Quick Hit Matthew Blake Tuesday June 26th, 2012, 2:42pm

Controversial Tamms Closure A Triumph For Prison Reformers

Governor Pat Quinn’s decision to shutter Tamms Correctional Center, effective August 31, in order to save money is a landmark victory for prison reform advocates who spent a decade fighting to close the facility that has held inmates for years in 24-hour solitary confinement.

“We are ending the era of solitary confinement,” says Laurie Jo Reynolds, an organizer with the Tamms Year Ten coalition, which ran a legislative campaign to close the prison. Reynolds noted that other states, such as Mississippi and Maine, also recently shut down solitary confinement facilities and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) conducted a Senate hearing last week on solitary confinement.

But Quinn’s unilateral action goes against the wishes of the Illinois General Assembly. It also further alienates the governor from AFSCME Council 31, the union representing many of the state's public employees. The union is steadfastly against the closings and other Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) shut downs, even though the governor's office says the moves will result in no public employee layoffs.

"Tamms is the safety valve for the entire prison system, and its closure would make every prison more dangerous," says AFSCME Council 31 spokesman Anders Lindall. He vowed that AFSCME would work with "legislators of both parties" to override Quinn's action, perhaps in the state's fall veto session.

Quinn’s proposed fiscal year budget included a plan to close Tamms, which holds about 200 inmates and costs about $26.2 million a year to operate.

The General Assembly passed a budget last month for fiscal year 2013, which begins July 1, that outlines a transition of Tamms from a supermax facility to medium-security prison. The budget followed a bipartisan legislative commission recommending Tamms stay open due to the economic activity it generates and the IDOC's lack of an overall prison consolidation plan.

Quinn will use his power to not save the fund set aside by lawmakers for Tamms, and has opted to instead close the prison as well as several other corrections and health facilities. The governor couched the plan in his February budget address as a cost-saving move: Quinn budget spokeswoman Kelly Kraft estimates the state will save $100 million each year from the facility closings.

Prison reform advocates such as John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, acknowledge that Tamms closed because, “The facility is very expensive to run and Illinois is out of money.”

But Maki hopes the closing sparks a broader move toward an improved prison system that, for example, provides adequate mental health treatment to inmates.

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) plans to relocate Tamms inmates to maximum-security facilities in Pontiac and Menard.

Meanwhile, AFSCME Local 31 has joined downstate legislators State Sen. Gary Forby (D-Benton) and State Rep. Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg) in condemning the move. AFSCME is already tangling with Quinn over his plan to close the Tinley Park Mental Health Center along with the larger issue of cuts to public employee pensions.

Kraft says that no employees from Tamms or other IDOC facilities will be let go: Every person who got a layoff notice will be offered another job within the department, Kraft says.

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