Chicago and Minneapolis – The Midwest Coalition for Human Rights, a network of 56 organizations, service providers, and university centers, heralds Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s proposal to close Tamms Correctional Center in Southern Illinois. Tamms is a supermaximum security facility where over 200 inmates languish in prolonged isolation, a practice condemned by human rights authorities and advocates across the globe.
The Midwest Coalition sees the decision to close Tamms as official recognition of the morally and legally problematic nature of prolonged isolation. “Long-term isolation is like slow motion torture,” said Barbara Frey, convener of the Midwest Coalition. “Depriving persons of human contact produces crushing loneliness, exacerbates mental illness and leaves us no safer for its use.”
Inmates in Tamms are held in complete solitude in stark 7×12 foot cells for 23 hours per day with virtually no human interaction and a callous lack of environmental stimulation. They are only allowed to leave the confines of their small cells for showers, short periods of recreation in a metal or concrete cage, and occasional visits during which they are chained to a concrete stool and separated from their visitors by a thick glass wall. Individuals who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for offenses that occurred when they were just teenagers and those with preexisting mental illness are among the more vulnerable subjected to these conditions.
The level of sensory deprivation employed by Tamms and other supermax facilities can cause severe physiological and psychological damage including appetite and sleep disturbances, anxiety, panic, rage, loss of control, paranoia, hallucinations, and self-mutilations. A number of men in Tamms have reported experiencing these symptoms as a result of the extreme nature of their confinement. One Tamms inmate has reportedly engaged in self-mutilation hundreds of times since first entering the facility seven years ago, frequently requiring hospitalization.
International human rights bodies and experts affirm that prolonged isolation is a human rights violation. In a presentation to the U.N. General Assembly in New York in October, 2011, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, announced that the practice can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, which is prohibited by the United Nations Convention against Torture.
“Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit (SHU)… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” he said. Mr. Méndez called for the absolute prohibition of indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of fifteen days, an end to the practice of solitary confinement in pre-trial detention, and a ban on its use for juveniles and persons with mental disabilities.
The Midwest Coalition for Human Rights is committed to ending the use of prolonged isolation in all U.S. jails and prisons, and sees the closure of Tamms as a meaningful positive step towards that goal. We thank Governor Quinn for his initiative in this regard and urge the Illinois legislature to support his decision.
The Midwest Coalition for Human Rights is a network of 56 organizations, service providers, and university centers, that work together to promote and protect human rights in our Midwest region. Through collaboration in the Heartland, we advocate, educate and take action with a strong regional voice on national and international human rights issues.