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Possible closure of Tamms prison raises safety concerns

Published: Monday, April 9, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – It’s no surprise what turns up in a review of the men locked up in Illinois’ notorious Tamms prison: These are not nice people.

Nearly two-thirds of them are murderers serving life sentences or terms of more than 50 years, according to an Associated Press analysis. Many hurt a lot of people in prison before being banished to Tamms, a ‘supermax’ prison for the most dangerous of inmates, records show.

That raises questions for Gov. Pat Quinn, who has proposed closing the lockup in far southern Illinois to save money.

Can these inmates be moved safely to ordinary prisons? Will all inmates be more likely to strike out at guards or other prisoners if they don’t face the threat of Tamms?

The Democratic governor outlined several reasons for shuttering Tamms when he proposed his spending plan for the budget year that begins in July. The main one is cost. Quinn says closing it would save $26 million a year.

Inmates’ families and mental health advocates back him for another reason, contending round-the-clock segregation at Tamms is inhuman.

Roughly 180 Tamms detainees would move to the high-security Pontiac and Menard prisons.

“Inmates and staff will be just as secure with these changes,” Corrections Department spokeswoman Stacey Solano said. “These maximum-security facilities are well-equipped to handle the level of security needed for these inmates without compromising safety and security.”

But it’s hard for an outsider to judge that. Corrections supplied AP with a list of Tamms inmates, but would not reveal why each inmate had been sent there, citing an exemption in public-records laws for information that would disclose “unique or specialized investigative techniques.”

Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat and chairwoman of the appropriations committee that handles the Corrections Department, said knowing who they’re dealing with will be important in lawmakers’ decisions about how to spend the state’s limited dollars.

“We’ll probably need to understand the safety and security issues before we move forward,” Steans said.

It’s not as though Tamms’ population is shrouded in secrecy. It’s home to Henry Brisbon, the “I-57 Killer” who was a ringleader in a 1979 riot at Stateville Prison in Joliet and who stabbed serial killer John Wayne Gacy when the two were together on death row. Maurice Wallace, serving a life sentence for killing an Illinois State University student in 2005 and later stabbing a county jail officer, is also locked up there.

Tamms opened with great fanfare just 14 years ago. It became home of the “worst of the worst,” a place to send criminals who were violent or created other havoc even behind bars. Its seven-by-12-foot cells confine their occupants 23 hours a day with little chance for interaction with others.

In March, there were 178 inmates at Tamms. Corrections officials say no inmate starts his sentence there. Each is transferred to Tamms after causing trouble in other prisons.

Some committed high-profile prison crimes. Serial rapist John Spires took a Dixon prison psychologist hostage for 25 hours in May 2006 and repeatedly raped her. Shon Watts raped and attempted to kill a Jacksonville Correctional Center dietary worker the same year.

That leaves about 100 inmates who were sent to Tamms for unknown reasons.

Toby Oliver, a lieutenant at Tamms, knows firsthand how dangerous prisons can be. In 1995, he was stabbed four times by an inmate at Stateville in what he calls an attempted gang hit. Inmates who are violent, or incite others to violence, must be controlled, he said.

“We do need to separate them,” Oliver said. “You can take an inmate out of Pontiac or Menard and put him in segregation, but he can still yell out a window, he can still be disruptive to the general population.”

Isolated at Tamms removes that problem. It’s a system some inmates themselves say is the best and safest way for them to live. That approach will remain essentially unchanged at Pontiac and Menard, Solano said.

But Tamms has also been the subject of complaints by human-rights advocates. They say the conditions are too harsh and do more harm, for example, to inmates with mental illnesses.

Anthony Gay is an example for the American Civil Liberties Union, which testified in favor of closing Tamms at a hearing last week. According to the ACLU, Gay’s troublemaking is a symptom of severe mental illness that includes self-mutilation.

The 37-year-old Gay was originally sentenced to seven years for robbery in 1994. Now he’s not scheduled for release until 2095 because of 15 more convictions while in prison, mostly for battery.

“Solitary confinement is not only fundamentally inhumane,” David Fahti, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said in his testimony, “it endangers the safety of our communities and wastes precious taxpayer dollars.”

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