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Prison isolation ‘like being buried alive’

A few times a week, Joseph Dole stands in a back corner of the outdoor recreation area at Tamms Correctional Center, straining to catch a ray of sunlight.

“About four feet gets sun,” said the rail-thin Dole, who is serving a life sentence for murder. “You can only get it if they call yard between 11 and 1. I just stand there. You feel warm, you feel refreshed.”

Another murderer, Adolfo Rosario, said he hadn’t shaken anyone’s hand since his transfer to Tamms 11 years ago. “There is no contact at all, none,” he said.

“The hardest part is the isolation,” said Tyrone Dorn, serving time for carjacking. “It’s like being buried alive.”

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The so-called supermax section of the prison was built in the 1990s to house Illinois’ most dangerous inmates. Human-rights activists persistently criticize it. The long isolation of supermax prisons, opponents say, drives inmates to mental illness -- when the inmates aren’t already ill.

Legislation introduced last week in Illinois would prohibit the seriously mentally ill from being sent to Tamms’ supermax incarceration and would make it more difficult to keep inmates there indefinitely.

The state Department of Corrections opened up this world to a reporter and photographer for the first time in years, allowing them a glimpse at life for the 245 supermax inmates.

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Harsh conditions

For at least 23 hours a day, prisoners are in solitary confinement in 7-by-12-foot cells. Meals are shoved through a hole in cell doors.

For the rare visits from relatives and friends, inmates are strip-searched, chained to a concrete stool and separated from visitors by a thick glass wall.

There are no jobs and limited educational opportunities.

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Inmates tell of using “fishing lines” fashioned from string in blankets to pass notes to other inmates and of developing a sign language to talk to each other.

Some observers liken Tamms’ supermax to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Prison officials hail it as a success. Assaults against inmates and staff at other prisons have dropped, they say, because the most disruptive offenders are in Tamms.

Officials note that Tamms’ supermax sector has been at just half its capacity during its 11 years, saying they’ve been selective about who is housed there.

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Tamms -- which also includes a 200-bed minimum-security unit -- costs $27 million a year to run. That’s about $60,000 for each inmate, almost triple the state average.

“What price do you put on staff safety?” asked Sergio Molina, executive assistant to the state prison director.

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Psychiatric unit

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A dozen supermax prisoners -- the most mentally ill, with disorders including schizophrenia and manic depression -- stay in a section called J-Pod.

(Some prisoners outside J-Pod also are prescribed psychotropic drugs.)

J-Pod inmates who behave well get to watch TV from glass cages about the size of phone booths. On journalists’ recent visit, four were watching as the sitcom “One on One” blared.

“They love Rachael Ray,” said Rita Lehkar, an activity therapist. “She has a real bubbly personality. . . . Next week they are going to watch the movie ‘Lost in Space.’ ”

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In one cage was child rapist John Spires, who says he hears voices telling him to hurt himself and others.

He is serving a 240-year sentence at Tamms.

“I’m OK with that,” Spires said.

“That way I know I won’t hurt anyone.

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“I get tired of hurting people.”

Even critics praise the care at J-Pod, but they say mentally ill inmates shouldn’t be at Tamms, because the isolation is harmful.

One inmate attempted suicide several months ago.

Another prisoner, Marcus Chapman, hung himself in 2004 by braiding pieces of his jumpsuit.

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“Tell all the guys on J-Pod I’m sorry!” Chapman wrote in a suicide note, court records show.

“I just couldn’t take it anymore. I’m now free.”

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‘Can’t do anything’

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Upstairs in a tower, corrections officer Patrick Trokey sits at an electronic board that controls 60 cell doors.

When he worked at Pontiac, a maximum-security prison, “I was scared,” he said.

“Here, these guys are secure. They can’t do anything.”

Inmates, sensing a crowd of visitors in the control tower, began to shout.

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“Come down here and learn the truth!” one inmate yelled.

“They don’t clean the showers! They just cleaned them for the first time yesterday in six months because you guys are coming here!”

Many prisons resemble small towns, as inmates hustle to jobs or classes, play hoops in the yard or head to the chow hall.

Tamms’ corridors are barren of foot traffic, eerily quiet except for the occasional clang of metal doors shutting. When inmates are moved, they are restrained in leg chains and handcuffs and guarded by two officers.

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Critics say the dearth of educational programs and jobs should worry the public. More than a quarter of Tamms inmates are to be freed within a decade.

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Stays are long

While acknowledging that a few inmates need to be held in the strictest conditions because they are so dangerous, critics contend most prisoners could be safely housed at one of the state’s three maximum-security prisons.

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Yet more than a quarter of the inmates have been at Tamms since its opening in 1998.

Even George Welborn, its first warden, said Tamms had abandoned its original goal to keep most inmates for no more than a couple of years.

Before he retired several years ago, Welborn said superiors sometimes didn’t follow his recommendation to transfer out inmates who had passed muster.

“And that policy has been maintained since I left,” he said.

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Prison officials said even well-behaved inmates need to remain at Tamms if they continue to hold sway over a street gang or pose a threat.

Molina contended that officials regularly reviewed whether inmates should remain at Tamms.

Since 2005, officials said, 66 inmates have been moved to less restrictive prisons.

For longtime inmates at Tamms, the biggest challenge is to stay busy and avoid “bugging out” -- losing touch with reality.

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Dorn, who was transferred to Tamms after prison assaults, passes the time reading the Koran and playing chess with an inmate housed upstairs in the same wing.

They shout out moves to each other.

“This place takes a toll on your entire body from a mental and physical standpoint,” he said.

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gmarx@tribune.com


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