• AP Photo/Mark Christian
  • A cell block at Tamms on the day the supermax was dedicated in March 1998

“This place is one hundred times better than Tamms,” a prisoner in the Pontiac Correctional Center told me in a recent letter. “I was able to purchase a regular Bic ink pen and a regular-size toothbrush.” In Tamms, prisoners were limited to what were called “security toothbrushes,” he wrote. “A security toothbrush is the size of your pinky finger. It loses its effectiveness after three brushes. My gums are still bleeding each time I brush my teeth. Everyone that went from Tamms to Pontiac put in for the dentist upon arriving here, to get their teeth cleaned, pulled etc.—things they would not do in Tamms. I’m surprised I still have teeth.”

I’ve been corresponding with this man for more than a decade, and he’d been in Tamms the last six years. Tamms is the supermax prison near the southern tip of Illinois that was closed January 4 because of state budget cuts. The man was among the 138 prisoners who were transferred out in December. The vast majority of these prisoners went to Pontiac, a maximum-security prison 100 miles southwest of Chicago.

At Pontiac, “They moved all of us into the old Death Row,” my correspondent wrote. The bottom two tiers of the North Cell House at Pontiac had been death row, but Illinois abolished capital punishment in 2011, so the tiers no longer need to be reserved for condemned inmates.