Residents fighting to keep Tamms Prison operational

Monday, July 16, 2012
The Tamms Correctional Center is north of Tamms, Ill. (Fred Lynch)

Two sides are marshaling their forces in a fight that could decide the future of communities in Southern Illinois.

When Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn used his veto power to slash funding for several facilities in the region, many members of the General Assembly saw the act as a shot across their bow.

"The governor's decision to turn his back on Southern Illinois will be a major blow to our region's economy and the hundreds of families that have been working hard and playing by the rules just to make a living," said state Sen. Gary Forby in his weekly newsletter.

Using line-item vetoes, Quinn slashed funding for Tamms Correctional Center, the Murray Developmental Center and the Murphysboro Youth Center, as well as other facilities spread throughout the state.

The state is trying to cut waste, said Kelly Kraft, the governor's assistant budget director.

This banner is outside the Tamms Correctional Center at Tamms, Ill. (Fred Lynch)

"When we take a look at the state budget, we have to look at all areas of the state budgets and we have to find efficiencies," she said. "These problems have come home to roost. Is it popular to say we are going to close these facilities that communities have relied on for a long time? No."

With 293 employees Tamms is a significant employer in the region. According to the state Department of Corrections, the facility cost $28.7 million to operate in fiscal year 2009, $25.3 million in 2010, $26.1 million in 2011, and $25.6 million in 2012.

Following the governor's veto reduction in revenue, only $5 million has been slated for the facility's operation in 2013.

State Rep. Brandon Phelps said he is seeking support to overturn the veto.

"Right now, we're trying to speak to a lot of members on both sides of the aisle about overriding the governor's veto. He keeps making the excuse that it's too expensive to operate Tamms. We put money in the budget to repurpose Tamms to a minimum-security facility," Phelps said.

This sign is near the city limits of Tamms, Ill. (Fred Lynch)

Critics of Tamms say the facility is cruel and unusual punishment for offenders.

The facility holds the state's worst offenders, said state Rep. Mike Bost. Since Tamms began operating in the mid-'90s, gang violence, murders and contract killings within the prison system have been reduced, Bost said.

"You don't go to Tamms because you stole a loaf of bread," he said. "What gets you to Tamms is, whenever you're put in other prisons and your behavior in there makes it so you're not capable of even staying with other inmates."

Department of Corrections data show there were 168 prisoners in the super-maximum security area of the prison Wednesday. There were 186 in the facility's minimum-security work camp.

In his statement, Forby questioned the governor's idea to sell Tamms to the federal government. He said Quinn's attempt to sell a northern Illinois prison three years ago has never come to fruition.

Kraft provided a copy of a letter Quinn sent to the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons touting Tamms' features as a prison, and suggesting the federal government buy the facility. There is no word on whether the bureau even replied to the letter.

A serious concern for voters in Southern Illinois is the loss of jobs in the area.

As of May, Alexander County had the highest unemployment rate of any county in Illinois, according to Illinois Department of Employment Security. Winnebago County is the next highest rate at 10.5 percent. The average unemployment rate throughout the state is 8.4 percent.

"People are not going to be losing their jobs," Kraft said. "[The Department of Corrections is] offering them jobs at other facilities.

Workers at the prison, which is scheduled for closure Aug. 31, began receiving pink slips in late May. They've been offered positions at other facilities.

Correctional officer Sidney Miller, who's been working at Tamms since 2007, said he's been looking over 654 open positions in the state. Miller would rather not leave Alexander County, he said.

Miller's Olive Branch, Ill., home was destroyed by last year's flood. He bought and remodeled another home after the flood, but is now facing the possibility of having to sell it.

"Guards will try to pick where we would like to go throughout the state. The procedures are for us to pick where we go," Miller said. "I think there are enough positions for everybody, but they are all way up north."

Taking away jobs from Alexander County, one of the poorest in the country, is adding insult to injury, Phelps said.

"Those people in Alexander County have been through enough with the [2011] flood," he said. "This is an injustice. I know the governor knows in his heart that this was the wrong decision to make--to balance the budget on the backs of working people."

jgamm@semissourian.com

388-3635

Pertinent address

8500 Supermax Road, Tamms, Ill.

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