The source of hundreds of well-paying jobs, the maximum-security prison on the outskirts of tiny Tamms has been a saving grace for Alexander County on Illinois’ southern tip. The county’s 11 percent unemployment rate was the state’s highest as of May.
Little wonder there’s disgust in the area about Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision to mothball the state’s only supermax facility, along with a women’s lockup at Dwight in north central Illinois, even though lawmakers approved money to maintain both sites and the jobs they brought those communities.
Despite Quinn’s proposal to keep the 14-year-old facility open by selling it to the federal government, the pending closure has fostered a feeling of betrayal among many in Alexander County, one of just four counties that voted for Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, when he narrowly won office two years ago. And it once again has fanned the perception that Quinn and other Chicago power brokers don’t care much about folks outside the Windy City.
“We all know the governor has hard choices to make,” said Lamar Houston, 60, Tamms’ assistant mayor and the local school board president who works as a lineman for a regional electric cooperative. “In this state, we all have to accept responsibility for budget shortfalls. But you don’t take it out on a county with such high unemployment.”
He noted that the area still is struggling to recover from devastating floods along the Mississippi River last year.
Quinn announced his closure plans June 19 in a memo to state employees, letting them know they would soon get information on how layoffs will be handled. Quinn’s move dismissed an earlier vote by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability – a panel of Illinois lawmakers – that the Tamms and Dwight prisons should be spared.
The women’s prison at Dwight employs 350 people. Together the two facilities house about 1,400 inmates, and closing them will mean squeezing more inmates into the state’s remaining prisons, which already are seriously overcrowded.
But the state has been under pressure to close Tamms from activists who argue its tough security measures are inhumane, and lawmakers have had to make a number of painful spending decisions given the state’s enormous budget crisis. Quinn aides said the Tamms prison is half-empty and three times as expensive to run as other facilities.
Quinn signed the new state budget on Saturday, saying he would use money from the shuttered prisons to restore funding to the Department of Children and Family Services, the agency in charge of maintaining child welfare in the state. To do that, though, he’ll need the legislature’s approval.
“The governor really cares about southern Illinois and appreciates the support he’s gotten there, but we have to look at the entire state,” said Kelly Kraft, the governor’s spokeswoman on budget matters. “We could have been like past administrations and say we’re going to keep things status quo. We can’t make those decisions anymore.”
Kraft said that every employee impacted by the closures would be offered another job within the Department of Corrections or Department of Juvenile Justice. That, however, would entail employees having to uproot their families and move or make a long commute to another facility.
On Friday, Quinn wrote to the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington and offered to sell the 236-acre Tamms facility. He noted its isolated location and access to an interstate as selling points.
The potential loss of the prison in the 700-resident town would sting across the region. Calling the closure “a profound and staggering loss,” the five-county Southern Five Regional Planning District and Development Commission forecast that eliminating the prison’s 250 jobs ultimately would cost more than 200 indirect ones. The region’s gross domestic product would be reduced by $55 million, the commission said.
The panel noted that 18.2 percent of the population in the region is living below the poverty level.
More than 60 Alexander County residents work at Tamms. The workforce also includes 91 residents of Union County, 42 from Williamson County, 32 from Pulaski County, and others who commute from at least a half dozen other counties, said Houston, whose wife works at the Tamms prison as a counselor supervisor.
At Egyptian Community Unit School District No. 5, Superintendent Brad Misner said enrollment has steadily declined over the past couple of decades – from roughly 800 students in 1994 to about 525 now – as jobs in the area dried up.
“If this prison is shut down, look for us to lose another 10, 15, possibly 20 percent of the students,” Misner said. “The support was here for the governor, and he’s kind of turned his back on us.”
Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat, feels similarly, only more heated. His district includes the lockup along with a halfway house and a youth camp, all of which the region stands to lose.
“Shame on him,” Phelps said of Quinn. “This single-handedly proves he doesn’t care about Downstate. He doesn’t care one bit. Do we not have anyone looking out for us?”
Another Democratic lawmaker from the region, state Sen. Gary Forby, took it a step further when addressing a crowd at a rally against the prison closing in Carbondale.
“I’ve been hearing it for a long time, but why don’t we do away with Chicago? You know, I’m just about there,” he told the crowd. “I’m about ready to just cut ‘em off and push ‘em right out in the water....Put (the governor) right on the nose of the boat and push him right out in the water.”
Amber Bridges, a married mother of two whose Discount Dollar store is just a half mile from the prison, calls it all “just real sad.”
“I’m just numb to the situation,” she said, noting that she voted for Quinn in 2010. “I won’t vote for him again.”