PI Original Josh Kalven Monday May 12th, 2008, 10:26am

Tamms' 10th Birthday No Cause For Celebration

Ten years in service. Seventy-three million dollars to build. Sixty-thousand dollars per-year, per-inmate to run.

Zero sense.

Tamms Correctional Center opened on March 8, 1998, in the southernmost tip of Illinois, further south than Louisville, Kentucky. It was ...

Ten years in service. Seventy-three million dollars to build. Sixty-thousand dollars per-year, per-inmate to run.

Zero sense.

Tamms Correctional Center opened on March 8, 1998, in the southernmost tip of Illinois, further south than Louisville, Kentucky. It was designed to be a 500-bed Super-Max facility to house the “worst of the worst” offenders, those who show an inability to live with other inmates or refuse to obey prison guards. These were supposed to be inmates who committed crimes in prison, including gang leaders. However, a recent report by the Tamms Year Ten organization claims that over half of the men currently imprisoned at the facility are not there for disciplinary reasons.

Convicts were originally sent to Tamms for one to two years of solitary confinement, but recent news reports indicate that nearly one-third of the inmates have been there since the first year it opened. If this was a normal prison, these extended stays might not be such an issue. But at a recent hearing I attended, former inmates described the conditions as mental torture. These men spend 23 to 24 hours of every day in solitary confinement, and when they have to endure this for months and years on end, it is hard to see any rehabilitative value in the way things are done at Tamms. Even more troubling is that those who testified at the hearing do not understand why they were sent there.

And yet we continue to hold these men at Tamms indefinitely. Extended stays of this sort tear families apart because the prison is so remote. While it is clear that we need such facilities to separate the most dangerous inmates, keeping them in mentally abusive living conditions does no good for the prisoners, no good for their loved ones, and no good for the communities in which we ultimately release them.

A recent report showed that the United States has the most persons incarcerated of any country in the world. One out of every 100 adults is behind bars, including one in every 36 Hispanic adults and one in every 15 African-American adults. We have five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

Meanwhile, more than five percent of Illinois’ general revenue -- $1.125 billion -- is spent on the prison system each year. From what I have seen in my years as state representative, I believe we need a better return on our investments.

Recidivism is too high, which leads me to believe that prisons operate mostly as recycling centers for crime. Our “War on Drugs” policies send too many non-violent offenders into hardened prison environments, where they must form strategic alliances to survive. Such relationships often last longer than the sentence and live on in the form of gang membership. These kids believe their lives are already ruined, so why not dedicate it to crime?

Since taking office, I have made it a priority to help ex-offenders find ways to rejoin society. It has not been easy, especially when our efforts to reduce recidivism by focusing on rehabilitation are derided as “soft on crime.” Many of the people in our prisons don’t belong there, and we need to do more to make sure they don’t return.

In some ways, Tamms represents all that is wrong with our country’s penal system. When a society has so much public money invested in these prisons, I can’t help but feel that our “tough on crime” mentality is in some way an effort to guarantee that these jobs last and these fancy new prisons remain full.

When it comes to crime in Illinois, our success in making our communities safer should be judged not by how packed our prisons are, but by our ability to keep people out of the prison system.

Karen A. Yarbrough represents the 7th District (Broadview) in the Illinois House of Representatives.

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