Tamms Supermax latest in decades of prison struggle
End the Amerikkkan Lockdown month draws attention to the barbarity of Amerikans fastest growing industry: The incarceration industry
On September 13 of this year, MIM celebrated the 1971 struggle ofthe Attica (NY) prisoners for their basic rights and dignity. On this date we also mourned the brutal murder of 29 of the Attica brothers by New York State Troopers and prison Corrections Officers — who also cut down ten of their own as they stormed the prison and ended the Attica Rebellion. On October 15, we rejoice in the formation of the Maoist Black Panther Party (BPP) in 1966. These two dates encompass MIM's first annual End the Amerikkkan Lockdown month. Throughout the month we have held educational events about the criminal injustice system and protests focusing on ending various aspects of the Amerikan Lockdown. We have been on the streets educating and organizing progressive people in the small and large tasks of assisting the struggle.
One of these tasks is drawing attention to the growing numbers of politically active prisoners who are being caged in Amerika's highest security gulags. One of the newest of the torture factories is Tamms. On March 8, 1998, the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) opened a new Super Maximum security prison in the far-southern Illinois town of Tamms.(1) According to a bourgeois press report, optimal conditions at Tamms C-Max include four visits through a glass partition each month, five showers per week and one hour of solitary yard time per day. Prisoners report that under these conditions "You start to lose touch with reality. You become depressed. You become incoherent."(2) On January 7 of this year, four prisoners at Tamms filed a class-action lawsuit charging that the extreme isolation conditions there are driving prisoners insane. Three of these four plaintiffs are now facing new criminal prosecution from the State Attorney's office in retaliation for their lawsuit.(3)
Standard treatment for prisoners who speak out against the criminal INjustice system is for guards and wardens to take punitive measures against them in barely concealed retaliation for their activism. All manner of regulations govern punitive measures against prisoners by guards or wardens. But if a prisoner is moved to Tamms or placed in segregation at another facility for "administrative" reasons, no justification is required.(4,1) Many politically active prisoners find themselves under so-called administrative measures that restrict their most basic activities.
The state of Illinois' retaliatory lawsuit against these four Tamms prisoners and the existence of the Tamms facility itself are aspects of the Amerikan prison system's agenda of social control. The events at Tamms embody direct retribution for the efforts of the oppressed to make their own situation livable, and extra-legal sentencing that adds time and trouble to prisoners' sentences after they enter the gulags. MIM sees prisons in this country as part of imperialism's control over the oppressed nations confined within u.$. borders. As our first annual End the Amerikkkan Lockdown month comes to a close, we look forward to continuing our work against the u.$. injustice system throughout the year. We will continue to work with the MIM-led united front organizations RAIL and USW, and with other individuals and organizations that oppose the prison manifestations of u.$. imperialism.
Isolation, Supermax, Segregation
Bourgeois press reports have noticed that Tamms is about as far from Chicago as a prison could get while remaining in Illinois, even though the plurality of prisoners at the facility come from Cook County —the Chicago area. This placement is part of the formula for high maximum security prisons in the u.$. These prisons are built to subdue "non-conforming" captives through sensory and social deprivation. Many of these more rebellious prisoners are from urban centers like Chicago and part of their deprivation is being placed prohibitively far away from friends and family — to make visiting difficult.
Censorship of MIM Notes is a classic example of this harassing activity — MIM Notes is harassed for organizing prisoners in their own interests, and prisoners are harassed for reading and writing for a newspaper that exposes the pigs' activities. Our own experience with revolutionary comrades behind the walls demonstrates that even the harshest of lockdown conditions will not "stop the grass [of revolutionary activity] from growing."(5) In April of this year, an Illinois prisoner filed a law suit against the IDOC, arguing that the prison censors were denying him his MIM Notes subscription because of its political content — although they claimed the newspapers were a security threat. Knowing that this is true, the state has agreed that the publications are a not a threat to the institutions and have turned them over to the prisoner. "Now brothers in Illinois can receive all the MIM-related publications which you offer. They have returned all the Theory Journals that they had confiscated. My MIM Notes, my Maoist Sojourners, Notas Rojas, and the pamphlet 'What is the Maoist Internationalist Movement?'"(6)
When MIM talks about revolutionary politics among prisoners, we are talking about the idea that prisoners are people who are being oppressed by the imperialist system. Prisons in Amerika are designed to repress those who would rebel against u.$. imperialism from within. Not by accident are oppressed nationalities more than 50 percent of the prisoner population in this country. And it is no coincidence that a Wisconsin prisoner finds that "right now in the hole where I am, it is about 85 to 90% Blacks and Hispanics. When the white prisoners come to the hole, they are released within 2 to 3 months."(7) Former prison employees in other states have reported identical statistics to RAIL and MIM, and the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML) publishes the fact that most control units are 85% Black.(4)
The united snakes has always held substantial minorities of the oppressed forcibly within its borders. Settlers conducted a barbaric genocidal campaign against Indigenous peoples and confined those small groups that remained to "reservations" while stealing their land. In the case of the Black nation, kidnap victims were brought and forced to remain here so the white nation could live off their labor. Different Latino nations have been brutalized by a combination of these methods, and conscripted as sacrificial ground troops in Amerika's wars. The exploding prisons of today are a response to these nationalities' righteous movements toward rebellion against the u.$. empire. CEML quotes the Tamms warden as saying "Tamms is not about rehabilitation, it's about punishment ... some people may never leave."(1)
Former prison staff and prisoner advocates with whom MIM has spoken about the prisons in this country report that those prisoners with a revolutionary political consciousness often take the most productive approach to the conditions of their confinement. These prisoners understand deeply why they are in prison, and many spend time educating other prisoners, and organizing among other prisoners to educate people on the outside about the conditions that all Amerikans are guilty of perpetuating within the prison system. Prison officials agree with this assessment of the rebellious prisoners, as a former Marion (home of the Marion Lockdown) warden said: "the purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and the society at large."(4)
One Illinois control unit prisoner of nearly nine years has told MIM of his own organizing work among "paralegals, law clerks, and comrades confined in control units for challenging the status quo. MACS comrades engage and instigate the filing of S1983 civil complaints, mandamus actions, post conviction grievances, and civil and criminal appeals. We also write articles to expose the racist system and its docile servants. MACS fights to put an end to the methods of intense repression, kidnapping, torture and prison censorship. Recently MACS members have all been moved to the new 'Super-Gulag' in Illinois as a means to break their resistance and spirit. This new place is called Tamms, or for better words, Scams. This is another horror story that by design other comrades are living nationwide."(8)
Retribution, not rehabilitation is the purpose of prison.
"Every day in prison is but a bureaucratic routine of beatings, continuous harassment and sensory deprivation. These are techniques being used to control prison populations throughout Illinois' correctional warehouses. The key word here is 'control,' for it is now painfully clear that Illinois prison officials have forsaken all attempts at fostering a positive, potentially rehabilitative prison environment in favor of the brutal policies they claim are necessary to maintain 'control' over the prison population. Comrades ... it is not just about bad food, visits, or brutal treatment, it's more fundamental."(9)
Illinois' only Supermaximum security prison, Tamms, is part of a $73 million complex. Part of the complex is a 200-bed minimum security work camp. The beauty of locating minimum and supermaximum security facilities in the same place? The 445 IDOC employees at Tamms will not have to do any dirty work as the "work camp inmates will handle maintenance, laundry service, groundskeeping and food preparation for the supermax prison as well as public service work for area communities." "The 23-acre supermax prison compound is protected by double rows of 12-foot high cyclone fencing topped with razor ribbon. A courtroom with video conferencing equipment is located inside the prison. ... An execution chamber has also been constructed at the facility although condemned inmates will not routinely be housed at the supermax. It was designed especially for executions by lethal injection." 312 of the Tamms employees are guards, the facility's total payroll is $17 million; its total budget is $23.9 million per annum.(10)
Tamms' budget works out to well over $34,000 per year to control each prisoner, not including the $73 million the state reports spending on building the dungeon.(10) Tamms' cost per prisoner is more than three times the $11,006 estimated cost of living for a University of Illinois student at the Urbana-Champaign campus.(11) A year at Tamms even costs more than a year at the elite Northwestern University and University of Chicago.(12)
Prison regulations are an additional, hidden punishment for prisoners
"So cruel is the Tamms Correctional Center that a prisoner who tried to hang himself with a makeshift rope was charged the cost of the bedsheet he ruined to make it, according to the action to be filed this morning in federal court in Chicago."(3)
MIM has argued for years that many prison regulations amount to an additional sentence — meted out by guards, wardens or the state legislature instead of a judge. At Tamms, prisoners are 'home' in "8' x 10' concrete cement cells, which contain concrete beds, and stainless steel sinks, toilets, and mirrors."(1) The cells are building blocks of a sensory deprivation experience designed to abort a humyn being's normal thought processes. For this reason, prisoners argue that the prison is making them crazy; also for this reason, they are correct.
Sensory deprivation at Tamms includes: regulation against prisoners placing phone calls, limited contact with each other and staff, and no physical contact with visitors. Prisoners at Tamms may not smoke, and are "handcuffed and shackled whenever they are out of their cellblock, and recreation will be allowed only individually with recreation equipment."(10) A prisoner reports new restrictions on reading material: "Tamms has issued a malicious book policy that limits a resident here to having only 25 books and/or magazines combined together as their own personal property. Tamms will not store or exchange personal books or magazines in their personal property storage. ... This book policy is a cruel and unjustifiable punishment; reading is one of the few positive activities we have here at Tamms."(13)
Michigan prisoners have recently been subjected to a new property policy that places similar restrictions on reading materials. Prisoners in the highest security facilities in the state are allowed no more than ten books or magazines — many aspects of this policy are under legal fire from prisoners and their advocates. This is one of many situations in which we do well to compare prison policies and prisoner responses across state lines. See article in the next issue of MIM Notes for more on the conditions of SuperMax confinement in different prison systems.(14)
These conditions of legalized brutality directed at prisoners' minds and bodies in tandem are designed to break down resistance, to gain submission from the oppressed through terror. But as Mao said of the marauding Japanese army that overran much of China in the 1920s and 1930s, such systematic disruption of the people's lives "educated the people and quickened their political consciousness." Through rapid development of a disciplined proletarian party in opposition to the Japanese invaders, China became powerful enough that the Japanese came and apologized for their barbarity. Mao thanked them for doing so much to help the development of the revolution.(15) In the united snakes, the situation is the same — it is an historical fact that repression breeds resistance. Amerikkkan prisons are a school of national oppression for the nearly two million people caged behind their barbed wire. Such education serves only to foment national liberation struggles and socialist revolution.
MC12 contributed research to this report.
1. Walkin' Steel. "Illinois opens "SuperMax" Control Unit prison
in Tamms." Fall 1998.
2. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 27 December 1998.
3. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 7 January 1999.
4. MIM Notes no. 83, December 1993.
5. See poem, www.etext.org/Politics/
6. MIM Notes no. 186 15 May, 1999.
7. MIM Notes no. 194.
8. A Tamms Prisoner 5 April 1999.
9. A second Tamms Prisoner 6 November, 1998.
10. IDOC description of Tamms
12. The schools' web sites, www.nwu.edu www.uchicago.edu
13. A third Tamms prisoner 8 June, 1999.
14. MIM Notes no. 160, MIM Notes no. 167, MIM Notes no. 168
15. Paraphrased from a 9 January, 1965 interview. Edgar Snow, The
Long Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1973), p. 198-9.