Watchdog group supports Tamms' closing

2012-05-22T01:30:00Z Watchdog group supports Tamms' closingBy KURT ERICKSON -- H&R Springfield Bureau Chief Herald-Review.com

SPRINGFIELD — A prison watchdog group that has sometimes criticized Gov. Pat Quinn’s operation of the state prison system is backing the governor’s plan to shutter the Tamms Correctional Center.

In a 42-page report released today, the Chicago-based John Howard Association said the conditions for prisoners at the so-called “supermax” facility in Southern Illinois make it a worthy candidate for closure.

Key to the group’s argument, which was based on visits to the 14-year-old facility where investigators spoke with inmates and prison staff members, were concerns about the effects of long-term isolation on the mental health of prisoners.

“By closing Tamms, Illinois will join a growing consensus and take a critical step toward reforming the state’s prison system to the benefit of public safety, security and the state’s fiscal health,” the report notes.

As part of Quinn’s budget plan, Tamms would close in late August in an attempt to save about $26 million. Most of the nearly 200 maximum-security inmates at the Alexander County lock-up would be shipped to Pontiac Correctional Center in Livingston County.

“Pontiac has the available bed space and is a maximum security facility equipped to handle the security needs of these offenders,” said Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano.

A similar number of minimum-security prisoners at Tamms would be distributed to other minimum-security facilities. The closure would result in the layoff of 300 employees in a county where unemployment hovers at about 11 percent.

A panel of lawmakers earlier issued a non-binding recommendation opposing the closure of the prison, which was designed for inmates who had attacked guards or fellow inmates or who needed to be separated from the general population because they were gang leaders.

Inmates serve most of their time in single cells, isolated from other inmates and prison staff. They typically can shower once per week and go the commissary once per week.

In its report, the association describes an interview with one mentally distressed prisoner who was shackled to a stool and cuffed with his hands behind his back.

“His body and neck were contorted into stiff, unnatural positions, and he writhed around and shook his head from side to side. He spoke in an extremely loud voice and seemed unable to modulate his volume, tone, or affect,” the report notes.

The report also describes examples of prisoners mutilating themselves and throwing feces and urine in their cells.

“Inmates spoke of cutting and self-mutilation as ways to relieve a buildup of pressure and to feel ‘real’ again,” the report notes.

“A constant refrain heard from inmates was that they wanted to ‘hold on’ but did not know how much longer they could take it,” the report added.

While the organization supports closing Tamms, executive director John Maki said the group is opposed to Quinn’s plan to close the all-female Dwight Correctional Center and six adult transition centers, including facilities in Decatur and Carbondale.

Lawmakers currently are trying to craft a spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. State Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, and state Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, who represent Tamms, are fighting to keep the prison open.

A tentative budget proposal unveiled by Senate Democrats Monday contains money to keep Tamms operating.

“At the end of the day, I feel like there is still a chance,” Phelps said Monday.

kurt.erickson@lee.net|782-4043

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