While the battle rages on between the AFSCME – the union representing the guards and staff employed in Illinois prisons – and those who advocate the closure of Tamms and other IDOC facilities, it’s easy to lose sight of the larger issues that plague our prison system.

It’s not all about saving money, and it’s not all about saving jobs. It’s not even about Tamms. It’s really about a system that has failed and continues to fall short by virtually every measure. Put simply, our prison system does not accomplish its given purpose, and in fact works against itself and its mission. Tamms is only a symptom, albeit a glaring one, of the systemic problems plaguing our prisons. The issues at Tamms exemplify the extraordinary conjunction of errors, mismanagement and ill-conceived policies that reflect the dysfunctional manner in which IDOC prisons (and many throughout the country) are operated.

The story of Daniel Johnson, Prisoner N93665, is a case in point. After 14 years in segregation at Tamms, Johnson lost all hope and the will to live. He sent his “goodbye” letters, gave away his belongings, signed a living will and a do-not-resuscitate order, destroyed his legal records and, after a week of practice, put a plastic bag over his head and went to bed, fully expecting – and hoping – to end his life. His suicide attempt failed, however, and he awoke in Heartland Medical Center on a ventilator. He was eventually returned to Tamms, where he was stripped of everything except a smock and placed in a suicide-watch cell.

 

Johnson received only cursory psychological attention prior to his suicide attempt – and no mental health treatment, no therapy and no medications since. No mental health reports or diagnoses have been filed in Johnson’s case. The one time during this entire sequence of events that a psychiatrist spoke to him, he told Johnson that, facing the same situation, he might do the same thing.

 

When the controversy surrounding the possible closing of Tamms arose, Johnson was transferred to Pontiac, a move that, he was told, was for “political reasons.” He remains there as of this writing.

Johnson’s story is not unique, but typifies the lack of adequate care, the disregard for human rights and the inhumane conditions and treatment that prisoners at Tamms – and many IDOC prison facilities – are forced to endure…if they can.