Thursday, September 17, 2009

Super-max prison reforms proposed

By Bethany Jaeger
One of the state’s maximum-security prisons designed to hold the most disruptive and violent offenders has a new set of rules that are intended to give inmates incentives to improve their behavior so they can return to less restrictive facilities.

The new Illinois Department of Corrections director, Michael Randle, issued a 10-step plan for reforming Tamms Correctional Center, which is at the very southwestern tip of the state. It houses an average of 432 men, costing an average of $67,000 each, according to the department. Male prisoners arrive at Tamms if they pose a threat to other inmates, themselves or prison staff. It’s one of six maximum-security prisons in Illinois and is intended for short-term placement until inmates are stable and able to return to the general prison population.

The “supermax” prison has been under scrutiny from human rights advocates and a volunteer group known as Tamms Year Ten for what it deems as prolonged solitary confinement and poor treatment of mentally ill prisoners.

Appointed by Quinn in May to replace former director Roger Walker, Randle was born in Chicago but worked 19 years in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, most recently as assistant director. His first assignment in Illinois was to review Tamms.

His 10-step plan announced today in Chicago includes a full mental health evaluation of all Tamms prisoners within 30 days of their arrival. Clinical staff also will make weekly rounds of all areas throughout the prison, not just the mental health unit, to detect whether inmates’ conditions worsen or if they become suicidal.

Another significant change is the new process for reviewing prisoners who are to be transferred from a lower security prison to Tamms. Hearings will be conducted to allow inmates to rebut information that led them to be placed in Tamms, and they would be able to appeal their placement there. All hearings would be recorded.

Other changes include:
  • Inform each inmate of an estimated time they’ll stay at Tamms and how they can earn privileges and eventually transfer out to a less restrictive prison.
  • Enhance incentives for good behavior, including earning the right to use the telephone or spend more time out of their cells.
  • Begin offering General Educational Development testing.
  • Implement congregate religious services for inmates.
  • Rescind some of the restrictions on printed materials.
  • Develop a plan to allow inmates access to a “step down” program, which would help at-risk inmates transition from Tamms to the general prison population.
  • Plan a media, legislative and public outreach program that includes a visit to Tamms.
  • Reexamine the population of inmates having served extensive time at Tamms to see whether they are eligible to transfer out. Some have been at Tamms since it opened in 1998.

Laurie Jo Reynolds, organizer of the Tamms Year Ten grass-roots campaign, says Randle’s reforms move in the right direction. The establishment of a transfer review hearing, for instance, is significant, she said. “Over half the prisoners who are there were not actually convicted of a crime in an Illinois prison, and many of them did not know the reasons for their placement. So this is a welcome reform.”

But she added that the reforms in general don’t go as far as desired in House Bill 2633, sponsored by Rep. Julie Hamos, an Evanston Democrat. (Hamos put the bill on hold in May because Randle recently took over, and she wanted to see what changes he would make.)

Hamos’ bill, as well as Tamms Year Ten, Amnesty International and other mental health advocates in Illinois, have sought an independent monitoring of mental health diagnosis and treatment of the prisoners.

“Our concern is that there are a lot of mentally ill prisoners there who have not been properly diagnosed or treated, and there’s nothing in the plan that would provide a safeguard for those prisoners,” Reynolds said.

According to Randle, who said he hasn’t considered an independent monitor, all staff are trained in recognizing the symptoms of mental illness or other psychological needs on an as-needed basis. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think it’s necessary for us to do that,” he said.

Reynolds said she also hoped to see clear criteria outlining reasons for transferring inmates to Tamms, rather than using the current case-by-case approach. She said she continues to work with other advocates and legislators to consider whether legislation should codify the changes so they remain permanent regardless of whether the administration changes.

Randle said he doesn’t know whether legislation would be needed because the changes are happening now and are intended to be permanent. However, he added: “I think it’s important to point out that a lot of this is contingent on the offenders’ behavior. … If the guys behave appropriately and do the right things, certainly these things will continue. If we begin to have issues that come up as a result of this, then certainly we need to be in a position to take a look at these.”

Reynolds said Quinn did a great thing by appointing Randle. “I feel like he is committed to long-term reforms and to changes, which are beneficial to both public safety and to prisoners and to lowering recidivism,” she said. On the other hand, she added, “this list of 10 things could end up being really superficial or they could end up being profound, depending on how they’re implemented. So we can only look forward to dialogue as we go forward.”

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