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updated: 8/2/2012 5:08 PM

Lawsuit takes aim at prison closures

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Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- 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 to halt to Gov. Pat Quinn's prison closures.

The corrections workers' union claims Quinn's plan to close Tamms, a women's maximum-security prison at Dwight, two halfway houses and two youth detentions centers -- transferring up to 5,000 prisoners in the already overcrowded system -- will endanger guards and inmates alike, according to the lawsuit. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the suit in advance.

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The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees took action in Alexander County in far southern Illinois, where Tamms is located. The filing asks a judge to stop prisoner relocation until the Department of Corrections negotiates closure conditions and ensures safety of employees who the union says already work in understaffed facilities.

A hearing on the matter has not been set.

The lawsuit also says lawmakers, who voted against shuttering prisons and provided money in the state budget to keep them open, should have a chance when they return for the fall session to overturn the appropriations Quinn vetoed.

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

A Corrections spokeswoman did not have an immediate comment.

Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said, "AFSCME is wrong."

She said closures are complying with employee contract agreements with the union and proceeding safely. She said the state can't afford the facilities because of a tight budget and declining adult and juvenile populations.

Tamms is at the center of Quinn's cost-saving shutdown, which he wants completed by Aug. 31. It was built just 14 years ago as a "supermaximum-security" lockup, isolating troublemakers who were violent in other prisons and gang leaders and cutting off their communication with subordinates.

An Associated Press tally shows authorities have transferred 27 inmates out of Tamms since late March, leaving 163, including ten who arrived during that time. 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.

Advocates 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," the lawsuit states, noting that isolation is virtually 24 hours. "This security system ensures that the inmates cannot carry out their dangerous activities and has proved to be a potent deterrent to such activities to the inmates at other correctional centers."

The maximum-security Pontiac Correctional Center can handle Tamms prisoners, state officials say. The lawsuit claims that some Pontiac inmates who are segregated because of discipline problems will have to double up, elevating tensions and potentially causing more problems.

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.

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