On Saturday, June 6, 2009 in Chicago, local artists partnered with the Tamms Year Ten coalition to protest state-sanctioned torture at the supermax prison in Southern Illinois. And they did it with mud.
Artists from Chicago and Milwaukee engaged in a non-destructive type of public messaging called “mud-stenciling.” More than 30 volunteers stenciled their message “End Torture in Illinois” in the afternoon on walls and sidewalks around the city offering fact-sheets about TAMMS supermax prison to curious pedestrians. The teams hit spots such as Navy Pier, The Chicago Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Jane Adams Hull House, Hyde Park Art Center, the Logan Square skate park, the Chicago Zoo, DePaul University, as well as sidewalks, underpass walls, and numerous other locations.
Mud as a medium is especially sensible for artists and activists who want to work outdoors with a non-toxic substance to reach a large public audience. Moreover, city governments and law enforcement agencies have little precedence in dealing with mud stencils so there is a gray area on whether it is legal or not. For if it is illegal, is it also illegal for kids to write with chalk on the sidewalk? Is it illegal to build a snowman in a park or for dirt from ones garden to touch the sidewalk? And, is it illegal to stencil with mud when the rain will wash it off? That said, none of the 30 volunteers who mud stenciled on June 6th in Chicago were arrested or even questioned by the police.
Jesse Graves, a Milwaukee based artist who is gaining international attention for his street art, developed the mud stenciling technique and took part in the Chicago action. “I started stenciling with mud because I wanted to put environmental messages in public spaces, so it would not make sense to use a toxic material like spray paint,” said Graves. “I am using the earth, the most basic substance, to express my concerns regarding the state of the environment I am living in. I am using what sustains us to offer ideas on how we can sustain ourselves.”
Nicolas Lampert, a member of the Justseeds Radical Artists cooperative (www.justseeds.org), who helped coordinate the effort, views it as a tactical media campaign. “People first will be drawn to the stencils themselves, the medium, but it is our hope that a larger conversation evolves about Tamms and how people can get involved,” said Lampert, who helped cut the 6 foot by 9 foot stencils out of rolls of roofing paper. He feels the partnership with the Tamms Year Ten campaign is a needed collaboration: “In my view, activist movements need art, and artists need to be part of activist movements. A lot of artists do political art, but this is actually a case where artists can be part of a social justice movement itself.”
The action was designed to draw attention to the supermax prison in Illinois. Which has become the target of scrutiny by press, legislators, and even Governor Quinn, who appointed a new IDOC director last month with the top priority of reviewing the conditions at Tamms.
Prisoners at the supermax are held in permanent solitary confinement, and never leave their cell except to shower or exercise alone in a concrete pen. Their is no communal activity, no contact visits, no phone calls, an no educational or rehabilitative programming. Suicide attempts, self-mutilation, and other psychotic symptoms are common at Tamms, and are an expected consequence of long-term isolation, which can induce or worsen mental illness. Prisoners often hear nothing but constant screaming or banging and complain about the smell of feces, smeared on cells by mentally ill prisoners. The supermax was designed to be a short-term shock-treatment, but one-third of prisoners have been held indefinitely since the prison opened over ten years ago.
Tamms Year Ten, a coalition of over 70 groups throughout Illinois, initiated the campaign to end torture at the supermax last year and worked with Illinois lawmakers to introduce HB2633 that would establish accountability at the prison and prohibit mentally ill people from being held there. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called on the Illinois Department of Corrections and Governor Quinn to alleviate conditions at the prison immediately.
Laurie Jo Reynolds a Tamms Year Ten organizer, who participated in the mud stencil action said, “The mud-stencils help facilitate dialogues about Tamms with people all over the city.” She reported that people were surprised to see the word torture being used in connection with the state of Illinois. “Many people don’t realize that our supermax is more isolating than Guantanamo Bay, where identical treatment has been judged by Attorney General Eric Holder to be too isolating for prisoner safety,” Reynolds explained. All prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are now provided social interaction and phone calls, in compliance with the humane-treatment requirements of the Geneva Convention. She added, “Most people agree that psychological torture can’t be justified for American prisoners of war, or for detainees at Guantanamo, and it can’t be justified for people in custody in Illinois.”
Nationally, supermaxes are on the decline with some closing or converting to regular maximum security prisons due to the unwanted consequences of long-term isolation, as well as the high cost of supermax prisons. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections, the average annual cost of housing a prisoner at Tamms is about $60,000, two to three times as much as any other adult prison on Illinois.
Tamms Year Ten: http://www.yearten.org/
Jesse Graves: http://mudstencils.com/
More photos, video, and articles will be posted over the coming weeks.