Labor from endangered Tamms prison helping with courthouse work in Thebes
THEBES, Ill. -- It was unusually hot early in May when eight orange-clad men labored in the late-morning sun on the hillside below the historic Thebes Courthouse. The men, minimum-security inmates from the Tamms Correctional Center, have been cutting down trees, removing the weeds and cutting the grass.
Though the men enjoyed being outside the walls of the prison, a sense of urgency pervaded the work. Organizers of an effort to restore the old courthouse were struggling to improve its condition before a Memorial Day event; they painted walls and window sills and made repairs to the entry door, where a raccoon had gotten trapped inside the old structure and tried to chew its way out.
Also adding to the urgency is the threat of the closure of Tamms, a facility that houses some of the worst offenders in the state but is also the source of free labor for not-for-profit organizations like the Thebes Courthouse Historical Society and for clearing trash from along highways and mowing cemeteries.
"The possibility of a closure is a big deal, especially for us down here," said Illinois state Sen. Gary Forby, a Democrat from Benton. "Cairo -- you're talking about the poorest of the poor. We've got to help those people."
Forby said the closure would be a double hit to the community, taking away high-paying jobs and free labor used by communities to assist the tourism industry.
State leaders had proposed closing the prison, along with several other Department of Corrections facilities, to save money as the state struggles to balance its budget. Illinois has $8.5 billion in unpaid bills, according to a February report by the Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
Tamms Correctional Center, in Alexander County, has both minimum- and maximum-security units housing 375 inmates. The commission recommended May 1 that Tamms not be closed to save the state money.
While its maximum-security unit has a capacity for 500 inmates, Tamms only had 186 in early May. Its minimum-security unit has a capacity for 200. Lawmakers have until the end of May to approve an Illinois budget. Forby said state senators have approved a deal in which Tamms would no longer be a supermax prison and would only house minimum-security inmates. He said the state's prison system is already overpopulated by 15,000 minimum-security inmates and Tamms would fill to capacity immediately, creating jobs.
He said he is working with House members to get approval of his proposal in their chambers.
Forby is disappointed the state is calling for the closure of Tamms, one of the newest prisons in the Illinois Department of Corrections.
"They're talking about sending all its supermax inmates up to Pontiac. Pontiac is over 100 years old," Forby said. "It would crucify the whole town if we did that."
Stacey Solano, the Tamms public information officer, said that if Tamms closes, the prison's minimum-security inmates would be shipped to various other facilities throughout Illinois. She said in 2011, inmates provided 5,570 hours of labor to various cities and organizations. Up to May, Tamms inmates had provided 637.5 hours of labor to Tamms, she said.
Solano said, with other minimum-security facilities spread throughout Southern Illinois, even if Tamms closed, the labor resource would still be available for communities.
"A lot of times these men are called on in emergencies or during the Illinois State Fair," Solano said. "The Tamms unit is not the only one that does this sort of thing."
Tamms superintendent Jason Henton said inmates selected for the work programs are carefully screened to ensure public safety. He said it was clear the inmates were needed to do the work the Historical Society members would be unable to do, such as removing trees that towered over them.
"The request was to clear the side of the hill," Henton said. "It was a steep angle. Due to the age of many of the members, they couldn't do that on their own."
Twyla Wareing, a member of the Thebes Historical Society, said organizers of the group realized early on they would need help getting the old structure and grounds into shape for visitors.
Wareing, a former flood-plain administrator for Alexander County who retired in December, used her connections to get help from Tamms, she said.
The Thebes Courthouse was the first county seat. Construction on the stone and timber structure was completed in 1848. It served as the courthouse and sheriff's office for about 12 years, until the seat was moved to Cairo. Legend says Abraham Lincoln practiced law in its hall.
Local lawyer John A. Logan rose to fame there, and later became a Civil War hero, U.S. congressman, senator and a vice presidential nominee.
Historians debate whether Dred Scott was briefly housed in the courthouse during his flight to freedom, but a marker outside its entrance makes that claim.
Over the years, the courthouse has been used and forgotten, then restored to near its glory days. The last major restoration in 1976 took advantage of a grant to help pay for repairs to the roof and floors.
Wareing and other members of her group intend to hold a three-day celebration at the courthouse over Memorial Day weekend.
The building will be open for tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 28.
On Saturday, the historical society will hold a bake sale and the Thebes Volunteer Fire Department will provide barbecue and drinks. Skin for Skin Pewter Co. will be on the grounds demonstrating casting pewter. Performers will play live music from noon to 4 p.m.
At 10 a.m. Sunday, organizers will hold a community worship and a community bike ride will begin. Performers will play live music from noon to 4 p.m.
Organizers will hold a raffle for a quilt Monday.
Oak Street, Thebes, IL