Controversial prison 'an appropriate cost to cut'

News-DemocratFebruary 22, 2012 

Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed closing the state's only supermax prison -- the Tamms Correctional Center in Southern Illinois, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

The approximately 200 inmates at Tamms live in nearly continuous solitary confinement, the Belleville News-Democrat reported. The prison was built in 1998.

The BND published an investigative series in August 2009 reporting that many inmates at Tamms were mentally ill and became worse because of long-term solitary confinement in the prison located in the southern tip of Illinois. It holds inmates the state describes as the "worst of the worst."

Laurie Jo Reynolds, head of the Tamms Year Ten Committee, said closure is long overdue.

"From the day it opened, Tamms has been a financial boondoggle and a human rights catastrophe. The staff to prisoner ratio is the highest in the system and the mental health worker to prisoner ratio is vastly higher," Reynolds said.

"Because men can't work or leave the cell, we just pay for excess correctional staff to shackle them, move them around, and push food into their cells. Then we pay to treat them when they become insane due to the isolation."

The annual operating costs for the approximately 200 inmates at Tamms supermax and the additional minimum security camp comes to between $33 million and $35 million, according to House Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago. Arroyo is the chairman of the appropriation committee for public safety.

Arroyo proposed the closing of Tamms years ago, but the state's budget crisis "put a big bulls-eye" on the state's only supermax prison.

"We need to work together to cut costs when we can," Arroyo said. "This is an appropriate cost to cut."

Mark Heyrman, chair of public policy for Mental Health America of Illinois, said it would be smarter, cheaper and better for everyone to close Tamms and improve mental health services provided at other facilities.

The people who often end up in Tamms have not committed horrific offenses, but are unable to comply with prison rules due to untreated mental illness.

It's like a game of hearts, Heyrman said, with wardens passing the "bad cards" or the untreated mentally ill to Tamms. Tamms' environment compounds the problem, Heyrman said, because of the sensory deprivation, which is bad for anyone, but horrible for people with mental illness.

"It's a very expensive facility to run," Heyrman said. "Mental health professionals believe that Tamms is a bad idea at least the way it is run now."

Locke Bowman, legal director of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University Law School, hopes for Tamms closure.

"I think it would be very significant symbolically. It would be the right thing to do," Bowman said. "It would be a huge relief that such an inappropriate facility is no longer online for use."

Bowman didn't know whether the state's budget crunch may have triggered the closure.

"I don't like to speculate on other people's motives. I don't know why they are doing it," Bowman said. "I would like to believe that they came to believe that idea of Tamms is morally bankrupt in practice but it may be a matter of dollars and cents."

Grace Warren is the mother of Laron Warren, who was convicted of murder and given life without parole when he was 17. He is now 35. He spent more than five years at Tamms, according to his mother.

"Tamms is unbearable for the men and unbearable for their families. Our sons live in concrete tombs," Warren said. "They can't even have contact visits. That is the hardest part. That I can't touch my child and he can't touch anyone at all. This prison represents about 3,000 years of combined suffering and enough is enough."

It's a 5 1/2- to six-hour trip to Tamms from Warren's Chicago home. Warren tries to make it twice a month, but she says it depends on if she has the money to make the trip.

Warren spent Tuesday calling Quinn's office and her state legislators, then encouraging her friends and family members to do the same.

"It's so cruel," Warren said. "That prison should have never been built."

Despite reforms introduced by former Illinois Department of Corrections Director Mike Randle that included religious worship and educational programs, Tamms Ten Committee maintains the end of solitary confinement at Tamms is the only humane option.

"The end was inevitable. The prison has no other function than to break people down. Warnings about creating constitutional and human rights safeguards were highlighted in Governor Edgar's original Task Force report and have been ignored ever since," Reynolds said. "Even the IDOC's own carefully constructed 10-Point Plan for reform, announced with fanfare in 2009, remains unimplemented."

The Associated Press contributed information to this article. Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 239-2570.

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