For months, I have been fighting to keep Tamms Correctional Center in Alexander County open. I believe Tamms is important for many reasons. It houses the worst-of-the-worst, violent men who have attacked guards or other inmates or who have otherwise disrupted the prison system and created dangerous situations. Separating these high-risk criminals from the rest of the prison system keeps guards and other inmates safe. Given that Illinois' prisons are already desperately overcrowded, this safety valve is especially important. It's also important to remember that Tamms was built in Alexander County for a reason. Alexander County has long had one of the highest unemployment rates in Illinois. Even with the prison there, it's still much higher than the state average. It will only get worse if Tamms closes.
I have been happy to see that almost everyone -- except Gov. Pat Quinn and a small group of Chicago liberals -- agree that it would be better to keep Tamms open. Earlier this spring, a legislative panel charged with assessing facility closures voted to keep Tamms open because the governor had no plan to deal with closing it. Labor arbitrators have consistently ruled that the Quinn administration is not taking employees' legitimate concerns into account about the closure of Tamms and other prisons, especially given our state's overcrowding problems. Just a few days ago, a judge agreed and ordered Quinn not close the prisons for at least 30 days or until he has reached a compromise with the employees. Senate President John Cullerton joined me and Representatives Brandon Phelps and John Bradley to point out there is money in the budget for Tamms, even though the governor likes to say there isn't. A short time later, the Southern Illinoisan wisely urged the governor to be more reasonable and consider a compromise like repurposing Tamms to cut per-inmate costs and reduce overcrowding in the prison system.
It would seem that common sense is finally getting a foothold in this debate. We all know the state is in a budget crunch. But numbers don't lie. Our prison system is severely overcrowded. There's money in the budget to operate a repurposed Tamms. And it makes little sense to mothball one of the newest prisons the state has.
Unfortunately, the governor has filed an appeal in Cook County courts in an attempt to get his unnecessary prison closure plan back on his schedule.
I can only hope that the judge there will recognize the wisdom and reason behind the local ruling and similarly understand the importance of Tamms to our prison system and inherent risks in closing it.
Gary Forby is a state senator representing the 59th District in Illinois.