[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has used the term homo sacer, derived from ancient Roman law, to describe groups or individuals judged so valueless that they are given the status of non-person. His modern examples are political refugees, homeless persons, and Jews in Nazi extermination camps, but his theory also helps us recognize current institutions that place people on the edge of civil death. 
Tamms Supermax, where prisoners experience nearly complete social exclusion, is one such institution. All prisoners there are held in permanent solitary confinement, or cold storage. There are no phone calls, contact visits, educational opportunities, or communal activities. The men never leave their cells except to shower or exercise alone in a pen with concrete walls. Food is pushed through a slot in the door. Cell doors are perforated steel, and some have additional Lexicon shields, rendering them soundproof. Like the homo sacer of ancient Rome, whose killing was deemed unpunishable, it’s as if modern supermax prisoners cannot be punished enough to satisfy the public.
Most Chicagoans have never heard of this prison, which sits on the outskirts of the small town of Tamms, not far from the southernmost point in Illinois. It is 360 miles from Cook County, where a majority of the inmates are from. Visits, which must be scheduled in advance and approved in writing, are conducted through plexiglass walls with voice-activated speakers. There is no public transportation to Tamms, and many prisoners have not had a single visitor since their transfer.
Prisoners are already one of America’s least visible populations, but men in the supermax are invisible even to one another. Men at Tamms never see or feel the touch of other people, except for correctional officers during shackling and body cavity searches, or the glimpse of a person passing by their cell. The technological sophistication of the facility further reduces contact. A central control hub automatically opens doors, and whenever possible, guards communicate with inmates through the speaker system—creating “double isolation” from staff and prisoners. Unlike a regular prison, the halls of the supermax have no traffic.
No one is sentenced to Tamms for crimes on the outside. It was designed to be a short-term shock treatment for men who commit acts of violence or disruption while incarcerated in regular Illinois prisons. Lengths of stay were originally intended to be one or two years, but the prison has become a warehouse. By 2008, ten years after the supermax opened, one-third of the prisoners had been in isolation the entire decade.
The first step in developing opposition to the use of supermax confinement is to bring these prisons out of the periphery. The Tamms Poetry Committee was formed with this goal in mind. We tried to provide some form of social contact by sending letters and poetry to every prisoner, and collecting testimony about the experience of isolation and daily strategies for survival. In one project, we asked each prisoner to answer the question: “What Three Things Would Bring You Some Immediate Relief?” We used the responses—voices from the abyss—to bring the reality of solitary confinement into public consciousness. The Tamms Year Ten campaign (TY10) is a legislative effort that emerged from this work, partly at the urging of the prisoners. (“Hey, these poems are great but could you please tell the gov’nor what they’re doing to us down here?”)
Peripheral spaces like Tamms are both material and ideological. What makes the supermax regime possible, and even routine, are the correctional taxonomies used to rationalize it. Deconstructing the supermax classification, and the premises that support it, has been the challenge of TY10. The price point for a supermax is the term the worst of the worst. This phrase is what got these prisons built, and what keeps them open. It appears in every news story about supermaxes and it drives policy. The expression conjures up a creature so despicable that no amount of restraint, isolation, surveillance or deprivation could sufficiently exclude or chastise him. Upon any challenge to the legitimacy of the supermax regime, these words are cast like a spell. The worst of the worstconstitutes one of the most effective memes in American criminal justice, congregating some of the most despised cultural constructs of our time: the super-predator, the gang leader and the sex offender.
These categories arise from the entente between mass media and government, and become so naturalized that no one questions them. To do so does not deny the problem of gang activity, sex crimes, or in the case of the supermax, prisoners who require extreme restraint. At issue is how these dubious categories, which create rather than solve problems, become inscribed into culture and into law, and are used to justify the suspension of civil and human rights.
It was a development of the Enlightenment that all persons, just by existing, were presumed to hold inalienable rights. Yet, for the homo sacer, the state makes an exception. In fact, the state calls for their ostracism, exile or even erasure. Having no political status other than exclusion, the homo saceris alienated from his political capacity, and left only with his biological self. There is a physical body, but no corresponding political obligations or protections. Agamben called this the state of bare life. The anthropologist Lorna Rhodes describes the “minimized, stripped-down body” unique to supermax incarceration in the same way. The bare, physical self is all the prisoner has left.  At Tamms and elsewhere, a certain percentage of people in isolation will go on hunger strikes, smear and eat feces, cut and mutilate themselves, and compulsively attempt suicide. For these prisoners, abjection may become the only means and method for resistance. But it then becomes justification for further deprivation. The category is self-fulfilling.
As Rhodes has illustrated through case studies, the neo-liberal ideology of “personal responsibility” frames the actions of supermax prisoners “in entirely individualistic and non-rehabilitative terms”—as autonomous choices detached from any broader social or historical context.  In Illinois, this is exemplified by the ubiquitous phrase: they earned their way there.
Publicizing the situation of seriously mentally ill prisoners in the supermax has offered a counter-narrative to such myths of the worst of the worst. In recent months, the campaign was boosted by the work of investigative reporters who highlighted prisoners like Faygie Fields who repeatedly smeared excrement, swallowed glass and was once charged $5.30 for the price of the bed sheet he used to hang himself; or Robert Foor who died in June at age 33 from sodium depletion, apparently caused by a type of psychosis that leads to drinking titanic amounts of water.
These portraits of compulsive self-mutilators, untreated schizophrenics and non-violent offenders, destabilize the official history of who is in the supermax, and effectively make the case that some Tamms prisoners need protection from IDOC staff, not the other way around. Despite assertions from every quarter that these men earned their way there, the Belleville News-Democrat showed that more than half of Tamms prisoners were not convicted of a violent offense in a regular prison, and many others were sent to Tamms on cases of assault with no resulting injury, such as throwing bodily waste, possessing a shank, or struggling with a guard. These are real problems for correctional officers, but are often the result of combustible combinations of mental illness, frustration and the need for self-protection, not incorrigible evil. 
Also surprising is the fact that over half of the prisoners are sent to Tamms for administrative detention. Far from having earned a trip to the supermax, these men are transferred under the presumption that they will commit crimes in the future. Prison officials say they need this discretion to curb gang activity, and placements are made on the basis of internal intelligence that cannot be disclosed. The prisoners and their attorneys argue that this policy is used for retaliation against, among others, men who file too many grievances; they say the state is obligated to present some evidence of the need for preventive detention and give the prisoner a meaningful opportunity to challenge it.
There is a Kafkaesque parallel to holding men in administrative detention at Tamms. At Guantanamo Bay, prisoners have been held indefinitely on the basis of intelligence which the U.S. government claims cannot be revealed. Accordingly, TY10 has attempted to direct the frequent criticisms of U.S. torture abroad to the same practices at home. In response, IDOC officials have made the same argument about gang leaders that the U.S. government makes about terrorists—that the security threat is so great as to require exceptional measures. However successful this ploy may be with the public and legislators, it must be confronted head on. Long-term isolation is a form of torture, unacceptable for gang leaders, and for anyone else.
No one makes this point better than the ex-gang leaders who spent years in the supermax and were eventually released because of completed sentences, overturned convictions, or grants of parole. At lectures, art events, press conferences, editorial board meetings and legislative hearings, they testify about the cruelty of Tamms, and the anger and insanity it breeds. When the media and legislators have tried to discredit them for their gang pasts and convictions, they are undeterred. Their need to bear witness speaks for itself. Using their own experiences to illustrate the injustice of IDOC policies, they urge audiences to stand up for the invisible men who remain at Tamms. In doing so, they simultaneously embody, defy and confound the category of the supermax prisoner. This is a moral struggle that must play out in the media, the legislature, and in the court of public opinion. It can’t be won without the homo sacer speaking for himself.
- Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
- Lorna Rhodes and Matthew Wolf-Meyer, “‘Not only a consequence of power, but also one of its strategies’: An Interview with Lorna Rhodes/Matthew Wolf-Meyer,” Reconstruction 6.2 (Spring 2006),
- Ibid., 4. Also, Lorna Rhodes, Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 7.
- George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer, “Trapped in Tamms,” Belleville News-Democrat, 2-3 August 2009. Read the whole series at http://www.bnd.com/
What Three Things Would Bring You Some Immediate Relief?
The 3 thing’s that would really help me release a lot of stress during the time that I am here would be;
1. Being able to have contact visit’s with my loved one’s
2. Being able to pick up a phone and call home just to hear a love one’s voice
3. and to be able to interact with the other inmate’s down here too.
1. To be transferred out of Tamms C.C
2. To be given professional psychological testing to rule out any mental illnesses
3. And if found that I indeed suffer from mental disorder’s as I so believe then to be provided with professional treatment to deal with such disorder’s
1. To keep up communication with us here at Tamms.
2. To contact the director (217) 522-2666 &/or Deputy Director (618) 936-2064 by phone and let them know that you are aware of our treatment.
3. To keep talking to outside people to get them involved in the fight because it will take a force. Also, we need your prayers.
—Joe Louis Young
“The 3 things that would bring immediate relief for me is to be allowed the privilege of using the phone to call home, to place limitations on how long human beings could stay here, to open this “tomb” up with contact visits and allow captives out of their cages on to a real “yard.” Rehabilitation would be nice.”
1. This isolation is messing with my mind.
2. Get me away from these racist retaliators thats friends and family are working here and in Menard.
3. Some pen-pals that can help me keep my mind occupied from all the crazyness that goes on there, because if these people know you don’t have any family & friends in your corner, they will really mess over you.
“As for the things that would bring me some immediate relief—nothing would bring me immediate relief short of an immediate transfer.”
—M. Del Sol