My Connection To Two Artists Who Are Currently Incarcerated At Tamms Correctional Center (CMAX) In Deep Southern Illinois And The Conditions Under Which They Live

I didn't know that Tamms Correctional Center existed until my friend Lois Hayward called me to ask if I would be one of the judges for a prison art contest for inmates at Tamms. It turned out that I live only thirty miles or so from this bizarre correctional facility.

First, I will provide background on Tamms CMAX. CMAX means Closed Maximum Security Unit. It opened in 1998. Tamms alleledgely houses “the most disruptive and violent inmates, deemed unsafe to house in a general prison population.” Prison officials initially claimed that the longest stay at Tamms for most prisoners would be no longer than one year to eighteen months. After a year of “correction” living under almost total sensory deprivation, they would be released back into a general population. However, more than eleven years later many of the prisoners that were sent to Tamms on the day it opened are still there.

It was about five years ago when I responded to Lois's call to be a judge of the art contest. It came to pass that a rich collection of art work done by inmates of Tamms was presented to me, as one of seven judges. My credentials to do this were that I had taught art at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale for thirty years and am a practicing artist with an international exhibition record. (see the other sections of this website <>.) After I studied the inmate's work I was moved to write individual responses to the many winners. I was amazed by the quality of the art. The sort of response I made was not critical but intended to encourage the inmates receiving awards to continue their work, to correspond with me and to send me their art for a sympathetic response if they wished. Small cash awards and lots of Honorable Mentions were spread around so as to include as many entrants as possible. Even though the cash rewards were small, it was a very big deal for the men.

The first prize winner was Kilsey Shearrill. He was the unanimous choice of the seven judges, who judged independently of each other. Of all the people I wrote to only a few wrote back and asked if they could continue to correspond with me and show me their new work. I told them that I would like to continue. The only person who really carried through was Kilsey. We continued our correspondence and after several months I felt comfortable enough to visit. I had gone with Lois to the prison once so I knew what a terrible black hole it was. It's still an indescribable edifice. Tamms Correctional Center has no definable shape or form. To me it exists as a bestial dark edifice of repression. Jean and I have been going every month and we get the same sinking feeling every time.

Only the contact with Kilsey personally, through the thick glass of the visit cell, with a inadequate, tinny intercom with which to communicate, buoys us up and gives us the courage to visit. Over the years, Kilsey has become, as he signs himself, “your black son.” I don't regard him as a student of mine as much as a friend, fellow artist and collaborator. I rank him as one of the five best draughtmen. I have come across in my thirty year career teaching drawing and painting in the Art Department at Southern Illinois University. From the first, when he started sending me his drawings, I've wondered whether I should lay on my usual compositional advice, my “Towards Better Composition...”

I naively thought it might ruin him since he seemed to intuit and utilize in his drawings many of the same compositional techniques what I had worked out whilst painting and teaching in academia for lo these many years. He considered everything I revealed to him and perhaps even slowly integrated some of it into his own work. I can say that I certainly learned as much from him as he learned from me. He has actually become my collaborator:

I had a lot of problems with a section of my painting Holy Babel. I was driven to depict Jesus morphing into a dove. The visual records of my efforts with this charged symbol are on my website <>, Holy Babel. Kilsey's response to my ongoing struggle was to make drawings based on the photos of my latest efforts. He also recommended that I look at certain comic books handle explosions since this was a major theme in my painting. I looked, and this advice helped.

The inmates at Tamms are not allowed any art materials whatsoever. They are allowed only the middle, the floppy middle part of a ballpoint pen as their tool. There is no option to buy real drawing paper. They are faced with a very limited selection of the lowest quality paper from the rip-off commissary. They have a choice of 8 1/2”x 11”lined paper and 8 ½” x 11” plain white paper and they can buy brownish yellow colored commercial envelopes with the clasp removed. (it could be dangerous). With that single writing tool, the frustratingly floppy middle of a ball point pen, Kilsey and the others produce their marvelous drawings.

They milk the ink out of the pen's reservoir into a non-porous container and so amass a usable quantity of ink. It takes the ink supply of many pens to do this. A makeshift brush consists of toilet paper wrapped around the tip of the pen. This “brush” is then dipped in the ink “well” to make washes. Kilsey does not use color, but quite a full range of color is used by some of the inmate artists. They derive this color from certain edibles which are ingeniously converted into useable washes. So much for “art materials.”

It is important to point out that inmates at Tamms are not there because of their original sentences. They are sent there as a result of alleged disruptive activity when they were in a GP (general population) prison. Hitting a guard, disruptive behavior, fomenting gang activity are examples of some of the reasons to remove a prisoner to Tamms.

“This is a place designed to make sane people crazy,” Kilsey has often told us. Profoundly psychologically disturbed inmates are housed among those who are trying to hold on to their shreds of sanity. The so called “psychological help” that the website of the IDOC (Illinois Department of Corrections) puts forth is a blatant fiction. Inmates simply do not get significant help. These profoundly disturbed inmates should be removed to a proper facility, segregated from those who are trying to do deep time in a positive way, such as reading, writing or drawing or allowed some controlled time out of solitary, allowed to socialize.

One of the shocking realities of the operating structure at Tamms is the fact that the original sentence of an inmate in many cases terminates whilst they are incarcerated at Tamms. This means that they move immediately from their years in solitary confinement to “freedom,” i.e. the streets. While at Tamms, this inmate would have received no vocational training, no counseling of significance to ensure that the transition to release might prove successful. In short, no rehabilitation. And very little money or clothing to get back home with, usually to the streets of Chicago or it's “burbs.” When the original sentence runs out, it s a kick in the ass out into the streets., into polite society, into our midst, without a fair thee well..

Many inmates who are now at Tamms may well have committed heinous crimes. There are many documented cases, however, of a person's journey to a prolonged stay at Tamms as the result of nothing more than a contested traffic stop. Something like this: The police make a routine traffic stop. The alleged violator is verbally and /or physically abusive, according to the police, so in addition to the minor traffic violation, resisting arrest, obstructing justice, drug paraphernalia perhaps are some of the charges that are added. The violator continues to be disruptive while incarcerated in the city jail. He is then removed to a county facility. The pattern of fighting and attacking guards in a state prison finally results in this very obviously psychologically disturbed individual in becoming incarcerated at Tamms. A similar scenario is the case documented in The Belleville ( Illinois ) News Democrat, among a series of excellent articles entitled “Trapped In Tamms,” in October, 2010, of the hapless Anthony Gay, who is serving 99 years in solitary confinement after his “initial conviction for punching another youth and stealing his hat and a dollar bill.”

Reform is hard to come by at Tamms. I have seen no improvement at all in conditions, since I've been visiting Kilsey for the past six years or so. A Federal judge recently ruled that inmates are entitled to hearings on their status. I have called these hearings nothing more than a kangaroo court, rigged in favor of the prison, although it may be true that a few more inmates are being moved out of Tamms into a GP prison then before this ruling. The most significant move towards reform was when Governor Pat Quinn recruited Michael Randle to head IDOC. Mr. Randle had been the Deputy Director of the Ohio prison system. In September 2009 Mr. Randle visited Tamms and this visit resulted in a Ten Point Plan of reforms. Two of the most crucial points were that fair and speedy hearings be held to determine the inmate's eligibility for removal to a GP facility and two, to remove the worst psychiatric inmates to a proper facility. There were other positive recommendations, such as limited use of telephones. But before any of the Ten Points could be implemented, and before Randle was up for confirmation by the legislature, he was forced to resign in the scandal alleging that he was responsible for the early release of prisoners who committed violent crimes after their release. With the fall of Randle came the demise of the Ten Point Plan. The extraordinary graphic work of Kilsey Shearrill and Jorge Amaya which I introduce now was done under the conditions I have been describing. There is something to ponder in the idea that the artist or other creative people need solitude in order to hatch their best work. And that the extreme pressure that a place like Tamms exerts occasionally produces artistic diamonds such as we see here.

I have never met Jorge. I have corresponded with him but he declined my offer to visit because at the time he could only have one visit a month and his parents were coming. Kilsey started to talk about “this l'il dude, George” who had a wonderful “cross hatching technique.” Kilsey wished to adapt this technique and he wanted me to see the great work which I have included at the end of this gallery of pictures. This is Jorge's Amaya's world view. I have included in these notes some excerpts from my letters to Jorge. I realized, as I was working on Holy Babel that his drawing had a powerful influence on how I composed it. He stopped writing after our first exchange of letters and from what I can gather, is incommunicado, in the throes of a very deep depression, alone in his cell.

Larry Bernstein
June 25th, 2011
Carbondale, IL