Fiscal reality might finally accomplish what lawsuits and appeals to conscience could not.
Gov. Pat Quinn says he wants to shut down Tamms, the state’s supermax prison about 100 miles north of the Kentucky border. The half-full prison where inmates are locked down 23 hours a day in solitary confinement is just too expensive, the governor says.
Just how expensive is subject to debate. Critics who factor in the cost of caring for mentally ill inmates, some prone to self mutilation and eating their own flesh in the maddening confines of a place that allows no contact with other human beings, say taxpayers spend about $90,000 per year on each inmate. The official state figure is $64,000 a year.
A year at Harvard College, where the student to faculty ratio is seven to one, costs $51,362 for tuition, room and board. The inmate to staff ratio at Tamms is 1.4 to one.
Opened in 1998, Tamms is becoming a dinosaur, one of a shrinking number of state-run supermax prisons in America built for and devoted to solitary confinement. California’s Pelican Bay, which opened in 1989 and is considered the prototype for state-run supermax prisons, houses inmates who aren’t locked down in isolation in addition to prisoners kept in solitary confinement. In Wisconsin, state prison authorities in 2007 re-modeled their standalone supermax to accommodate general population inmates, who live in units alongside solitary-confinement units.
Did Illinois make a mistake in building a standalone supermax that has never been more than half full?
“I’m not sure the answer to that,” says Anders Lindall, spokesman for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents guards. “I think it’s not particularly relevant.”
Lindall and other supporters of Tamms say the supermax keeps the entire system safe by removing troublemakers to a place where they can’t cause trouble.
“Folks have to understand that no one prison stands alone,” Lindall says. “The system is interdependent. The role of Tamms is to serve as both a deterrent against violent attacks on other inmates and on staff, or escapes that threaten the safety of the general public.”
Not surprisingly, legislators near the prison oppose closing the supermax, which would eliminate an estimated 300 jobs. Rep. Jim Sacia, R-Freeport, whose district office is more than 400 miles north of the supermax, predicts that neither Tamms nor the state women’s prison at Dwight, which Quinn also wants closed, will be shuttered.
“I’m prepared to bet the tallest beer in Pecatonica that will not happen,” Sacia recently wrote on his website aimed at keeping constituents informed.
Closer to Tamms, state Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, said he’s not taking any bets, but he believes Tamms serves an important economic and correctional function. Former governor Jim Edgar, who opened Tamms, has criticized plans for closing the supermax, which he says has helped prevent riots. Even lieutenant governor Sheila Simons, a Democrat, has expressed doubts about closing Tamms, saying the area needs jobs and the Department of Corrections needs security.
“It (closure) might, at the end, be the decision – this is the smartest thing for the state to do,” Simons said in a recent radio interview in Chicago. “We need to look at all options.”
But Laurie Jo Reynolds, lead organizer for Tamms Year Ten, organized to mark the tenth anniversary of the prison’s opening and lobby for its closure, says the end is in sight.
“There’s no other prison or facility that can be closed that will give you this kind of savings,” Reynolds said. “To save jobs at other facilities, they’ll see that it makes sense to close this one.”
Supermaxes were a trend of the 1990s that has passed, Reynolds said, and Tamms, which has been featured in such national publications as The New Yorker, has superseded Pelican Bay as the face of supermax.
Reynolds points to Mississippi and Maine as two states that have dramatically reduced the use of supermax cells in recent years. In Maine, the number of inmates kept in supermax has dropped by 70 percent during the past year, according to a November story in The Portland Phoenix. Joseph Ponte, the head of Maine’s corrections department, told the newspaper that violence dropped system-wide after the state stopped using supermax as a disciplinary tool.
In Mississippi, Emmit Sparkman, deputy commissioner for the department of corrections, wrote in a recent article that supermax in his department had been overused and that there was no increase in violence when the state, which once had 1,300 inmates in long-term solitary confinement, reduced that number to 335, enabling the closure of a housing unit at an annual savings of $5.6 million.
“We’ve been conditioned that 23-hour lockdowns make it safer, make it better for staff and other offenders and for the system,” Sparkman wrote in the article published last fall by the Vera Institute of Justice. “In Mississippi, we’ve found that’s not necessarily true.”
Illinois, Reynolds said, should follow that lead.
“I don’t think people are defending supermax prisons the way they used to,” Reynolds said. “Everybody knows Tamms. Tamms is the symbol of the very worst kind of cold storage that this country offers.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com