TAMMS — Since she was sworn into the Illinois House in 2015, Rep. Terri Bryant has been pushing measures to renovate and reopen the shuttered Tamms Correctional Center.
She’s at it again. But this year, Bryant is taking a more measured approach. Along with Rep. Patrick Windhorst, she’s calling for the formation of a task force to examine the feasibility of reopening the minimum-security unit on site while the state works out a long-term plan for the former “supermax” prison.
The potential for the detached minimum-security unit, or “work camp” as it’s often called, has been overshadowed by controversy involving the supermax prison, said Bryant, a Department of Corrections veteran and legislator entering her third term.
Bryant, R-Murphysboro, said that when she originally introduced the bill, it called for IDOC to reopen the site. But Bryant said she was informed that House leadership would only allow the bill to move through the process if she softened the language to call for the creation of a task force instead.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn closed the Tamms Correctional Center in 2013, citing budget woes. But the state also faced a drumbeat of criticism from prisoner rights’ organizations over the state’s long-term use of solitary confinement and failure to provide adequate mental health treatment for inmates.
Bryant has previously pushed for repurposing the main facility on campus to alleviate prison overcrowding at other Illinois facilities. She argued that reforms could address concerns about inhumane conditions, while still providing an option for short-term confinement to correct the behavior of inmates causing dangerous conditions for staff and fellow prisoners at other places, the prison’s original intent.
But Bryant said she understands that reopening the main facility on campus is a nonstarter with groups such as the Chicago-based John Howard Association, which aggressively fought to shut it down. And her previous attempts to reopen the facility have fallen flat in the Legislature over the past four years. At one point, she even sought to rename it as part of a rebranding effort.
“But the minimum security facility was never really intended to be part of the conversations that had to do with the supermax,” she said.
Tamms Village President Tonya Reid said it’s frustrating that these relatively new facilities are sitting vacant when there is so much need for employment in Alexander and surrounding counties. Reid said she supports the reopening of the work camp. But she said that if state officials don’t intend to do that, they owe it to the village of about 500 people to come up with an alternative proposal to sell the buildings or, as a last resort, tear them down.
“The state has never really communicated with the village anything about its plans for the prison,” she said. “As a taxpayer, I would like something done with the building. It’s just a waste.”
Windhorst, R-Metropolis, agreed. Like Bryant, he wants to see the minimum security unit reopened. But regardless, he said it’s time for the state to detail a plan to address the buildings.
Windhorst thinks the task force is a great opportunity to reach that goal. The 10-member task force will include a broad mix of legislative, labor, administrative and local appointees, he said.
“These facilities cannot sit vacant for a long period of time without having issues addressed,” he said.
Bryant said that she envisions the minimum-security unit operating similarly to the recently re-opened adult reentry facility in Murphysboro. That facility had previously served as a juvenile detention center; it was also closed by Quinn. She said that given Tamms' remote location, it could be an ideal place to teach inmates trade skills, such as how to operate heavy machinery. “That’s the perfect facility to do it,” she said.
Reopening the facility faces complications, however. Chief among them is toxic mold is growing inside both facilities on the Tamms campus. A 2015 inspection found high levels of mold types that are responsible for “more human health issues worldwide than any other group of fungi,” according to records obtained by The Southern Illinoisan. In December, an IDOC spokeswoman told the newspaper that mold remediation would cost about $2.5 million.
Bryant said that she believes the mold problem is not as pervasive at the minimum-security unit as it is inside the supermax facility. But that’s one of the areas the task force will study, she said.
Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of John Howard Association, said her organization remains opposed to the reopening of the supermax facility as a prison — period. But she said the organization is open to discussions about the minimum-security unit. The organization is generally support of re-entry facilities that provide inmates job training and life skills, she said. Vollen-Katz said she’s never been to the Tamms prison, so she couldn’t say whether it makes sense to operate a work camp adjacent to a shuttered facility. All of those details would have to be taken into consideration.
“It can’t just stand forever,” Vollen-Katz said of the empty facilities built in a former cornfield. “Getting people together to really look at the property and how it could be a resource to the state of Illinois strikes us as a very reasonable thing to do.”
A spokesman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker did not immediately return a request for comment Friday afternoon.