TAMMS — After Rep. Terri Bryant filed a resolution to support reopening Tamms Correctional Center in rural Alexander County, more than 130 individuals and organization leaders requested to speak in opposition before the House Judiciary Committee.
Bryant said she’s since been reaching out to those groups that oppose reopening what was for about 15 years a controversial “supermax” prison to hear their concerns and see if there is middle ground. That’s why there hasn’t been any action on the resolution, she said.
“Right now, it’s still sitting in committee,” Bryant said. “The chairman would probably call it if I insisted that he call it. It would fail. The votes are not there for it to pass.”
Bryant has backed off the idea of calling for reopening a supermax, and has been instead pushing to reopen the shuttered work camp next door, saying the state could start there to ease prison overcrowding and then consider what’s next for the prison next door. She’s suggested it could then eventually be reopened as a maximum- or medium-security unit.
Bryant said that the resolution is for her about more than making a political statement, which she could make by calling a vote and letting it flounder. But Bryant said she wants the necessary buy-in to make it a politically feasible option for the Illinois Department of Corrections to consider the reopening of the facility. Resolutions are non-binding, but the idea would be to show that the prison’s potential reopening has the support of the majority of the General Assembly, she said.
Facing a budget battle and the state’s financial instability, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration said recently it did not have any immediate plans for the prison or work camp.
She, along with leaders from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents rank-and-file prison workers, also have sought to rebrand the facility as the Alexander County Correctional Center.
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She thinks the best option is to begin first pushing the reopening of the work camp. Bryant said many are not aware that an adjacent 200-bed work camp was shuttered along with the supermax prison in early 2013 under former Gov.-Pat Quinn’s administration.
Prisoner rights groups generally support the use and expansion of work camps, where non-violent, low-security inmates are put to work in the community. The work camp at Tamms opened in the early 1990s just ahead of the supermax. It was intended to support the supermax.
The John Howard Association of Illinois, based in Chicago, was one of the leading voices over the years calling for the closure of Tamms, where inmates were generally kept in isolation for 23 hours a day. The prison built under former Gov. Jim Edgar’s administration was meant to be a place where inmates who caused trouble in other facilities were sent for short-term rehabilitation before being reintegrated into the regular population. But many were there for years with little recourse for challenging their placement, which gave rise to lawsuits and a Tamms Year Ten movement calling for change. IDOC responded with new policies and procedures that allowed for clearer placement review guidelines for inmates.
Bryant said she has reached out to the John Howard Association’s leaders to discuss their position on the reopening of the work camp.
Executive Director Jennifer Vollen-Katz acknowledged that those discussions have taken place and said the organization is supportive of work camps. But Vollen-Katz said she and other opponents of the prison remain concerned about reopening any part of the former Tamms Correctional Center, calling it a “slippery slope” that could lead to reopening of a supermax, or something similar under another name and classification. Vollen-Katz said she has a hard time seeing that prison, because of the way it was designed, as operating as anything but an isolation lockup without a hefty state investment to restructure it.
“I’d love to see more work camps, but maybe not that one,” she said. Vollen-Katz said it would take a very specific plan detailing how the work camp would operate, and guaranteeing it wouldn’t lead to reopening of the next-door prison.