The United Nations is considering investigating the Tamms supermax prison to determine if its use of solitary confinement violates the international definition of torture. Juan Mendez, the torture investigator for the U.N., says he will have to cooperate with the U.S. State Department before investigating.
“We are processing the information we got, but until then it becomes confidential until the State Department responds,” Mendez says. “It will take weeks at least until I am able to say anything further than what I am saying now.”
Mendez has publicly stated that solitary confinement in excess of 15 days could be defined as torture. Some prisoners in Tamms have been there since the facility opened in 1998. Prisoners in Tamms are in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day with an hour for exercise.
Jean Snyder of Tamms Year Ten, the anti-Tamms group that requested the investigation, says she spoke with Mendez in person and he expressed interest in the case. She says his decision to investigate hinges on Tamms’ political fate. The prison was targeted to be closed during the budget process this year, but the state now plans to convert it into a medium-security prison.
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Snyder says there is almost no chance the prison could be converted and it would be medium-security in name only. “It is completely a pipe dream to think you could take this facility that was designed by proud architects to be a facility for isolation and turn it into one that has some reasonable amount of contact,” Snyder says.
Snyder says the most severe consequence of a UN investigation would be condemnation.
John Maki, director of the prison reform group the John Howard Association, says some people think the U.N. should leave the U.S. alone and investigate more severe instances of torture in the world, but he says the U.S. is a leader in human rights and that means Illinois should be too.
“We are a mix of all America and I think it’s important for us to lead on this issue,” Maki says. “Make hard decisions and look at what we’ve done and make sure that what we do conforms with the most rigorous standard.”
The governor’s office was not aware of the situation.