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Illinois Supermax Hunger Strike

By Dan Pens

Displaying remarkable solidarity while encaged under unimaginably oppressive conditions, more than half of the 273 prisoners at the Tamms Supermax prison in downstate Illinois began a hunger strike by refusing their breakfast on May 1,2000. Prison officials said 173 prisoners joined the action. Alan Milks, a lawyer who represents Tamms prisoners, pegged the number at 200.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the strike gamered more media attention than any previous Tarnms protest. The Tribune's Christi Parsons reported two weeks into the strike that: "Media coverage--relayed to inmates via radio, television and conversations with their lawyers--has inspired more participation than the usual hunger strikes, prison officials say."

Published reports of the number of strikers mostly relied on "official" numbers: by lunchtime on May 3,128 prisoners were still refusing to eat and as of May 4, 61 prisoners were still on the hunger strike, said a spokesman from the State's Attorney's Office.

"This is quite a wonderful and amazing thing," said Jean MacLean Snyder, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center who has filed a class action lawsuit in federal court on behalf of mentally-ill Tamms prisoners. "I don't know when there's been a protest involving this many men at an Illinois prison. It's an outstanding example of a peaceful protest."

Before the strike began Tamms prisoners had prepared an articulate 3-page list of demands which they managed to distribute to the press. Their well-thought-out media strategy resulted in newspapers from St. Louis to Chicago reporting at least some of their demands, rather than relying solely on sound bites doled out by official prison spinmeisters.

First on their list of demands was: "that all prisoners suffering from psychological and or mental illness be removed from Tamms, where often times they are ridiculed, harassed and provoked by overzealous and unprofessional prison guards; and placed in a mental health setting, which will provide adequate and prier care."

According to Ms. Snyder, about 10 to 20 percent of Tamms prisoners are too mentally ill to control their actions. Another 60 percent, she estimates, face serious and long-lasting psychological damage from extreme conditions of confinement that the United Nations Canmittee Against Torture calls "excessively harsh."

As part of the class action lawsuit Ms. Snyder obtained videotapes from security cameras inside Tamms. The videos offer a rare glimpse behind the steel curtain of America's supermax gulag archipelago. After viewing one of the tapes, Daniel Bergner [author of "God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana's Angola Prison"] penned the following description for The Reporter:

Robert Boyd, 23 years old, serving 15 years for auto theft and related charges and four more for wielding a homemade knife in another prison, smashes the overhead fluorescent bulb with a rolled-up mat, the only furniture in his strip cell in Tamm's health care unit. He's on suicide watch. With the shards of glass he slices his upper arm, yelling unintelligibly about his father, who died a few days ago. Guards peer in through the plexiglass door. Minutes pass, guards watching, as Boyd shouts he's going to kill himself and hacks across his chest and stomach. Blood is streaming. Six minutes have now gone by since he began to cut. Outside the cell one guard asks another, "Did you call for a nurse?" "Yeah;" his partner replies, "1 called 'em." At last a nurse arrives. "Boyd, Boyd," she says, and disappears. Boyd slashes his neck. One of the guards shouts, "if you don't stop it I'm going to have to beat the shit out of you. I'm going to have to [pepper] spray you." Boyd soon puts his hands through the cell door to be cuffed. 'I'm sweating;' he announces as he's taken out. "I'm hot, I just went crazy, I'm all right now."

This scene is recorded on video... both to protect the state against liability and to prosecute the inmates for damaging state property. "Okay," a guard behind the portable camera says on another tape after another episode of self-mutilation, "we'll take the camera in to get a view of the cell with glass all over it for our future prosecution."

"At Tamms," reports Bergner, "a man carves his own body, then eats the scraps of the bloody tissue, tears out his sutures after he is treated, and rubs his feces into his freshly reopened wounds; another drives staples into his chest by hand, embedding them so deeply they can be located only by X-ray; another, while waiting in a visiting area holding cell to speak with Snyder, masturbates behind the plexiglass while simultaneously smearing the door with his own excrement..."

But the DOC contends that it is careful to screen out the mentally ill; those who do go to Tamms, the department argues, are "capable of rational and self-willed response to punishment."

At the Tamms Correctional Center," writes Anthony Schabb, the DOC's director of mental health services, in a court affidavit, "there is currently only one inmate who may be fairly labeled seriously mentally ill, and he is not one of the [class action lawsuit's 34] named plaintiffs."

Other grievances listed by the Tamms hunger strikes include: arbitrary, vague and unwritten policies; the indiscriminate use of chemical sprays that injure not only the prisoner(s) targeted, but every other prisoner on the pod; abolishment of the use of "meal loaf" as a punishment; interpreters for non-English speaking prisoners; abolishment of the practice of arbitrarily delaying the delivery of incoming and outgoing mail (and cessation of the practice of "removing, redacting or altering the postmarked dates on our

incoming mail... this is done deliberately to conceal the fact that our letters are being with held by prison officials beyond the date, they resupposed to be delivered"); the right to take the G.E.D. for credit; the right to take more than one shower a week; abolishment of the policy that requires prisoners' visitors to submit a separate "visitor request form" fourteen days in advance of each visit (a policy "designed solely to discourage visits"); the right to make telephone calls; the right to outside recreational opportunities, "other than those that are allowed now, which is only to pace back and forth in a concrete box [for one hour, alone, several times a week] where the only equipment is a rubber handball."

When Tamms prisoners spend their solitary "recreation" hour, pacing in a tiny concrete tiger cage, neighbors of the rural prison occasionally hear their inhuman howling. Most remain unbothered by the sound, though. Tamms is one of those tiny communities left behind by the New Economy. Townspeople literally begged the state to host the $79 million prison in order to bring in jobs. All but a handful of residents signed a "Build Us a Supermax" petition; school kids labored in English class to compose handwritten letters asking the director of corrections to build the prison in Tamms. The region's labor council served up a no-strike pledge covering all the workers who might be hired for construction.

On February 3,1998, when the governor showed up to dedicate the 520-bed supermax prison, the high school marching band played the theme from Green Acres while a multitude of red, white, and blue balloons floated up over the glimmering concrete and razor wire spires of their brand-spanking new cathedral of incarceration.

According to U.S. Census figures, the 1990 population of Tamms, Illinois, was 748 people of whom 78 percent were white, 21 percent black (and one percent Hispanic, Native American, Asian or Pacific Islanders). Eighty-four percent of the guards working at Tamms are white; 79 percent of the prisoners are black or Hispanic, according to DOC spokesperson Nic Howell.

Among the most grievous complaints of the hunger strikers, whose numbers were reportedly down to 40 by mid-May, was a new policy instituted in November 1999 called "Renunciation of Affiliation with Security Threat Groups." This policy requires that prisoners provide information, on videotape, about their former "gang" organizations and the activities of other members. Those who refuse to become informants are told they will remain at Tamms for the remainder of their sentences--which for some means the rest of their lives.

According to Tamms prisoners, there is an unwritten part of this policy that demands continued cooperation after prisoners after transferred out off Tamms. They point out that this policy ensures that any prisoner transferring from Tamms to a mainline institution will automatically be labeled a snitch. Hunger strikers demand an end to this policy which they said "will ultimately lead to prisoners and/or their loved ones being physically assaulted and/or murdered."

Another of their demands centers around the use of "meal loaf" by Tamms guards as a "management tool." The prison administration refers to this policy as "controlled feeding." The loaf is a mixture of whatever happens to be on the day's menu, chopped up, poured into a bread pan, and baked into an inedible block, described by one Tamms prisoner as "burnt on the outside, and an uncooked grayish goo on the inside... Dog food both smells and looks much more appetizing."

Another prisoner said in an affidavit: "Forcing human beings to eat this repulsive lump of food that they call meal loaf is torture. No one could eat this and it is inhuman to force us to go for three days without any food... You are not even allowed to starve an animal. Why can they do this to humans?"

Predictably, prison officials characterized the strikers' grievances as "trivial." Tamms Warden George Wellborn boasts that a day's worth of meal loaf contains 3,972 calories and more than the required minimums for all nutrients.

"We have a lot of inmates who are frustrated because they can't do what they used to do," Welborn told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. "This is not a country club."

Illinois governor George Ryan told the Chicago Tribune during the strike's second week that he doesn't see any need to reform the prison.

"Tamms is meant to be a tough place," Ryan said. "I'd imagine they're not happy about being there... We're not going to change conditions at the prison. The prison was built to be that way."

On June 5, the last three hunger strikers ended the well-publicized protest after going 36 days without food. They were weak and dizzy; one had lost 40 pounds. But they felt they had begun to achieve their goal of bringing pressure to bear on the prison administration by focusing media attention on their situation.

In the end, Tamms officials did make some promises about "discussing" the demands of the strikers. In their statement at the end of the protest, the prisoners declared: "We wish to rearm above all that all we have asked from day one is simply to be treated like human beings and not rabid animals."

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Streetwise, The Reporter, Associated Press, Revolutionary Worker, Socialist Worker, Reader Mail

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