Tamms Is Closing, But The Greater Challenge Is Still Before Us.

As of this writing, it appears that Gov. Quinn’s decision to close Tamms will be upheld and implemented, and this abomination will be shuttered. Congratulations are due Laurie Jo Reynolds and the Tamms Year-10 Committee for a great achievement. Their collective, sustained and heroic efforts show what can be accomplished when we share a vision and work together.

Despite this great victory, however, we should not deceive ourselves; the prisons operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections are in a state of shambles, and that situation will not be significantly eased or changed by the closure of Tamms.

This is news to no one. For the last 20 years or more, many special commissions, legislative and ad hoc committees, boards, activist groups and others have conducted numerous studies and repeatedly reported the increasingly dysfunctional situation within our so-called “corrections” system. Invariably, however, nothing of great consequence happens as a result; despite small victories, their recommendations go unheeded, no significant changes or improvements are made, and the reports simply crowd the dusty shelves of inaction. Meanwhile, the situation continues to deteriorate – overcrowding increases, staff are overburdened and demoralized, facilities age and crumble, and the prison system continues to morph into one of human warehousing characterized by injustice, cruelty and dehumanizing treatment, failing miserably to accomplish its fundamental purpose.

The Tamms debate demonstrated once again that those who opposed its closing – self-serving interest groups (the corrections officers’ union, state’s attorneys, chambers of commerce, so-called “victims’ rights” organizations, police unions, vendors, etc. – the “usual suspects”)  and their allied elected officials in particular – are a primary reason why progress is so elusive, allowing the system to deteriorate further into a system at odds with itself.

The results are often tragic, and dramatically draw focus to individual and personal problems and divert our attention away from the larger, systemic issues. A case in point is an incident that occurred involving the murder of a prisoner at the hands of his cellmate.

There is much more involved than a dispute between two men.

Homicide at Stateville

On April 2, 2009, Jameson Leezer, 37, was found strangled to death on his bunk in his cell in F-House at Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, Illinois. Richard Conner, 39, Leezer’s cellmate, was also in the cell at the time the body was discovered, and was later convicted of his murder.

The death of a prisoner at the hand of another – or that of a corrections officer or even by his own hand – is unfortunately almost an everyday occurrence in our nation’s prisons. Such events get the momentary attention of prison officials, a few prison activists, the individuals’ families and, sometimes, the media, and then are tucked away and soon forgotten. Leezer’s death, however, represents a snapshot of the conjunction of the recurring problems, errors, mismanagement and ill-conceived policies that typify the dysfunctional manner in which IDOC prisons are operated.

Jameson Leezer

Leezer was an only child of adoptive parents, a troubled youth while growing up in Bolingbrook and Lisle, Illinois, ironically almost within sight of the Stateville prison walls. His first incarceration, when he was a young teenager, was for setting a fire. He became a drug abuser and was treated in psychiatric hospitals.

His first felony conviction came in 1992 when he was 20, and over the next 15 years he was convicted of three more felonies, all associated with car theft and possession of stolen vehicles. As veteran prisoners observed, he was “doing a life sentence on the installment plan.”

He hated black people, among others, gained a reputation as a racist, and joined white supremacist groups both in and out of prison. While at Stateville, he had been heard to yell racial slurs at black officers (Stateville has the most racially integrated staff in the state prison system).

On the day he died, Leezer was serving a five-year sentence, and with reduced time for good behavior (day-for-day), he was due to be released in 17 days.

Why a non-violent offender like Leezer had been sent to Stateville is not known, but he probably was being punished for an internal rules violation, most likely occurring while he had been doing his time at a medium security prison.

According to one newspaper article, the IDOC administration had listed Leezer as “vulnerable,” meaning he should have been kept apart from dangerous inmates. He also exhibited other questionable behavior while Conner was his “cellie.” According to one source, for example, he smeared feces on their cell walls and taunted those around him with the fact that he was soon to be released.

Richard Conner

Richard Conner, a black man, was convicted of a robbery and murder committed in the  course of a holdup of a convenience store, for which he received a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

He was serving his time at Stateville, but was transferred to the SuperMax facility at Tamms following an attack on a corrections officer. At Tamms, specifically designated to hold “the worst of the worst,” prisoners were kept in their cells virtually 24/7 with no contact with other prisoners. Conner’s physical (he had serious kidney problems) and emotional condition was problematic to begin with; he was subsequently sent to the Mental Health Unit at Dixon Correction Center in Western Illinois after the Tamms staff classified him as emotionally unstable and delusional. (The treatment he received while at Dixon, and the length of his stay there, are unknown.) While still at Tamms, he was also on dialysis, a condition that can lead to emotional outbursts.

Conner was returned to Tamms where he attempted suicide, and in the act further damaged his kidneys. Allegedly, hospitals in the proximity of Tamms refused to accept Conner as a patient; hence the transfer to Stateville, where seriously ill patients are treated at the University of Illinois Hospital on Chicago’s near West Side.

F-House

The segregation facility in which Conner and Leezer were incarcerated, called the “F-House,” is shaped like a roundhouse, a concept developed by English prison reformer Jeremy Bentham in the early 1800s. He called it a “Panopticon,” a structure with cells surrounding a central guard tower from which an “all-seeing supervisor” could monitor the prisoners. F-House is the only such structure still in existence in this country, and measured by any current standard, should be torn down (as were the three others like it at Stateville, years ago).  Its design makes it inherently unwieldy, even dysfunctional.

There are four levels, or galleries, each with about 60 cells, each cell about 10 feet wide and 12 feet deep, circling the central tower. At the tower’s peak is a partially enclosed “cockpit” from where heavily armed officers keep watch (they are the “all-seeing supervisors” Bentham envisioned). The gallery spaces outside and around the cells are poorly lit. Looking across the central space from one side to the other, the opposing cells seem miles away. Each cell is not only enclosed with bars, but also with an adjacent thick wall of glass. The distance and the many layers of glass and bars, plus the insufficient lighting, make it almost impossible for the officers in the tower to see clearly into the prisoners’ cells.

With limited staff, officers often make rounds to check cells (“the count”) no more than once per eight-hour shift. Guards must climb stairs to reach the upper three galleries, often carrying heavy loads. Once on a gallery level, the officers must walk half the house’s circumference to reach the cells most distant from the stairway.

Most prisoners in F-House are in segregation, usually for rules violations – assaulting an officer, failure to obey an officer’s order, fighting with other prisoners, etc. Depending on the gravity of the offense, a person may be kept in segregation anywhere from a few days to a year or more. While in segregation, they lose virtually all privileges accorded to those in the general prison population: eating in the dining hall, going to the yard for exercise, shopping in the commissary, having TV and other electronic equipment. Visits are severely limited. Prisoners “in seg’” stay in their cells virtually 24/7. Officers and prison workers bring food in Styrofoam boxes to each cell for each meal; it’s invariably cold by the time it arrives.

* * * * *

What’s wrong with this picture? Maybe putting two prisoners, both of whom should have been single-celled, together in a tiny cell designed for one person. Maybe putting a car thief in a prison populated by violent criminals. How about putting a hate-filled white racist in a cell with an unstable black man who happened to be a convicted murderer?  And why put them together in a cell that was difficult for officers to watch, let alone reach quickly?

What about the “treatment” that Conner supposedly received at the Dixon Mental Health Unit? What about the request made by both Conner and Leezer to be separated from each other, which was either ignored or refused. Could it be that housing 250 or so violent and misbehaving prisoners in the antiquated F-House may have contributed to the problem? Was officer understaffing an issue? Is treating prisoners inhumanely a factor?

So what isn’t wrong with this picture? That’s the fundamental problem we face, and essentially what led to the tragedy of Leezer and Conner. But correcting any one of these problems would not have been a real solution. Rather, corrective action in any one area often does little more than shift the problem up- or downstream to other areas, sometimes making matters worse.

An important lesson is that we cannot deal effectively with the systemic problem by focusing on any one aspect of it. Tamms is being closed, for example, which is a step in the right direction. But where are Tamms prisoners going to be placed? In all probability, most will be transferred to other maximum-security prisons like Menard, Pontiac and Stateville, which are extremely dilapidated and, ironically, in lockdown much of time. (It’s been reported that some Tamms inmates would prefer to remain at Tamms.)

What Can We Learn?

By examining all of the parts that played into the homicide of Leezer by Conner, we can better grasp the true conditions of the Illinois corrections system and, hopefully, establish a foundation on which a coherent plan can be developed.

  1. The IDOC system is excessively overcrowded. Almost 50,000 prisoners are housed in a system designed for about 36,000. Two men are required to live together in cells designed for one. The State of Illinois can no longer afford its bloated prison system.
  2. Prison staffs are short-handed. Too few staff are required to do too much in a very difficult, intense and often dangerous environment. Leezer’s death was not discovered by staff for at least several hours.
  3. Much of staff is demoralized. In the words of an assistant warden who came to Illinois from another state, the low morale and discontent of the Stateville staff is appalling, worse than he had ever before encountered. In this case, staff ignored the pleas of both Leezer and Conner that they be separated, even though Leezer had been taunting staff with racial epithets.
  4. Menard, Pontiac and Stateville are so dilapidated and outmoded that they cannot be managed properly, and should be torn down.
  5. Overburdened, short-handed and demoralized staff resort to excessive lockdowns (solitary confinement) to control prisoners, including those in medium-security facilities. This is generally acknowledged by experts as inhumane, and also deprives prisoners access to the scant few remaining training and vocational programs available.
  6. Medical care, both physical and emotional, is sorely lacking. By all accounts, Conner was mentally challenged. He had attempted suicide. He was ill. Leezer was a drug abuser and needed psychiatric treatment. Neither of these men should have been placed in a cell with another prisoner. In this case, further, a non-violent offender like Leezer should not have been celled with an unstable convicted murderer.
  7. Leezer’s recidivism reflects a glaring lack of rehabilitation programs, academic and vocational training, release preparation and post-release support for Illinois prisoners, whose rate of recidivism is in excess of 50 percent.

 

What can you do?

Despite the complexity of the situation, there are answers available to us. By focusing on the broad issues, we can start to bring about real changes and break down the barriers to finding significant, meaningful, permanent solutions to the problems that plague our prison system.

Upcoming installments in this series will examine some of those obstacles, what we can do to overcome them, and many of the ways we can help solve the problems we face, with particular focus on system-wide issues, challenges and opportunities.