Westerfer v. Snyder

In 2013, Uptown People's Law Center, in conjunction with attorneys from DLA Piper US LLP, successfully led the fight to close Tamms Supermax Prison, located in Tamms, Illinois. Our class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 32 prisoners seeking injunctive relief. 

Tamms was a "supermax" opened in 1998 to house 500 inmates in round-the-clock solitary confinement. Tamms was populated by men who had sued the Department, filed grievances, and otherwise complained about illegal conduct by prison officials—wardens were looking for a way to get rid of these headaches. When inmates were transferred there they weren't told why or for how long, clearly violating their Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process rights. Though the public had been promised that no one would be kept at Tamms for more than a year, some of the men spent more than 10 years in complete and total solitary confinement. 

On July 20, 2010, the District Court issued its opinion, finding that every prisoner who had been transferred to Tamms since it opened had been denied a hearing which complied with the minimum requirements of due process. The court ordered that every man be given a hearing, and a written explanation of the reason he was sent to Tamms. Hearings were held, and many of the men who had spent years at Tamms were finally transferred out. These hearings also forced the Department to reexamine who was at Tamms, and why they were still there. The answer turned out to be that most did not need to be at Tamms at all.

In 2012, when Governor Quinn announced his budget for the coming year—and included no money to operate Tamms. The supermax prison closed within the year!


Attorneys: Alan Mills (Uptown People's Law Center), Raj N. Shah, Rohan C. Shetty, Tomas Mikel Thompson, Lawrence A. Wojcik (DLA Piper US LLP)

Date Filed: May 5, 2006

Court: U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois

Judge: District Judge G. Patrick Murphy

Status: Closed

Case Number: 00 C 00162


Keramet Reiter has uncovered what should be a national scandal in her new book, 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement. Over the last two decades, Pelican Bay, California’s notoriously brutal supermax prison, has housed thousands of people who are locked in solitary cells, 23 hours a day, for years.

"Tamms, which opened in 1998, cost more than $60 million to build, but Illinois got state-of-the-art solitary confinement for its money. Tamms prisoners were housed in one-man concrete cells, nine feet by fifteen feet, furnished with a toilet, sink, stainless-steel mirror, concrete-slab desk, and a concrete bunk with a mattress. Through a window at the top of one of the nine-foot-high walls, a prisoner could see a sliver of sky. Meals were delivered on a plastic tray through a small chuckhole in the steel-mesh door."

"Tamms officially closes its doors today, first and foremost because the men sent there did not disappear. Rather than buckle under the extreme psychological pressure of solitary confinement, they banded together, fought back, and reached out and educated and organized their families and friends."

"Alan Mills is the Legal Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, Illinois. The Center has been involved in ongoing litigation on behalf of Illinois prisoners challenging the procedures used to send inmates to Tamms, the state’s supermax facility. Shortly after Illinois Governor announced plans to close Tamms, he spoke with Solitary Watch about the path that led him to prisoner’s rights work and the Tamms litigation."

"Supermax prisons have been a growth industry in the United States since at least 1989, when California opened its notorious lockup at Pelican Bay. Today, at least 44 states and the federal government maintain supermax prisons where upwards of 25,000 inmates are confined to small cells 23/7. Despite the high cost of solitary confinement and a growing movement that denounces this kind of long-term isolation as a form of torture, supermax prisons just keep on opening. They rarely ever close."

  • Kenneth & Harle Montgomery Foundation