SPRINGFIELD – Illinois’ prison chief has changed some security rules for inmates transferred from the high-security Tamms prison when it closes, despite a promise to lawmakers that the exacting standards for managing the state’s most dangerous inmates would follow them to their new lock-up.
The day before the first Tamms inmates moved to Pontiac in early August, Corrections Director S.A. “Tony” Godinez jettisoned the policy the agency had said it would use for managing the volatile prisoners, issuing a one-sentence, confidential memo obtained by The Associated Press.
The agency won’t release the obsolete plan, but the rules now in place mean fewer officers and fewer chains on inmates when they’re out of their cells at their new home, the maximum-security prison at Pontiac, according to interviews and an AP comparison of internal Corrections documents.
Shuttering Tamms also means fewer available cells, so fewer ways to segregate troublemakers. To ensure volatile arrivals from Tamms remain sequestered, current Pontiac inmates in isolation will have to double up.
One fight between formerly segregated Pontiac prisoners on Aug. 24 – less than a day after landing in the same cell – only ended after two pepper spray bursts, according to internal reports the AP obtained.
Security concerns at the state’s prisons surfaced after Gov. Pat Quinn announced money-saving closures of several facilities, including Tamms. Critics of the plan, including some prison employees and legislators, question how the “worst of the worst” inmates from the state’s supermax prison can be safely managed in already packed penitentiaries. Designed for 33,700 inmates, they hold more than 49,000.
Quinn said the 14-year-old Tamms is underutilized and its byzantine security measures too expensive. Human rights advocates have attacked it for an isolation method they call inhumane.
Facing lawmakers last spring, Godinez promised that out-of-cell movement rules at Pontiac would be “identical” to those at Tamms. “The policies and procedures will follow the inmates,” he said.
Asked about that testimony earlier this month, spokeswoman Stacey Solano softened Godinez’s pledge and stood by the new rules.
“Not every single process and protocol from Tamms will be completely replicated at Pontiac,” Solano said. “Tamms and Pontiac are structurally different. However, the policies the department uses for this population at Pontiac ensure the same level of security.”
That surprised Rep. Mike Bost, the Murphysboro Republican who confronted Godinez about post-closure procedures at a legislative hearing.
“I took it literally whenever he said we’re going to repeat this same procedure,” Bost said.
If not, Bost said it proves the critics’ point: The state still needs a prison for extremely violent inmates and the thugs who keep running street gangs on the inside.
Some of the men leaving Tamms for Pontiac, according to internal documents and news reports, will return to the very place where their troubles began.
Robert Boyd was shipped to Tamms in 2003 after he and another Pontiac inmate tunneled through the brick walls of two cells and attempted to kill a third prisoner.
Gregory Rhodes was at Pontiac in January 1997 when he fastened a homemade knife to a broomstick, reached out of his cell and stabbed a guard in the stomach.
After Boyd, cell walls were reinforced with metal, Solano said. Anticipating Tamms transfers, openings on cell doors were covered with a polycarbonate material, she said. Pontiac has more security cameras and was “fortified” in other ways Solano would not detail because of security concerns.
Boyd and Rhodes are among about 135 inmates who haven’t moved. A lawsuit over the safety of employees, filed by their union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, halted transfers after 27 inmates were relocated the first week of August.
In the months following Quinn’s announcement, Corrections said displaced prisoners could be safely housed at Pontiac under a “step-down” process that gradually allowed ex-Tamms convicts to re-enter the general population at new prisons as they demonstrated good behavior.
Godinez scuttled that process on Aug. 1. With it also went inmate-movement rules for the re-entry participants, according to Pontiac Correctional Sgt. Larry Masching, the prison’s AFSCME president.
Administrators at Pontiac instead resurrected regulations that once governed the prison’s death row, Masching said. According to Masching and an AP comparison of internal Corrections policies, those rules are less stringent, which the union contends endangers workers, inmates and the public.
For instance, instead of requiring two officers to shackle a Tamms inmate before he leaves his cell, Pontiac rules expect only that two officers “be present on the gallery.”
“That (second) officer could be clear down the gallery, not present at the door,” Masching said. “That’s where guys are going to get hurt.”
The rules don’t prohibit additional measures – two officers at the door or the leg irons often required at Tamms – but Pontiac doesn’t have enough staff members to take extra precautions, the union argues. In August, Corrections had 5,100 fewer employees than a decade ago.
Corrections promises that once at Pontiac, the Tamms inmates will be housed alone in cells and locked up nearly all day.
But inmates without discipline issues could go to recreational “yard” at the same time, something never done at Tamms, Solano acknowledged. Masching said up to six former Tamms residents go to yard simultaneously.
Corrections rejected AP’s public-records request for a copy of the previous re-entry policy, saying it was still a “confidential document which is not even accessible to IDOC staff without permission.”
Solano said the policy was obsolete because it assumed the inmates were ready to begin the process of moving out of round-the-clock segregation, which many are not.
The three-step re-entry policy typically meant a two-phase stay at Pontiac — or a total of six months. Dropping the policy seems to have given officials more flexibility to move people to other prisons in the crowded system.
Solano denied that. But state records show that in the week the policy was dropped, 19 former Tamms inmates who had earlier been sent to Pontiac — and presumably were re-entry program participants – moved to Menard or Stateville prisons after as few as 28 days.