SPRINGFIELD — Tamms Correctional Center could be retooled to become more of a standard prison housing three times as many inmates under a plan being pushed in the Illinois House.

State Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, said Tuesday he is trying to convince his colleagues to dump Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal to close the supermax facility in deep southern Illinois.

Phelps thinks easing the tough conditions at the 14-year-old facility may help keep it and the 300 jobs from being zapped when the state’s new budget takes effect July 1.

“You could make that a regular facility,” Phelps said.

The possible changes at Tamms are emerging as the clock ticks down on the scheduled spring legislative session.

Just as Phelps is trying to avert the layoff of 300 employees at Tamms, state Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, is among those lobbying to keep the all-female Dwight Correctional Center open.

“I just think it makes more sense to keep it open than to close it,” said Mautino, who successfully fought off attempts to close Sheridan Correctional Center during former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s tenure.

The push to keep large state facilities from closing comes as lawmakers are in the final scheduled days of their deliberations over the state budget.

Quinn wants to close 63 state facilities and lay off 2,300 state workers in order to save $88 million.

A budget proposed by Democrats in the Senate provides for 12 months of funding for Tamms, adult transition centers in Chicago and Aurora and a youth prison in Joliet.

But, the Senate version calls for the closing of Dwight, developmental centers in Centralia and Jacksonville, the youth prison in Murphysboro and mental health facilities in Tinley Park and Rockford. Also on tap for closure under the Senate Democratic budget blueprint are adult transition centers in Decatur and Carbondale.

A House budget blueprint remains under negotiations.

Phelps said it wouldn’t cost a lot of money to transform Tamms into a prison that could hold 1,200 prisoners, up from a current 400. Making the prison less harsh on inmates would appease those who believe the facility — built to house dangerous prisoners in near total isolation — should be shuttered because it purportedly causes mental illness among inmates.

And, he said altering the prison to hold more inmates would address chronic overcrowding in the corrections system.

“It’s one of the newest prisons in our system. I think we could save the jobs and address overcrowding with my plan,” Phelps said.

Phelps’ proposal emerged on the same day a prison watchdog group endorsed Quinn’s plan to close Tamms, saying it conducted numerous interviews with inmates and determined that the conditions there are detrimental to the mental health of inmates.

kurt.erickson@lee.net / 217-782-4043

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