State Commission holds hearing on Tamms closure
A bi-partisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability recorded testimony from both sides of the debate to close Tamms Correctional Center at the Shawnee Community College Educational Center auditorium Monday afternoon in Ullin.
The hearing provided a forum for elected officials, advocacy organizations, employee organizations, former prisoners and family members, corrections professionals, community business leaders and organizations as well as current Tamms employees to speak before the commission, which will offer its non-binding decision to Gov. Pat Quinn sometime in early May on whether or not they support his proposal to close Tamms.
Gov. Quinn called for the closure in late February with a host of other facilities due to budgetary constraints in which the proposed closure of Tamms is expected to save the state more than $26 million annually, according to the Governors Office of Management and Budget Director Austin Baidas, but at a cost of roughly $33 million to the regions economy.
“Thirty-three million in Southern Illinois and $33 million in Chicago and northern Illinois are two different numbers,” said U.S. Congressman Jerry Costello (D-IL). “Replacing jobs that pay 40, 50, 60,000 dollars in Southern Illinois is completely different than trying to replace those jobs in northern Illinois.”
Costello said from an economic impact in Southern Illinois the cost is un-absorbable. While much of the testimony shared Costellos argument in that the closure of Tamms would economically drain the community, the auditorium drew thunderous applause when issues of safety to correctional officers and inmates alike came before the commission.
“Is this the only super-max facility in the state?” Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion) asked S.A. Godinez, Director of Illinois Department of Corrections who said it was. “So there is no prison comparable to what Tamms [currently] does; correct?”
“Currently, in housing, no,” replied Godinez.
“So Menard currently holds 3,619 prisoners, 521 more than what they are designed to hold; correct?” Bradley asked as he continued to grill Godinez. “Pontiac was built in 1871; correct? Built to hold 1,800 people; correct? And it now holds 1,710; correct? There are more than 90 people at Tamms currently; correct? The prison system has currently the most prisoners in it that its ever had in the history of the state; correct?”
Godinez followed each of Bradleys questions answering correct until the prison population estimates in which he said were down 1,000 since his tenure began. To this Bradley asked of the prison population three years ago and soon estimated that despite the number dropping, it had still grown by an estimated 4,000 prisoners in the past three years while at the same time he said the state is at the shortest staffing levels in recent history.
“And the proposal is to close the only super-max facility we have in the state?” Bradley asked incredulously, to which the auditorium filled mostly with people wearing red shirts who opposed the closure rose to their feet applauding and cheering.
The issue of safety was the driving force behind much of the testimony provided by elected officials before the commission and set into motion before the hearing even began with signs lining the entry onto the campus claiming Tamms saves lives and vocalized by opponents to Quinns proposal in a pre-hearing press conference.
“We are here today to express our strong opposition to Governor Quinns plan to close the Tamms Correctional Center,” said Henry Bayer, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. “There are two very important things that are involved here: one is jobsthe need for jobs in Southern Illinois is acute and you will hear a number of speakers from Southern Illinois talk about the need for those jobs. But it’s also about safety, safety not only here at Tamms, but throughout the correctional system.”
Bayer said by looking at the department of corrections report, the closure is largely budget driven and challenged Gov. Quinn to ask the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Sears and other large corporations he said the state provided $300 million in tax breaks to, to defer those breaks just as Tamms employees recently deferred pay increases.
State sen. Gary Forby (D-Benton) and State Reps. Mike Bost (R-Murphysboro), John D. Cavaletto (R-Salem) and Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg) joined Bayer and Michael Stout, business manager, Illinois State Employees Association Laborers Local 2002, in attacking the closure before and during the hearing.
“This is a man-made disaster waiting to happen,” said Stout. “People will be displaced. People will be out of jobs. People will be on unemployment. Its wrong.”
Stout added, “Stop and look at the sign that you see outside. Before Tamms there were 30 correctional officers murdered, since Tamms: zero. That in itself is enough to keep this place open.”
Not everyone in attendance agreed.
Jean Maclean Snyder, concerned prisoners rights attorney, arrived with 47 others representing Tamms Year 10, an advocacy group fighting for the closure of Tamms not to kill jobs or balance the budget, but in opposition of the use of solitary confinement. Snyder and members of her group spoke before the commission and gave both personal testimony and data derived from a 2009 study by the Belleville News-Democrat, which found that 54 Tamms prisoners had been in continuous solitary confinement for more than ten years. She said while she is in favor of closing the prison due to this inhumane treatment of inmates, she will accept its closure under the headline of budget cuts.
“Whatever the motive, lets get going,” said Snyder. “This is a unique situation. For once, budgetary constraints are going to produce more decency in society. Im in favor of it.”
In Snyders group was a mother of an inmate who spoke before the commission, Rose Sifuentes. She said her son has become more and more distant and has lost a considerable amount of weight and she is afraid his confinement is causing physiological damage he had never been diagnosed with before.
Long-term solitary confinement places prisoners at grave risk of psychological harm without reliably producing any tangible benefits in return, doctors Stuart Grassian, Craig Haney and Terry Kupers wrote in a letter to the commission. The three have been studying the effects of long-term solitary confinement with Dr. Haneys research reaching as far back as the 1970s. Dr. Kupers recently served as an expert witness “in litigation in Mississippi that required the Department of Corrections to ameliorate substandard conditions at the super-maximum Unit 32 of Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.” Unit 32 was featured in a March 10th New York Times article quoting Christopher B. Epps, Mississippis commissioner of corrections, as a believer in “locking down difficult inmates as tightly as possible, for as long as possible.”
“That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he is quoted saying. By the end of a process to eventually close the super-max conditions and in which Dr. Kupers helped play a role in, Epps said he found his own views changing as he fought an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over conditions in the prison.
Concerned prisoners rights attorney Snyder said she is not presently representing any prisoners at Tamms, but has done so in the past. She said she understands the concerns for public safety, but the data just does not back up the idea that Tamms itself made the Illinois prison system safer.
“There are other states: Maine, Mississippi, Michigan and Colorado that are closing or downsizing their super-max [prisons] and the world has not come to an end,” she said.
Epps would agree. In a gradual and controlled manner, Unit 32 began to allow its prisoners out for longer periods of time until eventually the prisoners became better behaved, according to the article.
“Was it scary? Absolutely,” said Epps. “But it worked out just fine. We didnt have a single incident.”
State senator Forby said he is not opposed to looking at the case in Mississippi if it will allow for the continued safe usage of the Tamms Correctional Center and not put people out of work, but so far he said he has not seen a plan even for its closure and the first step is having a plan.
“Don’t cut your legs out from under you,” said Forby. “Thats what were doing by closing Tamms.”
The debate to keep it open or shut it down will continue well past the point of whichever decision governor Quinn makes come summer. Numbers will make up a large part of any of these debates; jobs lost or saved: 337.9; regional income lost or save: $32,877,535.00; regional taxes lost or saved: $330,230.00; cost-per-Tamms inmate vs. DOCs average cost-per-inmate: $64,805.00 and $21,405.00 respectively; expected annual savings to Illinois taxpayers: $26.5 million; number of C-Max inmates to Menard and Pontiac: 186; number of hours a Tamms inmate should be in solitary confinement vs. not: this debate is currently labeled ideological and not a part of the Department of Corrections Closure Recommendation Submission and will likely never enter into an impact study, but right now that debate is taking place throughout the nation as proponents for and against Tamms submit their voices in letters to the commission.
Lindsey Sadler of Jonesboro wrote in support of keeping Tamms open: “You say Tamms promotes human suffering, but I have to ask all of those in favor of the closure. Who gives justice to the victims that the inmates at Tamms tortured, raped, murdered, etc?”
Just as others such as single mothers, local leaders, concerned citizens and current employees wrote in support of keeping Tamms open; inmates families, doctors and advocacy members wrote in support of its closure.
As of March 29th more than 30 letters were entered into the public comments found on the commissions website with nearly equal support for each side. The comments are open until April 21st and if Gov. Quinn decides to follow through on the closure of Tamms, it will cease operations Aug. 31, 2012.