TAMMS – The residents of Tamms have a hard time agreeing these days on the village's population count.
The U.S. Census in 2010 pegged it at 632, but that number included several hundred prisoners held within the sprawling, 220-acre, concrete and concertina wire of Tamms Correctional Center. No one seems to know how many people are left, since the "supermax" prison and work camp closed in January 2013.
Despite hopes of an economic revival when the prison fully opened in 1998, and the "First Place for Economic Development" plaque that hangs at village hall, Tamms looks a lot like it has for decades.
Old men meet in the morning over coffee at the gas station that doubles as a grocery store. Fliers hang along the counter inside the Butcher Block/Fast Stop. On one, the Second Baptist Church invites all to a weeklong revival. On another, a man offers to mow yards or do other manual labor for pay.
The shock has worn off in Tamms since former Gov. Pat Quinn announced in his February 2012 budget address that he planned to close 14 state facilities to make ends meet. Three of those facilities were in Southern Illinois: Tamms Correctional Center, the youth detention center in Murphysboro and an adult transition center in Carbondale.
Today, the prison in Tamms sits empty, essentially nothing more than a parts store for other state facilities.
But the state continues to spend more than $750,000 a year on the empty prison, covering utility costs and maintenance and paying guards to prevent vandalism and to serve as fire watch.
Meanwhile, recent budget cuts forced the end of a summer meals program at the local school where the child poverty rolls are growing, and Alexander County continues to grapple with the real-life impacts of being one of the poorest counties in Illinois.
In the shadow of the empty prison, Tamms and the surrounding communities deal with the fallout of broken state promises.
It will be 21 years next month since the Egyptian High School marching band serenaded a crowd of dignitaries as they tossed a little ceremonial dirt at the groundbreaking and offered lots of promises about the good times on the horizon that would come with the arrival of Tamms' new neighbors: convicted serial killers, reputed gang leaders, disruptive prison-yard shot callers who had killed, injured or ordered hits on staff or fellow inmates elsewhere and men on death row whose final appeal had run out.
In 1994, then-Gov. Jim Edgar proclaimed that the prison would be “an anchor to help this part of the state move ahead and have a bright future as we enter the 21st century.”
But the prison's closure drives some of the raw feelings in Tamms and surrounding communities is that residents gave so much to get the prison here.
When a study commissioned by the Illinois Department of Corrections at the dawn of the 1990s claimed need for a new prison to control gang leaders run amok behind bars, Southern Illinois leaders hoping to earn that facility leaned on one of this region’s greatest talents: its ability to eek donations from a depressed region for the good of one’s neighbor.
In a short amount of time, people gave in excess of $225,000 – money raised by banks, churches, VFWs, bake sales and individual contributors, large and small – to purchase 220 acres in rural Alexander County, just outside the village of Tamms from a father-son farming pair, harvesting soybeans and a bit of corn. The farmers themselves offered the land at several thousand dollars less per acre than the appraised value as their part in the charity deal.
All told, between the land and other contributions, the local match for the project was $412,000, records show.
The eventual benefactor of the massive fundraiser would be the state of Illinois.
People gave by the dozens on the hope that the prison would solve longstanding and more recent economic woes. On the heels of a national recession, 1991 marked the start of an economic boom for the country as a whole, but one would not know it here. In November 1992, Florsheim Shoes closed its plant in Anna, putting 350 people out of work. Only a few months later, “That’s what I said … Bunny Bread” shuttered its iconic headquarters on Springfield Avenue. And that was just Anna.
When Edgar broke ground on the facility in June 1994, it was, for many, a happy, sun-drenched summer day underscored by a rare visit from the governor and so much optimism floating around that it’s a shame the feeling couldn’t have been bottled up for the bleaker times ahead.
Southern Illinois lawmakers are fighting in the Capitol to give the prison new life as a rebranded Alexander County Correctional Center, moving away from the "supermax" label and pitching it as the answer to overcrowding within the Illinois Department of Corrections.
But state corrections officials quietly moved in a month after its closure and hauled out much of the prison’s contents, according to information provided by the Illinois Department of Corrections in response to a request filed by the Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. This makes efforts to reopen it more challenging.
“They completely gutted it. Took every single thing out,” said Debbie Short, a former village board member whose husband is the rural mail carrier for the U.S. Post Office in Tamms.
Weeks after the facility closed, bed units were hauled to Centralia. A gun chest went to Ina. A physician’s scale was taken to Lincoln. Chester scored some administrative chevron chairs. A hydraulic stretcher removed from the prison’s execution chamber went to the prison in Pontiac, which also took a wet/dry vacuum, binoculars and a vegetable slicer. A state seal was plucked from the prison's courtroom and moved to an Corrections administrative office in Marion.
Illinois taxpayers have invested well in excess of half a billion dollars into constructing and operating Tamms Correctional Center and the attached minimum-security work camp. The costs continue to add up as the state pays to maintain it empty.
That's not tallying the costs the state has accumulated defending lawsuits brought on behalf of inmates held in the supermax unit in solitary confinement for years at a time.
Quinn cited money woes when the prison closed, but he also faced political pressure from allies in Chicago who opposed the operation of Tamms.
Following Quinn's closure announcement, Democratic state Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, became so worked up at a rally that he suggested taking all the inmates at Tamms Correctional Center and unleashing them onto the streets of Chicago.
Forby also said on that June 2012 day that he was about ready to do away with Chicago after years of people asking why not just lop off from Illinois the nation’s third largest city.
“You know, I’m just about there,” Forby said then. “I’m about ready to just cut 'em off and push em’ right out into the water.”
“Oh, my God, the state is totally dysfunctional,” said farmer Collin Cain of Ware, who owned the farmland with his father Gerald Cain prior to the prison deal. “They need to do something, even if it’s sell it to the feds, but don’t just leave it sitting there, and they’re paying somebody to maintain it.”
He noted that the state has found alternative uses for other defunct state prisons. For example, the former all-female prison in Dwight, closed in early 2013, is serving as a warehouse for Department of Human Services records.
And three months before Tamms closed, the Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to purchase Thomson Correctional Center, which was built in the early 2000s and never fully operational, for $165 million. When the deal was inked, Quinn, who also tried to sell the Tamms prison, said it would bring needed jobs to the small community of Thomson, located about 150 miles west of Chicago. Meanwhile, critics decried the federal government's plan to operate an administrative maximum-security unit where inmates are kept locked up for 23 hours a day.
As he idled his tractor for a quick conversation, Cain said they didn't really want to sell his land in Tamms back then.
"In fact," he said, "my dad would have never done it. Me and Leroy twisted his arm because we had a chance to bring the prison there. Everybody and their dog thinks me and my dad got rich and got $10,000 an acre from the state and that wasn't the case, at all. I felt like we were doing our part."
The Cains sold the property that was eventually donated to the state at roughly $1,000 an acre, he said. A few years ago, when they turned the remaining 300 acres, it sold for more than $3,300 an acre, he said.
During Edgar’s groundbreaking visit in 1994, The Southern Illinoisan spoke with an Egyptian High School student about the prison. She called it “a chance to fulfill the dreams and wishes of being able to stay in Alexander County” after graduation.
But living in the shadows of the shuttered prison in Tamms, Carmela Hazelwood, a longtime resident, said she never believed the state’s promise about prosperity in the first place.
“When that prison was built, everyone thought it was really going to create a lot of jobs and do a lot of things around here,” she said. “It didn’t do anything. If it did create any jobs, there weren’t many.”