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Gov. Pat Quinn: Close super-max downstate Tamms prison

Tamms Correctional Center

Tamms Correctional Center

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Updated: March 23, 2012 8:16AM

SPRINGFIELD — A super-maximum security prison in Downstate Tamms that human-rights groups contend is inhumane and a women’s maximum-security prison in Dwight face closure under a proposed spending plan that Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration described as “the toughest budget we’ve faced.”

The governor’s intended mothballing of those two facilities comes on top of his planned closures of two youth-detention centers and six secure halfway houses, the latter of which could result in the early release of as many as 1,000 inmates into the general public, the state government’s largest employee union predicted Tuesday.

The nearly $66 million hit to the Illinois Department of Corrections represents the most eye-grabbing piece of a budget plan that the governor will outline Wednesday to a joint session of the General Assembly.

But in two areas that pose a suffocating multibillion-dollar burden on the state budget — sky-rocketing Medicaid and state pension costs — the governor won’t propose anything specific to lawmakers, aides told reporters in a Tuesday evening budget briefing.

Quinn’s spending plan, which lawmakers likely will retool significantly this spring, also calls for consolidating two dozen Department of Human Services offices across the state and three Department of Children and Family Services offices in Chicago and Skokie.

The 500-bed Tamms prison — opened in 1998 under former Gov. Jim Edgar’s administration — was designed to house the worst-of-the-worst among Illinois’ prison inmates. Isolated in the southernmost tip of Illinois, it was the place executions were to be carried out when the state had a death penalty. Only one execution occurred there: DuPage County serial killer Andrew Kokoraleis.

Under Quinn’s plan, the prison would be targeted for closure in August, potentially saving taxpayers $21.6 million in the upcoming fiscal year and $26.6 million annually thereafter. The most violent Tamms inmates would be relocated to the Pontiac Correctional Center, with the rest going to two nearby prisons.

“Tamms is relatively small. We have other maximum-security capabilities in the state. It’s a long way from Chicago, and we think we can manage to save some money there,” Quinn budget director David Vaught told reporters.

Tamms has been the frequent target of human-rights, prisoner-advocacy groups and even a federal judge because of the harsh conditions that exist there.

In a 2009 ruling on a inmates’ lawsuit challenging conditions at Tamms, a federal judge in Downstate East St. Louis described conditions at Tamms that impose “dramatic limitations on human contact, so much so as to inflict lasting psychological damage and emotional harm on inmates confined there for long periods.”

A year later, the Chicago-based prison-advocacy group, the John Howard Association, decried conditions there.

Most Tamms inmates spend 23 hours a day alone, where their “universe of gray” is only interrupted by a sliver of the blue sky visible from a small window above, the group said. Prisoners aren’t permitted to work or mingle too much with fellow prisoners and had access to only one computer to communicate with loved ones.

The group recommended painting the prison’s interior with brighter colors and abolishing a tactic where unruly prisoners are dressed down in flimsy paper smocks and isolated in a barren cell with just a mattress.

“I think despite the best intentions, Tamms went too far,” John Maki, John Howard’s executive director, told the Chicago Sun-Times Tuesday. “Over the years, there have been attempts to reform Tamms, but history has shown those attempts have not worked as well as hoped. I think this is a real victory for Illinois and for fairness.”

Closing the 82-year-old Dwight Correctional Center, Illinois’ only maximum-security prison for women and home to notorious murderers like Elk Grove Village family killer Patricia Columbo, would save the state $36.9 million annually. The nearly 1,000 prisoners there would be relocated to the Logan Correctional Center in Downstate Lincoln, which would be converted from a men’s prison, Quinn’s aides said.

Shutting down six adult transition centers, including two in Chicago and one in Aurora, would result in $17.7 million in savings. Prisoners at these halfway houses would be put on electronic home detention when they weren’t employed in their communities during the day.

“We will not jeopardize public safety. That’s our No. 1 concern,” said Jack Lavin, Quinn’s chief of staff. “We’ll work closely with ... the Department of Corrections to make sure public-safety concerns are addressed on these closures.”

State government’s largest employee union, which represents prison staff, called the two prisons on the chopping block “irreplaceable” and warned the prison-system moves could overload other prisons and pose a danger to the public.

“Closing them would trigger a dangerous domino effect, destabilizing the entire correctional system and complicating an overcrowding epidemic that the Quinn administration has tried to cover up by misrepresenting prison capacity limits,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31.

The decision to shutter the state adult transition centers and equip prisoners with electronic ankle bracelets “raises serious questions about public safety, especially since the state’s approximately 300 parole agents are already severely strained by their responsibility to monitor more than 30,000 parolees,” Lindall said.

In other parts of his plan, Quinn’s lack of specifics on how to confront $2.7 billion in cuts he wants to wring from Medicaid and how to find more than $5 billion in pension costs due next year signals a desire to work out solutions with the General Assembly, aides said.

“This will require legislation,” said Lavin, who described the spending plan as the “most difficult budget we’ve ever faced.”

Such generalities over possible Medicaid and pension cuts weren’t what some of Quinn’s Democratic allies were hoping for, however.

“That was the part that was most disappointing for us,” said Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago). “We were expecting between the State of the State and budget addresses, that would have gotten a little more specific.”

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