Transfers of prisoners out of the Tamms Correctional Center to other prisons in preparation of an Aug. 31 closing of the supermax lockup ordered by Gov. Pat Quinn was frozen Wednesday by a circuit judge.
The freeze also affects other Illinois Department of Corrections units slated by Quinn for closure for budgetary reasons including the Dwight Correctional Center for women and several adult transitional centers and youth centers.
Union County Circuit Judge Charles C. Cavaness, who was assigned to hear the case at the Alexander County Courthouse in Cairo, ruled that his decision on whether to issue an injunction temporarily preventing the closure would be stayed until lawyers for the guards' union and the governor's office meet with an arbitrator. Both sides agreed to that meeting, which has been tentatively set for next week. The next court date is Aug. 17.
The union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, sought the injunction because they believe transferring inmates out of the super-maximum security Tamms prison would increase violence throughout the system, which has about 45,000 inmates. The union opposes the closure of the prisons and support units.
An attorney for the state argued, among other things, that the circuit court did not have jurisdiction in the case.
Nicole Schult, an attorney for the Uptown Peoples Law Center in Chicago, said Cavaness denied allowing the nonprofit to join the lawsuit on behalf of Tamms inmates. The center has long fought for prisoner's rights and favors closing the relatively small lockup now holding about 180 prisoners on humanitarian grounds. Inmates at Tamms are held in solitary confinement, including those who are mentally ill. Some Tamms prisoners have been held in solitary for as long as 14 years.
"We are very pleased that the Quinn administration's reckless reshuffling of inmates around the state has been halted," AFSCME President Henry Bayer said in a written statement.
"Governor Quinn's push to close these facilities has triggered rising violence among inmates and against employees," he said.
But the union's claim that news of the closure of Tamms has spurred violence among inmates was disputed by Stacey Solano, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections.
"The facts are clear: Assaults on staff are down this year as are the number of days facilities have spent on lockdown," she said in a written statement that accompanied a Belleville News-Democrat request for figures about assaults on guards. Lockdown days, when inmates are confined to their cells, often occur if there is violence in a prison.
Solano said that the data that was supplied "clearly shows that there is no statistical correlation between staffing levels, (inmate) population or the closure and assault levels."
Charts released by the Department of Corrections to the BND showed that inmate assaults on prison staff decreased at two of the state's three maximum security lockups, the Pontiac and Stateville correctional centers. Pontiac dropped slightly from 108 such assaults in fiscal year 2011 to 98 in 2012 that ended July 1. And Stateville dropped from 95 to 57 during this same time.
At the maximum security Menard Correctional Center, the state's largest prison, assaults increased over these same two years, rising from 21 to 36. The figures for Menard are lower overall because, since fiscal year 2008, the facility has spent most of the year on lockdown. In 2011, the prison was on lockdown for 235 days, compared to 13 for Pontiac and 75 for Stateville. No reason was given for the high number of lockdown days at Menard.
Tamms, which usually holds less than 200 inmates, although its capacity is 500, had no lockdown days in the last two fiscal years and only two assaults on guards. Inmates at Tamms are escorted by at least two guards, including one in riot gear when they are removed from a cell, and they are handcuffed and shackled.
Overall, for the last three complete fiscal years, inmates assaults on prison employees throughout the entire prison system remained fairly steady. There were 420 in 2010, 502 in 2011 and 444 in 2012.
In the union's case filed in Alexander County, the judge also heard arguments to dismiss the case but held off making a ruling until both sides file written arguments. The deadline for filing is Aug. 17.
Laurie Jo Reynolds, who heads the citizen group Tamms Year Ten Committee, which has sought for years to close Tamms, said: "The lawsuit is another trick by AFSCME to keep prisons open at any cost. They can delay the process but Tamms will close. The Quinn administration is steadfast. We finally have a governor who has his priorities right: Children and families come first, prison boondoggles last."
Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2625.