Inside the Tamms super-max prison

Situated amid rolling hills and farms in the southern tip of Illinois, Tamms Correctional Center, the state's only "super-max" prison, was built during the get-tough-on-crime wave that swept the nation in the 1990s. It was designed to house the state's most dangerous inmates.

Conditions are harsh—and meant to be. For at least 23 hours a day, prisoners sit in solitary confinement in 7-by-12-foot cells. There is no mess hall—meals are shoved through a chuckhole in cell doors. Contact with the outside world is sharply restricted. For a rare visit from relatives or friends, inmates are strip-searched, chained to a concrete stool and separated from visitors by a thick glass wall. There are no jobs and limited educational opportunities.

For the first time in years, the Illinois Department of Corrections opened up this closed world to a Tribune reporter and photographer, allowing them a glimpse at life for its 245 inmates.

Tamms supermax

Tamms inmate Joseph Dole, serving a life sentence for murder, sits in his cell and talks with a reporter through dime-size holes in the metal cell door. Some critics compare the conditions inside the super maximum-security prison in Tamms, Ill., to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Corrections officials say the prison is necessary to house the worst of the worst and contend that it has reduced assaults against inmates and staff at the state's other prisons.

Returning to his cell

Two Tamms correctional officers remove inmate Damien Terry's shackles before placing him back in his cell. Inmate movement is severely limited at Tamms. Prisoners are always handcuffed and shackled and escorted by guards whenever they're moved to other areas of the prison.

Tamms cells

Tamms inmate Damien Terry (bottom left) looks out from his cell in J-Pod. A typical pod consists of six wings with 10 cells in each wing. Unlike other state prisons, inmates at Tamms are housed one per cell.

Tamms prison

The names of some of the inmates housed in J-Pod at the Tamms super-max prison are written on an erasable board near the entrance. Opened in 1998, the prison has only operated at about 50 percent capacity. Correctional officials say this shows they are very selective about who they send to the prison. Critics say the prison was overbuilt and is too costly.

Secure passage

Yolande Johnson, the acting warden at Tamms, waits for a security door to close behind her before the next one can be opened. Every person must pass through 12 locked doors before they reach the inmate pods.

The line

Correctional officers make their rounds in a wing at the Tamms super-max prison. Unlike many other prisons, the corridors are largely empty at Tamms because inmates are locked in their cells at least 23 hours a day. The yellow line is the path prisoners must follow to get to and from their cells as they travel to the outdoor walled-in exercise room behind the blue door. Inmates are not allowed to stop and talk to other inmates when they are outside their cells.

Concrete yard

Inmates are allowed to exercise alone up to one hour a day in the concrete exercise yard within the prison. Prisoners are not permitted any exercise equipment other than a handball, which they must purchase themselves. A metal roof only partially covers the yard, allowing in rain, snow and sunlight.

Escape proof

Yolande Johnson, the acting warden, talks with John Spires, a seriously mentally ill inmate who is housed in a special Tamms treatment unit called J-Pod. Spires, a convicted child rapist who is serving a 240-year sentence, is placed inside a locked escape-proof cell the size of a phone booth to watch television as a reward for good behavior.

Glass cage

Tamms inmate John Spires watches a television sitcom from a glass cage the size of a phone booth. Spires wears a green jumpsuit to identify him as an escape risk.

Secure escort

Inmate John Spires, handcuffed and shackled, is escorted back to his cell in J-Pod after being allowed to watch television in another secured area.

Seeing the dentist

An inmate, his legs in shackles and his hands in cuffs, is treated by a dentist in the health-care unit of the Tamms super-max prison. Guards, not visible, stand nearby.

Costly prison

Tamms correctional officers wait for an inmate to finish with the dentist so they can return him to his cell. Extra security at the prison makes it one of the costliest to operate in the state. The average cost is about $64,000 per inmate, almost triple the state average.

Cuffed for transport

Lt. Robert DuBois, a correctional officer at Tamms, "cuffs up" an inmate at J-Pod, the prison's mental health unit, before allowing the inmate out of the glass cage.

Exercise cages

Sergio Molina, executive assistant to the state prison director, stands in front of locked cages where inmates in the J-Pod unit are allowed to exercise alone for up to an hour a day. Inside each cage is one pull-up bar.

Gang influence

Deputy Cmdr. Michael Atchison peers into a cell while visiting the Tamms super-max prison. Atchison, an investigations and intelligence officer, says some of the gang leaders held at Tamms continue trying to exert influence on gang members at other state prisons and on the outside.

Regular rounds

As a door closes behind them, correctional officers walk through a pod as they make their rounds. Officers are required to look inside every cell every 30 minutes. There are currently 245 inmates at Tamms super-max prison.

Tyrone Dorn

Inmate Tyrone Dorn, who was convicted of carjacking, was sent to Tamms five years ago after a series of prison assaults at another prison. Dorn has not had a family visit or phone call during his time at Tamms. A devout Muslim, Dorn passes the time reading the Quran and playing chess.

Food prep

A correctional officer prepares food to be delivered to inmates in their cells. Unlike other state prisons, Tamms does not have a mess hall for inmates.

Food service

A correctional officer carries food to inmates in their cells. The meals are delivered through a chuckhole in the inmate's cell door. As a security precaution, all plates and utensils are turned back in after each meal. Some inmates, who say the food is bad, complain that they have lost weight.

Special delivery

A correctional officer delivers food to an inmate in a special cell. The metal cell door is covered with a glass panel to prevent an inmate from throwing food and feces at the officer. Food is passed through a metal box affixed to the door.

High security

The fence surrounding the prison is lined with concertina wire. The prison is so secure on the inside that there is no need for guard towers on the perimeter. There has never been a successful escape.

-Chicago Tribune

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