Southern Illinois Reps. Terri Bryant and Brandon Phelps said they plan to jointly introduce a resolution this session asking House members to endorse reopening and repurposing Tamms Correctional Center and Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro.
Bryant said she wants to win support for the idea before officially bringing it before the General Assembly. Bryant, R-Murphysboro, and Phelps, D-Harrisburg, both said they are discussing the plan with colleagues, and also are listening to any concerns they may have.
Bryant also said she plans to work closely with Gov. Bruce Rauner’s staff and is sensitive to the state’s bleak financial outlook — more than $6 billion in the hole next year. A resolution is generally a non-binding statement of opinion of one or both chambers. The real test of legislative appetite for reopening these facilities would likely come during budget negotiations, though a resolution could carry some weight politically.
“Right now, we’re working on getting support behind it,” Bryant said. “I don’t want to introduce it today and have it crash and burn.”
Bryant: Repurpose the facilities
Bryant, who stepped down from a longtime career with the Illinois Department of Corrections before joining the Illinois House in January, said she would like to see Tamms — the state’s first and last supermax prison — reopened as a maximum security prison with a large disciplinary segregation unit, similar to Pontiac Correctional Center.
Prisoner rights’ groups, such as the John Howard Association of Illinois, were strong opponents of Tamms, because of conditions they considered inhumane. Tamms operated 15 years before it closed in early 2013, during the tough-on-crime era that marked the 1990s. Inmates deemed the “worst of the worst” in the high-tech facility in rural Alexander County spent at least 23 hours of every day in solitary confinement, in 7-by-12 foot cells. Inmates were let out to shower, and spend a little time in a concrete caged recreational area open only at the top.
“You could see the sky and never anything else,” Bryant said. “That seemed to make people uncomfortable from the watchdog groups. She said the repurposed Tamms she envisions would allow prisoners “a little more movement” but still allow for control “over the worst of the worst.”
In Jackson County, Bryant is suggesting the state’s abandoned Illinois Youth Center facility in Murphysboro be reopened as a work-release program to replace services offered at the former Southern Illinois Adult Transitional Center, also known as the The Glass House, in Carbondale.
Under former Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration, the state shuttered the Tamms, Murphysboro and Carbondale facilities as cost-cutting moves.
Forby: Don’t forget Southern Illinois
Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, who said he’ll also fight to reopen Tamms during budget talks. Forby noted that Rauner, in his budget released last month, earmarked funds to reopen the youth center in Joliet that also was closed by Quinn. The Joliet facility is one of three places the Illinois Department of Corrections is planning to repurpose to provide treatment for inmates suffering serious mental illnesses, in response to a pending federal court case.
But Forby said he feels like Southern Illinois is often overlooked in these conversations.
“What always confused me is they want to take everything away from us and give something up north,” Forby said. “I think it’s time they start looking at us.”
“We’re part of the state and need to be involved."
He also noted that Tamms is one of the state’s newest facilities, and it’s located in one of — if not the — poorest counties in the state.
“That’s what these prisons were built for — unemployment, poverty,” Forby said.
While others may argue that economics should not drive the prison industry or corrections’ policies, Bryant said it’s also about safety — of both inmates and staff. Conflicting reports and anecdotes have circulated about whether assaults, on both fellow prisoners and staff, have increased or decreased since the closure of Tamms. But Bryant said many prison workers report to her that overcrowding problems have created safety concerns.
Governor silent on Tamms debate
In an emailed response, Rauner spokesman Catherine Kelly did not answer a direct question regarding the governor’s plans for Tamms this year or into the future. She noted Rauner has “difficult choices to make” and that he’s calling for the hiring of 470 new corrections officers aimed at improving safety and reducing costly overtime, exceeding $60 million the last two fiscal years.
His team also will study ways to reform the criminal justice system to “stop the costly and vicious cycle of ex-offenders returning to prison,” she said.
Asked again for his specific plans regarding Tamms, Kelly said she would report back “if I have more info.” She did not as of press time.
Meanwhile, groups including My Brother’s Keeper, a faith-based nonprofit started by Jonesboro resident Marsha Griffin, and representatives of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents prison workers, are also waging a battle to encourage state leaders to reconsider Tamms.
Griffin, a teacher who had family members working at the prison, said she’s secured nearly 5,000 signatures in recent months, both online and in person, on a petition asking for the state to reopen the facility. She says that for her it’s also about worker safety. “I know with (IDOC spokesman) Tom Shaer, there’s a different spin put on things,” she said. Of the reported incidents, she said, “these employees are so much more than mere numbers on a spreadsheet. There’s a human being attached to that.”
“If you really want to know what’s happening in those prisons, you talk to those frontline employees walking those galleries every single day,” she said.
Shaer, who aggressively defended the department’s safety record in recent years, arguing that statistics showed assaults were down even as prisons closed, quietly left the department last month.
Though Rauner has named several of his cabinet-level leaders, he has yet to pick a Corrections’ chief. Salvador A. “Tony” Godinez, the controversial figurehead who served under Quinn, remains the acting director.
Rauner’s Kelly said the governor hopes to fill the job with his pick “in the coming weeks.”