Union’s Lawsuit: Closing Illinois Prisons Is Dangerous

Inmates at the high-security Tamms prison “have a history of assaulting staff, preying on other inmates” and should not be shipped to other Illinois correctional facilities ill-prepared to handle them, a lawsuit filed Thursday claims in seeking a halt to Gov. Pat Quinn’s prison closures.

On the same day the correctional workers’ union filed the legal action, eight Tamms inmates _ at least some of them from a section housing mentally ill prisoners _ were transferred out, most of them going to the maximum-security lockup at Pontiac, according to corrections records reviewed by The Associated Press. Their trip began about six hours before the lawsuit was filed.

One of those relocated was John Spires, a serial rapist who held a Dixon prison psychologist hostage for 25 hours in 2006 and repeatedly raped her.

Quinn’s plan to close Tamms, a women’s maximum-security prison at Dwight, two halfway houses and two youth detention centers _ moving up to 5,000 prisoners in the already overcrowded system _ will endanger guards and inmates alike, according to the lawsuit filed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The AP obtained a copy in advance.

The union hopes for a hearing next week in Alexander County in far southern Illinois, where Tamms is located. The filing requests a stop to inmate relocation until the Department of Corrections negotiates closure conditions and ensures safety of employees who the union says already work in understaffed facilities.

“The Quinn administration is failing its duty to ensure a safe workplace for its employees,” said Henry Bayer, executive director of the union. “Instead, it is sending men and women to work each day in prisons that the state’s own actions are making more dangerous.”

Tamms is at the center of Quinn’s cost-saving shutdown, which he wants completed by Aug. 31 over lawmakers’ objections. It was built just 14 years ago as a “supermaximum-security” lockup, isolating troublemakers who were violent in other prisons and gang leaders whose communication with subordinates was cut off. Moving them to general prisons endangers guards and others not used to handling them, the union said.

A spokeswoman for Quinn forcefully denied the claims.

“AFSCME is wrong,” Brooke Anderson said in a statement. “The closures are being done in full compliance with the collective bargaining agreements and in a manner that ensures safety to the employees who work in the facilities, the youth, the inmates, and the citizens of Illinois.”

Supporters say the threat of Tamms has stymied violence and drug trafficking in general-population prisons. But Quinn announced in February he would mothball it, saying it is underused and too expensive. Human rights advocates who believe Tamms’ extended isolation damages inmates’ mental health praised Quinn’s decision.

The lawsuit paints a different picture.

“The maximum security unit at Tamms houses inmates who are unfit to be among the general prison population because they have a history of assaulting staff, preying on other inmates, or creating serious prison disturbances,” it reads. “This security system ensures that the inmates cannot carry out their dangerous activities and has proven to be a potent deterrent to such activities to the inmates at other correctional centers.”

Corrections records show eight inmates transferred from Tamms Thursday, at least some of them from the mentally ill unit. In addition to Spires, there’s Demetrious Papademetriou, serving 50 years for murdering his Menard prison cellmate in the mid-1990s.

Seven left Tamms about 8:45 a.m. _ hours before the lawsuit was filed _ and arrived at Pontiac about 3:45 p.m. “with no issues,” Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said. An eighth inmate was moved to Menard.

That leaves 155 still at Tamms, according to an Associated Press tally. Corrections officials list the penitentiary’s capacity as 500. It once had a larger population and was built with excess space to handle a sudden influx of agitators, according to George Welborn, the now-retired first warden of Tamms.

It’s a luxury in tough budget times, Anderson said: “To save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually and allow the state to pay down its bills, we will continue to move forward with the closure of outdated, half-full and expensive facilities.”

Tamms also has a minimum-security work camp that houses about 200 inmates. The state transferred 30 last week to a Hardin County camp which already was at capacity of 200, according to the filing.

Also in the lawsuit’s crosshairs is the complicated procedure planned for closing Dwight, a maximum-security prison for women. Between Dwight and the medium-security Lincoln Correctional Center, there are about 2,200 women who would move to the larger Logan Correctional Center, also in Lincoln, which currently houses men. The 2,000 men at Logan would go to Lincoln and the overflow would be move elsewhere in the state.

AFSCME argues that Logan would have to be fortified to accept maximum-security female inmates and contends they should not be mixed with lower-level criminals. It says that because Lincoln can’t hold all displaced male prisoners from Logan, crowding will become worse at other lockups.

From The St. Louis Post-Dispatch