major concerns about the isolation polices at Pontiac, but she said for former Tamms inmates, just getting to eat an orange, smell the grass and see the sky on a regular basis is an improvement from their lives at the super-max facility. “They’re having sensory experiences at Pontiac. They weren’t having them at Tamms.”

Pontiac's visiting room. Inmates are not allowed contact with visitors.
Prison workers did not have much to say about the Tamms inmates creating any specific new safety problems. They said they are most concerned with the overcrowding in the system that is being exacerbated as Gov. Pat Quinn’s closes corrections facilities. Quinn says the facilities must be closed to cut costs as Illinois struggles to find fiscal stability. Nearly 150 staff members from the recently closed Dwight Correctional Center for Women were scheduled to start work at Pontiac today. Turner said that housing two inmates in a cell has become more widespread at Pontiac, and it can lead to more violence. “I know that there’s more than a handful of fights inside those cells with the double celling. We’ve been fortunate here that we haven’t had anybody killed as they have in Menard,” he said. Three Menard inmates have died recently, and a former Menard prisoner has been charged with murder in one of the cases. “When you start jamming segregation high-aggression inmates together like that, when you have no room to move them around as in Pontiac — we don’t have the ability to move inmates around a lot because we do not have the bed space — it’s going to create a problem sooner or later,” Turner said.

He said that the crowding at other prisons also makes it difficult to execute inmate management policies. “We’ve got 33,000 beds, and we’ve got 49,000 inmates. You know, the math doesn’t add up. And they’ve announced that they’ve got six institutions that we’re putting cots in the gymnasiums. The writing’s on the wall. If you’ve got more inmates than you’ve got beds, there’s going to be a problem.” He said the conflicts that result from overcrowding at lower security levels mean that more inmates will likely rack up segregation time and potentially be sent to Pontiac. At some point, he said, there just wouldn’t be any more room at the higher security level prisons for more dangerous inmates. “You’re going to have to take inmates that don’t fit the criteria at a lower institution because you don’t have enough beds at the higher security level.” Turner said the additional staff from the Dwight closure will help to take some pressure off guards at Pontiac, who he says have been working a high level of overtime. “Unfortunately they’re closing a facility. That’s taking beds away. That doesn’t make any sense.”

For more on the debate surrounding the closure of Tamms super-max prison, see Illinois Issues June 2102. 

Illinois Issues also toured a minimum security prison in Vienna. You can read about that facility at the Illinois Issues blog.

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