The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
What happens in Illinois’s carceral archipelago? Jeffrey Felshman’s story about Reginald Berry and the Tamms Correctional Center gives us a glimpse into the concrete and metal corridors of what was once the state’s cruelest prison.
Tamms was a “supermax” opened in 1998 to house 500 inmates in round-the-clock solitary confinement. It was a place for the Illinois Department of Corrections to house its “worst”—people who’d assaulted guards, made escape attempts, raped other prisoners, possessed weapons, led gangs, or engaged in “dangerous disturbances.” When inmates were transferred there they weren’t told why or for how long. Berry—once a prison gang leader—could have checked off a few of the state’s categories to qualify for Tamms, Felshman writes. This is what he encountered when he stepped into the supermax:
It was night when he arrived. In a room filled with officers in riot gear, he was strip-searched and examined by a nurse. “They shackled you up after getting strip-searched, kept you naked, put the handcuffs on you, had two boys come and hold you, and the nurse is like checking your ears and stuff and you’re trying to cover up your private parts,” he says. He was given clothing, a toothbrush, a comb, and a watch and led to his cell, a 70-square-foot room outfitted with a combination sink and toilet, a concrete slab for a bed, and a shelf that doubled as a desk. Besides the chuckhole in the door, it had an air-conditioning vent, an intercom, a light switch, and a horizontal slit of window seven feet above the bed. He stopped using the bed after his first night in Tamms, to remind himself, he says, that “every day I got to pick myself up off the floor.”
Though the public had been promised that no one would be kept at Tamms for more than a year, Berry spent almost eight years in solitary confinement there. “[A]dvocates say the prison has been used not only to punish bad behavior but to retaliate for a range of other activities,” Felshman notes, such as suing IDOC and reporting guard abuse.
While inside, inmates relied on one another’s voices to cope with the loneliness:
“You try to get communal things, to strengthen your bond with one another,” [Berry] says. “We might play a game of historical naming pharaohs. You have guys who play chess. We can’t move on [a] board, but if you’re next door to me or down the hall, I’d say, ‘Want to play some chess?’ ‘Yeah man, after I do my workout.’ “You occasionally would have a jerk that came on the wing who . . . wants to cause chaos,” Berry says. “He’d take his shoe off and bang on the door.” When the others complained, the banger would up the ante: “Man, fuck you!” Some inmates jabbered to themselves or screamed uncontrollably through the night. Berry says he never slept more than two or three hours at a time.
Felshman chronicles Berry’s life before incarceration for murder, his transition between prisons, and what happened to him when he finally gets paroled from Tamms. He also details the reform efforts of lawyers, inmates’ families, and regular people morally outraged by the conditions at the supermax.
Suicidal despair bred by years without human contact was all too common at Tamms. One inmate who was part of a 2005 lawsuit against IDOC tried to kill himself by swallowing pieces of a broken mirror twice, and by hanging himself with a ripped sheet once. Rather than providing mental health treatment, IDOC fined him for destroying state property. When inmates did get their mental health problems addressed, this is what it looked like:
The suit alleged that the treatment of prisoners with mental illnesses included various forms of physical abuse, including beatings and pepper spray as well as being deprived of water and clothing. It also asserted that this sort of treatment “harms society as well as these prisoners. . . [who] will return to the streets sicker, angrier, and more violent.”
Berry, too, came close to losing it while at Tamms. Once he got out he devoted himself to work for the Chicago Christian Industrial League, Ceasefire, and started his own anti-crime education program. But the years of solitude didn’t leave him unscathed.
About five years after this piece was published, the state finally closed down Tamms. It was too expensive to operate and outrage about its conditions—from the fact of years’ long segregation, to guard abuse, to its food—was constant.
Last Sunday I visited an inmate at Pontiac, a maximum security prison 100 miles from Chicago. He’s been serving a two life sentences for murder since the mid-80s. After a successful escape from another IDOC prison in the 90s, the man was sent to Tamms. He spent nearly nine years there and only got to touch another human being once, when a doctor shook his hand. Somehow, he’d manage to get a copy of Felshman’s story on the inside. He still believes the Reader played a part in shutting Tamms down.