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Photo Requests from Solitary

Tamms supermax is a prison in Southern Illinois designed for solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. Men never leave their cell except to shower or exercise alone in a concrete pen. Meals are pushed through a slot in the cell door. There are no jobs, communal activities, or contact visits. Suicide attempts, self-mutilation, psychosis, and serious mental disorders are common at Tamms, and are an expected consequence of long-term isolation.

The U.N. Committee Against Torture considers such conditions to be cruel, inhuman, and degrading, and when the isolation is indefinite—as at Tamms—to be form of torture. Last year, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez called for a global ban on solitary confinement in excess of 15 days. This year, Governor Pat Quinn announced his plans to shut down the prison, but the closure has been halted because of lawsuits by the guard's union AFSCME.

Tamms Year Ten is a grassroots coalition formed in 2008 to persuade Illinois legislators and the governor to reform or close Tamms supermax prison. Tamms Year Ten asked the men housed at Tamms supermax prison—all of whom have been in isolation for years without human contact—to request a photograph of anything in the world, real or imagined.

The requests include: a brown and white "warmblood" horse rearing in weather cold enough to see its breath; the Masonic temple in Washington, D.C.; what's left of the Robert Taylor Homes; a heartsick clown with a feather pen; one prisoner's mother in front of a mansion with money and a Hummer; Michelle Obama planting vegetables in the White House garden; any Muslim mosque or Moorish Science Temple in Chicago, Mecca, or Africa; and fallen autumn leaves.

In this event, participating photographers discuss their experience making the photos. Men formerly in Tamms, the family members of current inmates, and other special guests are on hand to respond to the project. The conversation is facilitated by SAIC photography professor Claire Pentecost.

Photo Requests From Solitary is supported by the Sullivan Galleries at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where the exhibit "Tamms Year Ten Campaign Office" is on display and in action. TY10 also received an Open Society Documentary Photography Audience Engagement Grant to expand this project to supermaxes in California and Virginia, in partnership with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

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