Illinois Supreme Court gives go-ahead to close state's super-max prison
In a split decision Tuesday, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered that a preliminary injunction be lifted that had been granted to a state workers' union trying to keep some of the state's prisons open.
The decree clears the way for Governor Pat Quinn to close the high-security (Super-max) Tamms prison, in Alexander County; the state's largest women's prison in Dwight; juvenile detention centers in Murphysboro and Joliet; and three halfway houses for inmates nearing release dates.
In August, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents the state's prison guards sued in Alexander County, where Tamms is located. The union argued that Quinn had not followed contract rules to negotiate the impact the closures would have on state workers, such as prison guards. Workers are worried, in part, about prison system crowding and moving dangerous inmates isolated at Tamms into general-population prisons.
Alexander County Associate Circuit Judge Charles Cavaness issued the injunction this fall to allow time for the two sides to negotiate and for an arbitrator to decide whether talks had been in good faith. The arbitrator's October ruling found that Quinn had done what was necessary even though there was no agreement reached.
Three of the seven justices dissented, claiming that the court was overstepping its bounds, ignoring key constitutional questions that the Quinn administration itself raised and taking the unusual step of determining that the arbitrator's ruling was correct. That should be left up to a local judge to decide after the two sides' arguments, they said.
The Tamms prison has come under intense criticism for its policy of prolonged solitary confinement and other abuses, including the denial of basic medical care to inmates.
Critics of the prison say left alone in their cells for at least 23 hours per day leads inmates to suffer from mental health problems and suicides. According to testimony given by David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project at a hearing in April on the closing of Tamms before the Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, 54 Tamms prisoners have been in continuous solitary confinement for more than ten years.
After the John Howard Association, a nonpartisan prison watchdog group, visited Tamms this spring, they reported: “We found multiple instances of inmates decompensating mentally and physically and engaging in acts of auto-aggression and self-mutilation. We found seriously mentally ill inmates housed in long-term isolation convicted of lower-level offenses who would be more accurately described as the "sickest of the sick" rather than the "worst of the worst."
Union officials had argued that closing the super-max would devastate the already impoverished Alexander County, which they allege is the poorest county in the state.
Arguing against closing the state's only super-max, union officials also cited that moving the Tamms' inmates to general-population prisons could lead to an increase of inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff violence.
Quinn announced plans to close Tamms effective August 31 after learning that it costs the state an average of $64,805 per inmate per year.