The Supermax prison in Tamms, the one Gov. Pat Quinn proposed closing in Tuesday’s budget address, is one of the most celebrated holes in the United States.
Called the “prison system’s prison system,” it was written about extensively in a New Yorker article about the psychological effects of solitary confinement. Reporter Atul Gawande told the story of Robert Felton, a Danville man sentenced to 15 years for armed robbery.
In March, 1998, Felton was among the first inmates to be moved to Tamms, a new, high-tech supermax facility in southern Illinois.
“At Tamms, man, it was like a lab,” he says. Contact even with guards was tightly reduced. Cutoff valves meant that he couldn’t flood his cell. He had little ability to force a response—negative or positive—from a human being. And, with that gone, he began to deteriorate further. He ceased showering, changing his clothes, brushing his teeth. His teeth rotted and ten had to be pulled. He began throwing his feces around his cell. He became psychotic…Twice he attempted suicide.
When Felton was released, in 2005, “he hadn’t socialized with another person since entering Tamms, at the age of twenty-five.”
Felton returned to Danville, got married, and had two children, but had trouble holding on to a job. Finally, he broke into a car dealership and stole a Dodge Charger. He served three more years in prison, for theft, and is currently on parole. Before Felton was imprisoned again, he had lunch with Gawande at a Mexican restaurant, where they discussed the case of Donald Snyder, Jr. The state prison director who had refused to release Felton from Tamms, had been sentenced to two years in prison for some typical Illinois graft: taking $50,000 in payoffs from lobbyists.
I asked him, (Gawande said) “If he wrote to you, asking if you would release him from solitary, what would you do?”
“I’d let him out,” he said, and he put his fork down to make the point. “I wouldn’t wish solitary confinement on anybody. Not even him.”