SPRINGFIELD – Despite overcrowding within the state's sprawling prison system, there appears to be little support for reopening the now-empty super-maximum security prison in Tamms.
The prison, built to house up to 500 of the state's most violent inmates, has been empty since January 2013, after former Gov. Pat Quinn ordered the closure of dozens of state facilities to cut the state budget. An adjacent 200-bed minimum security unit work camp also was idled.
Freshman state Rep. Terri Bryant, a Murphysboro Republican, has been pushing lawmakers to join her in urging Gov. Bruce Rauner to reopen the facility at the southern tip of Illinois.
"I think there is a pressure building within all of the facilities that has to be relieved somehow. I think that's only going to be relived by either kicking inmates out or creating some more bed space," Bryant said in a recent interview.
But, a nonbinding resolution sponsored by Bryant endorsing the opening has gone nowhere in the General Assembly as lawmakers head into the final two weeks of the spring legislative session.
The state's prison population hovers near 48,000 inmates in facilities built to house 32,000. Rauner, who took office in January, has appointed a special panel to find a way to reduce the inmate population by 25 percent over the next decade.
That study, as well as longstanding concerns about the treatment of Tamms prisoners, have become major roadblocks in the push to reopen all or part of the Alexander County lockup.
While Quinn said the closure was a money-saving venture, the decision also was clearly linked to sentiment against the tough conditions at the prison. Quinn allies in Chicago were among those who were calling for its closure regardless of the savings because inmates living in solitary confinement were showing signs of mental health issues.
The John Howard Association, a well-respected prison watchdog group, came out in support of closing Tamms because of what it considered inhumane conditions.
But some who were instrumental in the building and operation of Tamms over the years maintain that it was an essential component in keeping the rest of the prison system safe for guards and inmates. The intention was to send prisoners to Tamms for acting up behind bars, not because of their offenses that sent them to prison in the first place.
Gov. Jim Edgar said in a recent interview that he thought building the prison was the right decision to ensure safety. He gave the green light to build it on the heels of a study calling for a "supermax" facility to house troublemakers and deter others from acting out for fear of being sent there.
"I initially had reservations," Edgar said. "We were basically broke at the time, and I didn't want to spend the money. I was finally convinced by the corrections people that it would probably save us money in the long run because it would make the other prisons much safer and free them to do a better job of trying to rehabilitate inmates."
Edgar added: "The guards felt very strongly that this was needed, too. That's why we built it."
Challenges were later raised that inmates were sent to Tamms and kept for years, though it was originally designed to house them temporarily and release them to less restrictive prisons once their behavior was corrected.
But Edgar said he still believes he made the right call in the early 1990s to invest tens of millions of dollars into building it. Gov. George Ryan, who followed him in office, also said recently that the prison was helpful in controlling gang leaders who he said had taken over state prisons.
Edgar called Quinn's decision to close the prison "penny wise and pound foolish."
Other prisons affected by Quinn's actions included the Dwight Correctional Center. The all-female facility was shuttered, and most of its inmates were relocated to Logan Correctional Center.
State Rep. Jason Barickman, a Bloomington Republican who represents the Dwight area, is not calling on his colleagues to support a resolution in support of reopening Dwight.
Rather, he's taking a more statewide approach to dealing with Illinois' inventory of unused facilities.
"I've encouraged the governor to adopt a long-term facilities plan that finds a way to utilize closed properties, either by using them for other purposes or making them available to be used by others," Barickman said.
Dwight currently serves as a repository for state records. File cabinets line an old gymnasium. But, unlike its days as a prison employing hundreds of area workers, only three people now work within the fences.
Meanwhile, union officials are attempting to rebrand the Tamms prison by renaming it the Alexander County Correctional Center.
Eddie Caumiant, Southern Illinois regional director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said that name would be more reflective of the fact that the prison, when it was open, provided an economic benefit to the entire county, not just the village of Tamms.
But the renaming also is clearly a strategic effort to generate political support by moving past the negative connotation many have about the Tamms Correctional Center.
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Aware there is no political appetite to do so, Bryant said she's not interested in reopening a "supermax." She's also backed off the idea of reopening the facility with a partial "segregation unit." Bryant said the goal is to seek its reopening and let officials with the Department of Corrections determine its best use.
In addition to the concerns about how inmates were treated, the facility, when it was operational, was hugely expensive. There was a guard for roughly every two inmates. The state was spending in excess of $60,000 per inmate at Tamms, more than three times the average cost of housing an inmate in Illinois, according to information compiled by the Illinois auditor general.
Laurie Jo Reynolds, director of the Tamms Year 10 committee that sought to close the facility, said there remains strong opposition to reopening the prison. She said the cost of retrofitting and restaffing the facility at a time when the state is cutting spending would be a tough vote for a lawmaker.
"How is it going to make a legislator look to bring back a financial boondoggle while supporting these other cuts?" Reynolds said.
She said the same scenario applies to Rauner.
She said the same scenario applies to Rauner.
"It's hard to fathom a Republican governor who ran on the platform of cutting wasteful spending giving in to legislators who want an exorbitantly expensive prison," Reynolds said.
Even if the prison were to be repurposed, it would take a hefty investment. Corrections records show that much of the contents of the prison were hauled to facilities elsewhere in the month after its closure.
In addition, Reynolds said Rauner is working to reduce the prison population, meaning the need for additional space may be short-lived.
"I think other legislators haven't signed on because it defies the governor's bipartisan efforts to reduce the prison population," Reynolds said.
Rauner's office said Tamms isn't on the radar screen this year.
"We have not budgeted to reopen Tamms as a prison or treatment center in the coming fiscal year," spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said.
State Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, said Bryant's push is unlikely to advance in the Democrat-controlled House.
"I can appreciate that she's someone who is from the area, and she campaigned on it," Davis said. "But we're in tough budgetary times; reopening a prison is not in the cards."
Corrections currently is facing a court order to spend more than $60 million to upgrade services for mentally ill prisoners.
Another lawsuit by prisoners at the minimum-security prison in Vienna could result in Corrections being forced to spend money on upgrades.
And, during a recent tour of the Pontiac Correctional Center, Warden Randy Pfister said buildings dating to the 1800s need new roofs, wall supports and other repairs.
Bryant says she's retooling the resolution in hopes of finding support to open a 200-bed work camp that is adjacent to the main prison building.
Prisoners at the minimum-security unit helped with chores around town, including mowing and stacking sandbags in Cairo during a flood. The work camp rarely was mentioned in the political fights involving Tamms but closed largely as a political casualty related to the supermax.
One resident likened letting the relatively new work camp sit idle to throwing money into an old clunker when a perfectly good car is available to drive.
As an example, just 80 miles to the east of Tamms, the state has been paying $9,250 monthly for a portable kitchen at the Hardin County Work Camp in Cave-in-Rock since a fire in October 2012 damaged the prison's kitchen. The monthly rate for the rental kitchen recently jumped to $11,500.
When it was open, Tamms work camp inmates also helped maintain the supermax prison.
"My intention is to have a release valve for overcrowding in the department as well as keeping the inmates safe, staff safe and the community safe," Bryant said.
She added: "It would be very inexpensive to reopen."