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Thursday, May 10, 2012 03:43 am

Lawmakers vote to keep supermax prison open

Panel’s 3-7 vote against Tamms closure isn’t final word

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A panel of state lawmakers voted last week to keep the state’s “supermax” prison open, but the costly facility’s ultimate fate rests with the governor.

The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) met on May 1 to vote on several facility closures meant to save the state millions of dollars. Among the facilities on the chopping block is the supermaximum security Tamms Correctional Center, located at Tamms in southern Illinois. Advocates of the closure call it the state’s most costly prison and one that houses human rights violations, while opponents say closing the prison would put prison guards and the public safety at risk.

COGFA voted 3-7 against recommending the closure of Tamms, with lawmakers’ votes falling largely along party lines. All six Republican legislators on the panel – including Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, voted against closing Tamms. The lone Democrat to vote against the closure was Sen. Michael Frerichs, D-Champaign, whose district contains the Danville Correctional Center.

Tamms opened in March 1998 to house inmates deemed too dangerous for the general prison population. Designed to hold 700 inmates, the prison holds about 200 inmates in its maximum security unit and about 200 more in its minimum security unit. The Illinois Department of Corrections estimates it costs the state about $62,000 per year to house each inmate at Tamms, though outside groups have put the cost as high as $90,000 once mental health care is factored in.

That’s because inmates in the maximum security unit stay on lockdown 23 hours a day in small cells with little to no human contact. Reports of inmates becoming severely mentally ill at Tamms are common, with some even eating their own flesh, mutilating their bodies and attempting suicide. Former IDOC director Michael Randle began implementing reforms to address concerns about human rights issues at Tamms, reforms which IDOC says it has continued even after Randle’s departure.

The closure proposal came about when Gov. Pat Quinn asked state agencies to find ways to cut expenditures. As part of its self-determined cuts, IDOC proposed closing Tamms.

Before last week’s vote, the panel heard testimony from advocates on both sides of the closure debate. Some of the testimony in favor of closing Tamms was emotionally charged.

“My son has been there for 12 years and he has started cutting himself since he has been there,” said Brenda Smith, whose son is serving time at Tamms. “I will never understand why these legislators want to damage people in state custody. Right now, they have to answer to the taxpayers. Later, they will answer to God.”

In an advisory opinion released after the vote, COGFA cited the direct loss of 295 jobs if Tamms is closed, with another 43 supporting jobs indirectly lost in the community.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31 opposes closing Tamms, saying the prison operates as a “safety system valve” to isolate the most dangerous offenders.

“Only the most violent and disruptive inmates, those who pose the greatest risk to security, are placed at Tamms C-MAX,” AFSCME says in an informational bulletin on its website. “The gradual decline in population at Tamms over the past decade is an indication that the facility is meeting one of its core goals: serving as a deterrent to bad behavior at other prisons.”

But the Tamms Year Ten reform group scoffs at the claim that only the “worst of the worst” are sent to Tamms.

“It is disappointing that AFSCME is employing a scare campaign to try to keep Tamms open,” said Laurie Jo Reynolds, a Tamms Year Ten organizer. “Illinois can’t afford fear-based policies and we can’t live in the past. We can’t afford a supermax, and we don’t need one.”

While the panel’s vote is a required part of the closure process for state facilities, its decision isn’t binding. Quinn has the final say, and he has said he supports closing Tamms.

[CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said the full General Assembly must approve facility closures.  That was incorrect and has been removed from the story.]


Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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