Tamms future still up for debate
By Isaac Smith | Special to the Gazette
The saga of Tamms prison did not end when it was shuttered two months ago.
The effects of Tamms’ closure have been felt not only in Southern Illinois, but also elsewhere throughout the state as the closures displaced thousands of inmates who were transferred to already over-populated facilities.
To deal with the prison over-population issue, Gov. Pat Quinn’s office recently moved hundreds of inmates into prison gymnasiums as cells have become too crowded.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said this is only being done in six select, minimum-security level prisons and stressed the measure is not permanent.
“The department anticipates the need for the temporary housing units to decrease in the coming months,” Solano said.
However, State Senator Gary Forby, D–Benton, and a spokesperson for the American Federation of Civil, State and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31, Eddie Caumiant, said they do not see how this is possible.
“Our prison system is capable of [holding] 33,000 and we’ve got 49,000 prisoners already,” Forby said.
Caumiant agreed with the prison population numbers and said they are projected to increase to 50,000 by the end of the year.
The burden of overpopulation is leading some to speculate that an increase in violence is due to this overcrowding in the Illinois prison system. Many point to incidents like the one Feb. 5 at Menard where three correctional officers were injured after nearly 15 inmates attacked one officer in the prison chapel.
Caumiant said he estimates there have been less than ten, but more than five violent incidents in state correctional facilities since Tamms closed its doors in January. He said these incidents include assaults targeted towards correctional officers or involve officers breaking up inmate on inmate fights.
Forby said he has seen this coming all along.
“I said, ‘When Tamms prison closes down you are going to see the other prisons start having problems,’” said Forby.
However, Solano said numbers reported to her office do not reflect an increase in violence, that in fact they show just the opposite.
“Data shows that serious staff and inmate assaults have actually decreased system wide in fiscal year 13 from the same time frame in fiscal year 12 (July-Jan),” Solano said.
While the impact of prison closures are certainly felt in the prison system, it extends also to the homes of correctional employees.
Sidney Miller, a correctional officer with nine years experience, recently took a reassignment to Menard Correctional Center in Chester after the closure of Tamms. He said the transition has not exactly been easy.
“The second day on the job an inmate hit the officer in front of me and we had to tackle him and subdue him,” said Miller, adding this type of an assault was rare at Tamms. “… But up there [at Menard], that’s an everyday, every week occurrence.”
The change in work environment is not the only challenge, said Miller.
A life-long resident of Olive Branch, Miller went from driving 12 miles to work to driving 70 miles, saying it is roughly a one hour and fifteen minutes drive just to get to work, which has dramatically increased his workday.
“My days went from eight hours to 12 hours,” Miller said.
In addition to the increase in travel time, Miller estimated he now spends nearly $125 a week in increased fuel expenses and this has put a strain on his finances.
The state said that the closure of Tamms and other correctional facilities throughout the state came down to one thing: money. Solano said the closure of these prisons would save the taxpayers an estimated $70 million annually with the closure of Tamms alone providing considerable costs savings.
“The operating cost of Tamms was $26.6 million per year,” said Solano. “The department will now only spend approximately $225,000 annually for general upkeep, utilities and maintenance.”
Forby joined others in saying that in the long run the state will not actually save money and used the example of the state currently having to find housing for the overflow of inmates as an example.
While the closure of Tamms appeared to signal the end of the line for AFSCME’s fight to keep it open, there is new dialogue beginning at the state level to reopen it. With the overpopulation of the Illinois Prison System, many are calling for Tamms to be reopened simply to house the extra, minimum-security inmates.
Illinois State Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, has joined Forby and AFSCME leaders in a pursuit to repurpose Tamms.
Correctional officer Miller said he does not understand why Tamms is not already being used this way.
“We’ve got a 200 bed, minimum security unit ready to go. Why not just open it back up?” Miller questioned.
Solano said the state has reached out to the federal correction system about the possible purchase of Tamms, but little has happened since it was proposed.
Miller said he and his family are still holding out hope Tamms will reopen in some way and he will be able to return to work there, he is just not sure how long they can wait.
“If Tamms is not going to reopen, we are going to be thinking about moving,” Miller said.
~ Isaac Smith is the Editor of The Cairo Citizen