Isolation and Sensory Deprivation

Tamms C-Max prison is located at the farthest southern tip of Illinois, 360 miles from Chicago. Modeled after the "supermax" at Pelican Bay, California, the partially underground facility was designed to hold prisoners in solitary confinement. Men are kept in concrete cells twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with no sounds or sights from the outside world.  (A narrow window in each cell, high on the wall above the bed, permits prisoners a partial view of the sky.)  Prisoners never see or touch other prisoners, and phone calls are not permitted.  Most of these men do not get visits. When they do happen, they are non-contact:  a heavy glass wall and an intercom system separates the men from their family members. Food is served through a chuckhole called an “attached service delivery box" in the cell door.

At Tamms, there are no communal activities or educational programs, no religious services, no jobs, and no activities to promote rehabilitation. Incoming and outgoing mail is censored, and very little reading material is available. Personal possessions are extremely restricted–even family photographs are limited to no more than 15.   Most prisoners get to leave their cell for one hour a day to exercise in an empty, concrete pen with a wire-mesh roof. Most of the men at Tamms have been subjected to this regime of extreme isolation for years on end.  Over a third of the some 260 inmates at Tamms have been there since the prison opened in 1998.

Tamms = Torture

The subjection of human beings to long-term solitary confinement and sensory deprivation constitutes torture, according to many human rights groups, medical and psychological organizations, and independent doctors and scholars. The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recently condemned the “prolonged solitary confinement” of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as “inhuman” (Paragraph 87 E/CN.4/2006/120, SR Torture, 2006), while the European Convention on Human Rights–to which the U.S. is signatory, in a landmark case from 1978, (Ireland v. United Kingdom) condemned “sensory deprivation” as “inhuman or degrading treatment.”  Solitary confinement for any substantial length of time has serious effects. Indeed, numerous studies have documented the deleterious effects of solitary confinement on prisoners—visual and auditory hallucinations, hypersensitivity to noise and touch, insomnia, paranoia, uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear, distortions of time and space perception, increased risk of suicide and PTSD.  (See for example, Craig Haney, “Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and ‘Supermax’ Confinement,” Crime and Delinquency vol. 49, no. 124, 2003.)  At Tamms, prisoners are known to cut or mutilate themselves, scream uncontrollably, smear themselves with feces, and attempt suicide—all predictable consequences of the torture of sensory deprivation. Their psychiatric treatment often consists of stripping men of their possessions (including their clothes), putting them in four-point restraints, subjecting them to twenty-four hour lighting, and controlling them with pepper spray and psychotropic drugs.

The Supermax “Model”

Supermax prisons like Tamms have been a model for military police and guards at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Abu Ghraib in Iraq where isolation has been used to weaken prisoners prior to repeated interrogation. At Guantanamo Bay, some 300 prisoners in Camps 5 and 6 have been kept in isolation for years on end in conditions similar to those at Tamms, and many have experienced severe breakdowns. Like Guantanamo Bay, it has become a place where men are warehoused indefinitely with no opportunity to appeal. The men have no idea when, if ever, they will be able to leave.

Who Goes to Tamms?

No one is sent to Tamms because of their crime—they are transferred there from other Illinois prisons in Illinois. The initial proposal for Tamms, approved by the Illinois Legislature in 1993, was that the men would be kept there for a one-year behavior modification program and then sent back to the general population. Instead, it has become a place where men are kept indefinitely with no opportunity to appeal. Some men are sent there for their former gang affiliation, some for their behavior in prison, and some because they are active litigators—jailhouse lawyers—or because their political organizing or attitudes caused problems for prison administrators. In fact, some men never had a disciplinary ticket or hadn’t had one for years before being sent to Tamms. Tamms C-MAX was built with the rationale that extra punishment would help control gangs and deter violence in Illinois prisons. Yet, there is no evidence to support this theory. The problem of prison violence began to decline before Tamms was even constructed.  For this reason, and because of the extremely high cost of incarceration at Tamms—between $60,000 and $100,000 per prisoner, compared to approximately $20,000 to $30,000 at other maximum security prisons—Tamms has never been filled to capacity.

Despite these degrading circumstances, men at Tamms try their best to survive. To quote one prisoner: "Locked down in a cell 24/7, year after year, no TV, no radio, no letters. It's a hard life to endure. It's like I'm on duty all day every day—just to keep a right frame of mind."


- Dictionary of Tamms Terms
- Tamms Renunciation Policy
- Meal Loaf
- Hunger Strike Documents
- Letter from Prison Action Committee

1. Tamms Supermax Correctional Center opened in March 1998 as a "supermax" prison intended for short-term incarceration.

2. Every man is in permanent solitary confinement. Meals come in through a slot in the door.

3. These men spend either 23 or 24 hours a day in their cell. Some only get one 20-minute shower and 2 hours out of the cell to exercise each week.

4. There is no group activity or interaction of any kind for the general population. The 10 men in the mental health pod are given “group” time while confined in individual plexi-glass booths.

5. Some men arrive at Tamms with mental problems, and the strain of long-term isolation makes many break down. Suicide attempts, self-mutilation and other psychological problems are common.

6. At its inception, the IDOC claimed that Tamms was a 1-year behavior modification program after which the men would be released back to the regular population.

7. The IDOC is keeping people there for years. At least 88 men have been warehoused at Tamms since it opened 10 years ago.

8. Many of the men in Tamms have never had a disciplinary ticket or haven’t had one for years before they were sent to Tamms. Over half of the men are not there for disciplinary problems at all, but for the vague category of “administrative segregation.” No one is put in Tamms for the severity of his crime.

9. No one knows when they will leave Tamms—these men have become permanent detainees.

10. No phone calls are allowed. Family connections cannot be maintained without them.

11. Tamms is located at the southernmost tip of Illinois. There is no public transportation to the prison. There is no way for family to get to Tamms without a car.

12. Visits hardly ever happen, and when they do, they are through a Plexiglass wall and voice-activated speakers.

13. Many of the men at Tamms will some day be released from prison.

14. Taxpayers spend between $60,000 and $100,000 a year to keep a man in Tamms supermax. It costs 3 to 5 times as much as it costs to keep someone in a maximum security prison.

15. Prolonged isolation is a form of psychological torture. It has no penological purpose.


To the gracious God who creates us to be in relation, even when we fail and when others fall:

All People: Recreate us gracious God, so that we can again be related to you and to each other.

Leader: To the forgiving God who redeems our fallen lives, the fallen lives of others, and the life of a fallen world:

All People: Redeem us forgiving God, as we commit ourselves to overcoming policies that confine others to solitary isolation.

Leader: To the empowering God who calls us to be agents of change and restoration:

All People: Empower us to change your fallen world so that isolation becomes solidarity, and out of mistreatment and abuse will come restorative compassion and redeeming justice. Amen.

This prayer was written for the Faith Summit for Criminal Justice Reform, a project of the Community Renewal Society, by the Reverend Dr. Larry Greenfield, Executive Minister, American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago.


'Experiments in art and community'
Micah Maidenberg, Chicago Journal, News-Star, 2/11/09

'Saints for those in Jail and out'
Micah Maidenberg, Chicago Journal West Town Edition, 11/25/08

'Isolated from the Real World'
Silvana Tabares, Extra, 10/2/08

'Light from Inside: Prisoners Artwork on Display'
Erica Magda, ABC7 Chicago, 8/13/08

'StopMax: The Fight Against Supermax Prisons Heats Up'
Jessica Pupovac, Alternet, 8/11/08

'Move mentally ill from Supermax'
Malcolm Young, Chicago Daily Herald, 5/31/08

'Tamms reforms on the way?'
Mick Dumke, Clout City - Chicago Reader, 5/30/08

'Is this prison too tough?'
Frank Main, Chicago Sun-Times, 5/26/08

'Lawmakers, ex-inmates announce reform proposal for Tamms Correctional Center'
Vikki Ortiz, Chicago Tribune, 5/25/08

'Tamms' 10th Birthday No Cause for Celebration'
Rep. Karen Yarborough, Progress Illinois, 5/12/08

'Hell in a Cell'

Jeffery Felshman, Chicago Reader, 4/24/08

'Torture in Our Own Backyards: The Fight Against Supermax Prisons'
Jessica Pupovac, Alternet, 3/24/08

'Life at Tamms Supermax Prison',
Shannon Heffernan, Chicago Public Radio, 3/11/08

'Tamms Year Ten calls for end to torture',
Abby Lerner, The Daily Northwestern, 3/6/08

'The Supermax Solution',
Regan Good, The Nation, 2/13/03

'Nothing Left to Lose',
Bruce Rushton, St. Louis Riverfront Times, 5/10/00

'Cruel and Usual',
Bruce Rushton, St. Louis Riverfront Times, 2/16/00

'Blooper Max',
Bruce Rushton, Riverfront Times, 8/29/01


'No Exit'
By Jamie Fellner and Sasha Abramsky
Published in The American Prospect
January 8, 2004