Sunday, February 25, 2024

Lockdowns, shakedowns fuel further debates on Tamms closure

When a power outage at a minimum-security state prison in East Moline occurred recently, a Moline union leader claimed staff reductions and overcrowding led prisoners to “riot” when the lights went off.

Whether what occurred was a riot or just unruly inmates at East Moline Correctional Center is in dispute between the state and the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local No. 46, Gregg Johnson, who said inmates understand the facility, is “woefully undermanned.”

Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano disagreed with Johnson’s assessment of the situation, saying “some inmates” were “slow to comply” with orders to return to their cells, but the situation did not require force as it was resolved, according to an article by the Quad-City Times.

While the Northern Illinois prison power outage did not make the headlines in Southern Illinois, it was not lost on lawmakers representing the southern facilities Gov. Pat Quinn plans to close as a cost-cutting measure to balance the state’s budget.

Friday, State Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, and State Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, joined each other in issuing a press release calling for the governor to slow down the process of closing Tamms Correctional Center in light of disturbing news coming out of the state’s prisons.

“Something is going on in Illinois’ prison system,” said Forby in the release.  “Today, the SWAT team is at Menard investigating weapons, drugs and a hit list. A minimum-security facility in East Moline was on lockdown earlier this week, and we’re seeing more and more lockdowns throughout the state.”

Disagreeing again that what occurred in East Moline was a riot, corrections spokeswoman Solano said in an email to the Gazette Monday that the IDOC’s top priority is always the safety of its staff and inmates and the IDOC would take whatever measures are necessary in order to maintain safe and secure facilities.

“Untrue and misleading claims are dangerous and a disservice to the people of Illinois as well as a risk to security inside the facilities,” said Solano. Solano went on to say that a search conducted at Menard Correctional Center last week did result in the confiscation of “some homemade weapons and other contraband,” adding inmate cell searches are not uncommon.

While the dispute in East Moline between the state and union leaders could be chalked up to semantics, the closing of southern state facilities such as Tamms and a prison in Dwight will, without a doubt, lead to an increase in prison populations elsewhere. According to an article in the Southern Illinoisan Tuesday,  “Illinois prisons currently hold about 48,000 inmates in a system designed for 33,000,” while the number of employees has decreased by more than 4,000 since 2002. Forby argued that the transfer of CMAX inmates from Tamms to Pontiac and Menard would only add to a formula for disaster.

“Moving murderers, rapists, cop-killers and men with a history of attacking guards from Illinois’ newest operational prison to older, overcrowded facilities seems like a recipe for disaster,” said Forby, adding, “I’d really like to hear the governor explain what he’s thinking.”

Quinn has said his position on closing Tamms included the high cost of maintaining the prison along with it being underused. Solano said each Tamms offender costs the state roughly $62,000 per year, as opposed to the state average of $21,405 per inmate. She said Dwight is “sorely outdated and in need of significant repair.”

“It’s also important to note that both Pontiac and Menard are maximum security facilities that have housed death-row inmates and are completely capable of handling the Tamms offenders,” said Solano.   She said the department anticipates that all transfers will be accomplished by the Aug. 31 deadline. “IDOC will implement the closures responsibly and in a way that prioritizes public safety and security while minimizing the impact on staff and inmates.”

Solano said the department would not disclose who is or who may be housed in or out of state as part of the Interstate Corrections Compact, which information regarding the possibility of such transfers was reported last week in the Southern Illinoisan by its Springfield bureau.

“The Southern reported on an internal corrections memo that designated nine Tamms inmates for transfer to prisons out of state,” according to a fresh article in the same paper reporting Tuesday that the leakage of the memo and public testimony sparked accusations of reprisals against correctional workers by the state after they conducted searches of prison employees.

Monday afternoon the Associated Press reported Illinois authorities conducting “mass shakedowns” of guards and other prison employees searching them as they left work. The action was regarded as unusual as previous searches were conducted before an employee entered such facilities, not departing them.

A claim was made that inside the prisons access to email is limited and such memos, as the one leaked last week, would have had to find its way out as a hard copy. The Southern reported Solano saying, “such searches are a ‘routine security measure’ to control banned materials, which range from cell phones to weapons.”

With prisoners and prison employees searched alike, the situation surrounding the impending closure of Tamms is creating something of a firestorm in the press, adding to the uncertainty of safety lawmakers insist will occur once the transfers are completed.

Back to the press release issued by Forby and Phelps Friday and the remaining questions over what will become of the situation once Tamms is closed, Phelps said, “I can’t help but think that losing the state’s only super-max prison is adding to this new wave of prison violence.”