This summer, U.S. District Court Judge G. Patrick Murphy delivered a significant but overlooked court decision ordering the Illinois Department of Corrections to give inmates at the state's only supermax prison, Tamms Correctional Center, greater due process rights. But the judge didn't stop there. In his scathing ruling, Murphy also called into question some of the fundamental practices employed at Tamms. The treatment methods, he argued, often constitute "virtual sensory deprivation" and the "psychic toll" exacted by prolonged stretches of solitary confinement leads to lasting mental illness.
It's an assessment verified by officials at the John Howard Association, which conducted a monitoring tour of Tamms earlier this month. Nearly all states operate a supermax prison and "conditions vary widely" between the facilities, the prison watchdog acknowledges. In Illinois, "inmates live almost entirely alone in a universe of gray." From the report:
Tamms operates under a regime of sensory deprivation and social isolation. The monochrome environment, the limits on human contact, the inability to perceive nature, in some cases the loss of personal property and the taste of food, even the limitations on showers, are all forms of sensory deprivation. Prolonged sensory deprivation and social isolation can lead to extreme psychological distress and injury.
Many of the reforms former Department of Corrections chief Michael Randle proposed upon entering office, it should be noted, have been implemented. Inmates are now informed of their estimated length of stay and can take GED classes, changes that have created what the John Howard Association calls "beneficial effects." But there's no assurance they will be kept in place. After Randle was dismissed for his role in the overblown MGT Push controversy, his successor -- Gladyse Taylor -- agreed to challenge Murphy's due process ruling. It's a move that surely rattled criminal justice reformers statewide.