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Illinois Supermax Placement Procedures Unconstitutional

by David M. Reutter

An Illinois federal district court has held that existing Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) procedures for placing prisoners at the Tamms Correctional Center (Tamms) are inadequate to protect the liberty interest of IDOC prisoners to avoid confinement at the supermax facility. To cure the due process violations, the court granted injunctive relief.

In its findings, the district court held that confinement conditions at Tamms were an atypical and significant hardship compared to the conditions at general population IDOC prisons, in disciplinary segregation at the Pontiac Correctional Center, “as well as in prisons outside Illinois from which inmates have been transferred to Tamms.”

Tamms opened in 1998 and was purportedly designed for the “worst-of-the-worst” prisoners. Its “uniquely restrictive conditions of confinement were designed to control the most high-security prisoners in the IDOC system” and to encourage prisoners “at lower security prisons to comply with IDOC rules to avoid being transferred to the Supermax prison.”

Since opening, Tamms has operated at approximately half of its 520-bed capacity; it was originally designed to house prisoners for a year if they were well-behaved. However, a change in policy that required Tamms’ prisoners to renounce their gang affiliation resulted in longer stays, as such a renunciation would be “an automatic death sentence.” Moreover, renunciation did not guarantee a transfer out of Tamms.

Statistical data from the IDOC indicated that the average time served by prisoners at Tamms was 73.4 months, or over six years. Of the 243 prisoners housed at Tamms, 70 have been there at least ten years, half for over five years and three-quarters have been at the facility more than three years.

The district court detailed the facts presented over an eight-day trial. The life of prisoners housed at Tamms is structured so that they “spend the vast majority of their time alone in their cells and, barring a medical crisis severe enough to require a visit to the prison’s infirmary for long-term medical care, all of their time in their assigned pod,” the court wrote.

The isolation factor is severe. “All of the furniture in a typical Tamms cell is made of reinforced concrete.” Prisoners can not see out their cell door, communication with other prisoners is very difficult, and they can only view “a sliver of sky” from their cell window. Their status dictates whether they can have a television, radio or walkman in their cell.

The recreation yard has no equipment and prisoners must recreate alone. Outside their cell, they are prohibited from speaking to other prisoners. Those in disciplinary segregation may shower only once weekly, while those on administrative detention can shower two to five times a week depending on their status.

The district court found that “being confined to Tamms is to be subjected to virtual sensory deprivation, with prisoners forced to spend most days doing literally nothing but staring at the four blank walls of their cells.” As most prisoners at Tamms are poorly educated, if not illiterate, they “cannot beguile their time in isolation through activities like reading and letter-writing.” For those prisoners, “the long hours that they must spend alone in their cells at Tamms must weigh especially heavily.”

Prisoners have no clue when they can leave Tamms or obtain a transfer. “It is clear from the record that under existing IDOC procedures placement at Tamms is of indefinite duration and that prisoners transferred to the prison know neither how long they will be confined there nor how they can effect transfer out of the prison through good behavior,” the district court found.

The court cited several examples of prisoners who had gone years with clean disciplinary records – one for nine years – yet still had “no idea how long they may be confined” at Tamms. Thus, it was clear “the only time limit is the length of the underlying sentence.”

Finally, the district court found that placement at Tamms affects the length of prisoners’ sentences by rendering them ineligible to receive various kinds of good time credit. The lack of educational and substance abuse programs, and the prohibition against job positions at Tamms, prevent prisoners from earning good time credit for those activities.
Assignment to Tamms also prohibits meritorious good time awards.

Accordingly, the court found the three factors identified in Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209 (2005) [PLN, Aug. 2005, p.24] were present in this case. The limits on human contact inflict lasting psychological and emotional harm on prisoners confined at the facility for long periods of time; the indefinite duration leaves prisoners without an expectation of whether time or their behavior will result in transfer; and the effect of the confinement lengthens a prisoner’s sentence.

These factors, when combined with the finding “that conditions at Tamms impose atypical and significant hardship in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life under any plausible baseline,” resulted in the district court finding that the individual prisoner “plaintiffs and the class have a due process liberty interest in avoiding confinement at Tamms.”

The court, in a previous order, had held that prisoners assigned to Tamms could not challenge that assignment through the grievance process because it was a decision of IDOC’s Director, so their liberty interest was not protected by that process.

Prisoners placed in disciplinary segregation at Tamms do not receive a review hearing until they complete their term of segregation; one prisoner had been on that status for 11 years and had 17 more to go. While an Adjustment Committee places prisoners in disciplinary segregation, there is no protection afforded in that process to avoid confinement at Tamms. Likewise, the court held that prisoners in administrative detention are not afforded protection because they are not given advance notice of their review hearing.

In its injunctive relief order, the court specified that a review hearing will be conducted after prisoners are transferred to Tamms. Prisoners shall be given 48-hour notice of that hearing, and will be allowed to make a statement and request interviews of persons with relevant information.

Prisoners already at Tamms, especially those in disciplinary segregation, are to be provided reviews within 180 days (but within 90 days for those who already have been held at the facility more than 90 days). The reviews will be recorded audibly and prisoners will be provided with the rationale for their placement at Tamms.

Prisoners Aryules Bivens, Roosevelt Burrell, Ted Knox and Joe Sorrentino were awarded $1.00 with interest on their claims that they were assigned to Tamms “in retaliation for filing grievances and lawsuits and engaging in other protected activities challenging the conditions of their confinement.” See: Westefer v. Snyder, 725 F.Supp.2d 735 (S.D.Ill. 2010).

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Related legal case

Westefer v. Snyder