Quick Hit Matthew Blake Wednesday September 26th, 2012, 6:55pm

Lawmakers, Advocates Make Human Rights Case To Close Tamms

With the fate of Tamms supermax prison at an impasse, those who support its closure made the case today that the facility must shut down on human rights grounds.

Advocates with the Tamms Year Ten coalition spoke grimly of the 23-hour daily solitary confinement experienced by inmates who are fed through slots in cell doors and often deal with sensory deprivation. Speakers noted that both Amnesty International and the ACLU condemn the prison for violating international human rights agreements.

“This is a moral issue,” declared U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Chicago).

“We’re spending $26 million a year to keep men locked up in solitary confinement and we don’t have enough money to fund the state’s share of health care,” Davis said.

The congressman was joined by Renee Ferguson, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Chicago), and Patricia Van Pelt Watkins, a Democrat running unopposed for the 5th district state senate seat, in support the facility's closure.

These human rights arguments add another dimension to an already complex and emotional dispute.

In June, Gov. Pat Quinn ordered Tamms to be closed on August 31, even though the Illinois General Assembly appropriated the $26.3 million needed to keep the facility open. But AFSCME Council 31, which represents 302 corrections employees at Tamms, sued the state on August 3 to reverse the closing of Tamms and six other corrections and juvenile justice facilities.

A circuit court judge issued a temporary restraining order on closing each of these facilities after an arbitrator determined that Quinn did not properly negotiate with AFSCME. An appellate court denied Quinn’s motion to throw out the restraining order.

Quinn budget spokesman Abdon Pallasch says the state is both still litigating the restraining order and bargaining with AFSMCE. According to Pallasch, the state cannot schedule a revised Tamms closing date until “there is a green light from a judge.”

Quinn has publicly said little about the human rights objections to Tamms, instead talking describling the prison as being underutilized and overly expensive. According to Illinois Department of Corrections figures, Tamm can hold up to 753 inmates, but it currently houses just 248.

Advocates nonetheless praise the governor. “Thank you Governor Quinn,” said Tamms Year Ten organizer Laurie Jo Reynolds at today’s press conference. “It takes guts to close prisons and most governors lack guts.”

Rush spokeswoman Ferguson praised Quinn for helping to end “the practice of solitary confinement in America.” Ferguson noted that the governor promised all 302 Tamms employees positions “at other prisons that are currently understaffed.”

But AFSCME contends that closing Tamms poses a danger to their employees regardless of whether they relocate to take jobs at other prisons.

In their lawsuit, the union points out that inmates are placed at Tamms because they often have a history of prison violence. According to the lawsuit, the planned move of Tamms prisoners to Pontiac maximum-security prison will make the Pontiac facility even more overcrowded and “a much more dangerous place to work.”

AFSCME is also upset with Quinn for attempting to reverse the restraining order instead of simply meeting at the bargaining table.

The conflict over Tamms overshadows an overall facility-closing plan that impacts hundreds of additional corrections employees and inmates.

Prison reform advocates have kept most of their focus on Tamms as opposed to the additional facility closings. Some, such as John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, are sympathetic to AFSCME's position that other closures, such as the Dwight women’s prison, would dangerously strain an already overcrowded system.

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