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'Supermax' era ends as last Tamms inmates leave

SPRINGFIELD – One of the more contentious episodes in the history of Illinois penitentiaries ended Friday as the last inmates held at the "supermax" prison in Tamms moved out and Gov. Pat Quinn's administration prepares to shut it down.

The final five inmates at the high-security home for the "worst of the worst" were shipped to the Pontiac Correctional Center, a prison spokeswoman said. Among the last to leave was a convict who helped lead a prison riot in 1979 and stabbed serial killer John Wayne Gacy while on death row.

Also bused out of the southern Illinois city were four dozen residents of the adjoining minimum-security work camp, packed off to Sheridan Correctional Center in north-central Illinois.

The departures mark the end of a nearly 15-year experiment with the super maximum-security prison, which supporters say the state still needs for troublemaking convicts – particularly during a time of record inmate population. But opponents contend the prison's practice of near-total isolation was inhumane and contributed to some inmates' deteriorating mental health.

More than 130 inmates were moved out of the prison in just nine days, after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that legal action by a state workers' union could no longer hold up the governor's closure plans. The state has offered to sell the $70 million facility the federal government, but there are no solid plans for the future of the prison, often simply called Tamms.

"It's sad for our area, but we're never going to give up," said Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Democrat from Harrisburg whose district includes Tamms. "We still have an overcrowding problem. That's the deal with this. The governor has made it worse. Eventually, some of these facilities are going to have to reopen."

But activists opposed to the prison's isolation practices cheered Friday's landmark moment. One organizer, Laurie Jo Reynolds, called the course to closure "a democratic process" that involved not high-priced lobbyists or powerful strategists but, "the people – truly, the people."

Shuttering Tamms is part of Quinn's plan to save money. The Democrat said housing an inmate at the prison cost three times what it does at general-population prisons. He has also closed three halfway houses for inmates nearing sentence completion, relocating their 159 inmates, and plans to shutter the women's prison in Dwight.

But budget problems aside, critics note the state's prison system has more than 49,000 inmates in space designed for 33,000, after losing the 700 beds in the two Tamms units.

"All of the inmates transferred from Tamms and the [halfway houses] went to facilities that had space for them," Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said. "The inmate population remains at a level that can be safely and securely managed."

Many displaced Tamms inmates returned to Pontiac, where they first caused problems – including Robert Boyd who tunneled through brick walls of two Pontiac cells and attempted to kill another inmate.

Another inmate transferred Friday, according to Department of Corrections notifications reviewed by The Associated Press, was Henry Brisbon – a murderer whose profile gave Tamms its brand. Known as the "I-57 Killer" for three murders in 1973, Brisbon was with the first group of arrivals at Tamms on March 9, 1998, thanks to his role as ringleader of a 1979 Joliet prison riot and for stabbing Gacy when the two were together on death row.

Officials have said Pontiac has been fortified and the Tamms arrivals closely monitored.

Of about 300 employees whose last day at Tamms is Jan. 4, more than 270 accepted other positions within the Department of Corrections or other state agencies, Solano said. Others chose not to accept new state positions.

Tamms debuted as a "closed" maximum-security prison where gang leaders and inmates who incited violence at other lockups were exiled. At the time, the system was "up for grabs" with frequent inmate violence, said Tamms' first warden, George Welborn, who opposed its closing.

"In any prison system it's a very small minority of inmates that causes the disproportionate amount of problems," Welborn said. "The 250 to 300 that we had targeted for Tamms, those were bad guys, and they fomented a lot of violence."

But Reynolds and other reformers contended early on that state rules weren't being followed at Tamms – namely, that it was intended to be "short-term shock treatment" with stays lasting no more than a year.

Even more troubling, she said, was that some inmates were sent to Tamms for misbehavior spawned by mental illness, not criminality, so virtual isolation exacerbated their problems.

Reynolds was among those who organized "Tamms Year Ten" and began pushing the General Assembly in 2008 for reform. Reynolds never thought she'd see it closed.

"A lot of legislators, you just said the word 'Tamms,' and they were like, 'Forget it. We want Tamms, we need Tamms. You're talking about murderers,'" Reynolds said. "It was just a very difficult sell."

But opinion moved far enough in the past four years that when lawmakers sent Quinn a budget last spring with money to keep the prisons open, they suggested Tamms be retrofitted for lower-risk inmates.

Quinn vetoed the extra spending. He wanted the money shifted to child-protection services, but the funding has dwindled because the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' lawsuit blocked closures for four months before the Supreme Court sided with Quinn last week.

AFSCME continues pressing a judge in Alexander County to overturn an independent arbitrator's finding that Quinn had followed union-contract rules in his closure plans.

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