Biopolitics and the Supermax: Controlled and Uncontrolled Rhetoric Surrounding Tamms Prison
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“Biopolitics and the Supermax: Controlled and Uncontrolled Rhetoric Surrounding Tamms Prison,” presents a study of the material/rhetorical origins of Tamms Closed-Maximum Security prison in Illinois, and the activism that mobilized against it. As a supermax prison, Tamms was dedicated entirely to indefinite solitary confinement. Having been built to house the so-called “worst of the worst,” it was meant to function as a “prison inside the prison” in Illinois, to serve as added punishment for those who committed crimes while incarcerated. As critics pointed out, however, the prison was not strictly used for this purpose: many Tamms prisoners had no previous disciplinary tickets; there was no due process for being sent, and there was no way of earning one’s way out; and many who were sent to Tamms suffered from severe mental illness, and/or deteriorated psychologically in the context of prolonged social isolation. For these reasons, the prison was dogged by protest from its inception in 1998, until it was closed in 2013. This dissertation’s rhetorical-ethnographic study of the prison and its activism grew out of participant-observation with a group that originally mobilized in order to exchange letters with the supermax prisoners. The group soon broadened the scope of its project: families of prisoners, former prisoners, lawyers, community members, and legislators organized to push for reform of the prison. These efforts eventually contributed to closing the prison altogether. In tracing the potency of rhetoric on both sides of the issue, the dissertation highlights non-deliberative rhetoric, such as the body rhetoric of supermax prisoners themselves, many of whom engaged in extreme acts of self-mutilation at Tamms. The dissertation also argues that the affective, artistic activism involved in the campaign opened a space in which advantageous forces might coalesce. Rather than drawing a stark line between deliberative and non-deliberative activist rhetoric, the dissertation posits a third rhetorical category, namely, creating a space in which uncontrolled forces could contribute to desirable outcomes. Similarly, the dissertation also treats the incoherence of state officials who supported the prison as organic, and therefore open to the emergence of unlooked-for coalitions and avenues of change.
Tamms Year Ten