05/23/2012 05:54 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

It's Time for Illinois to Close Tamms Supermax

Across the country, states are using the current economic crisis as an opportunity to pursue cost-effective criminal justice reform. In this spirit, Governor Pat Quinn has proposed closing eight Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities, including Tamms Correctional Center (Tamms), the state's only supermax prison.

In a recently released special report, the John Howard Association (JHA), Illinois' only non-partisan prison watchdog, offers an unprecedented analysis of the operations and policies of the supermax facility. Based on personal observations, data, and an overriding body of evidence linking long-term isolation to the exacerbation and development of serious mental and physical illness, JHA argues that Tamms is unnecessary to protect the safety of inmates, staff, and the general public and therefore supports the governor's proposal and DOC Director Godinez's corresponding recommendations for closure.

It costs Illinois' taxpayers more than $26 million a year to hold roughly 180 maximum-security and 180 minimum-security inmates at Tamms. Per inmate, this translates into almost $65,000 per year -- the highest cost of any DOC facility. As DOC has been asked to cut more than $110 million from its fiscal year 2013 budget, an almost 10 percent reduction from 2012, it is difficult to justify spending such excessive resources to confine such a small population.

Tamms was originally built to isolate the state's most dangerous prisoners through long-term isolation. While DOC must be able to prevent especially dangerous and disruptive inmates from causing harm, the agency does not need Tamms to accomplish this important goal. Over the past two years, JHA has visited nearly all of DOC's 27 facilities, including two trips to Tamms and multiple visits to the state's maximum-security prisons. We found that all segregation inmates in DOC, whether at Tamms, Menard, Stateville, or Pontiac Correctional Centers, are treated virtually the same. They spend 22 to 23 hours a day in their cells, with their movement severely limited and aggressively monitored by correctional officers. The main difference between Tamms and other maximum-security facilities is that Tamms' model of segregation permits almost no human contact, which requires higher staffing levels and thus a significantly higher cost of incarceration. For these reasons, JHA is confident in Director Godinez's statement that Tamms inmates can be safely absorbed and managed by other facilities.

If Illinois does not close Tamms, the state will face the certainty of substantial long and short-term costs that taxpayers cannot afford. Throughout the country, courts are discrediting the use of long-term isolation. While there have been some efforts to reform Tamms, most notably DOC's 2009 Ten-Point Plan (PDF), they have failed to halt similar attacks. The longer Tamms remains open, the more resources Illinois will have to devote to protect it from these kinds of legal challenges.

For similar reasons, JHA is skeptical of recent discussions to repurpose Tamms. The facility was designed with one purpose: to house a small number of inmates in long-term isolation. Illinois taxpayers would have to spend significant funds to retrofit the facility to hold general population maximum-security inmates.

Proponents of Tamms have also argued that the facility cannot be closed because the region needs the jobs. Director Godinez's plan directly addresses this issue by offering Tamms' staff positions at nearby facilities. This will not only minimize job loss, but it will also help solve one of DOC's primary problems. With the exception of Tamms, every prison JHA has visited in recent years suffers from chronic understaffing. For instance, while Tamms employs approximately 15 nurses and one part-time psychiatrist to care for fewer than 200 maximum-security inmates, Vienna Correctional Center, a male minimum-security prison, has only 10 nurses and one-part-time psychiatrist to care for a population of more than 1,600 inmates. Similarly, whereas Tamms has two full-time teachers and no waiting lists for their GED program, Lincoln Correctional Center, a female medium security facility of about 1,000 inmates, had only one GED teacher and prohibitively long waiting lists. The closure plan, as outlined by Director Godinez, will help alleviate this problem by reassigning Tamms' staff to other facilities where their assistance is badly needed.

While the governor's proposal to close Tamms is supported by strong fiscal arguments, his decision is not just about cutting costs. Since Tamms opened in 1998, a growing body of research and the experience of prison systems in others states like Mississippi and Colorado have shown that the practice of long-term isolation is psychologically damaging and does not serve a legitimate correctional purpose. By closing Tamms, Illinois will join this growing consensus and take a critical step toward reforming the state's prison system to the benefit of public safety, security, and the state's fiscal health.