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updated: 12/20/2012 7:27 PM

Inmate transfers from Tamms prison begin

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  • Tamms Correctional Center, Illinois' only super-maximum-security prison, is closing Jan. 4.

    Tamms Correctional Center, Illinois' only super-maximum-security prison, is closing Jan. 4.
    Associated Press file photo

Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- Illinois prison inmates who for more than a decade have been called "the worst of the worst" began leaving the high-security Tamms prison Thursday in anticipation of shutting the doors on the "supermax" for good Jan. 4.

About 25 Tamms inmates moved to their new home in segregation units at Pontiac Correctional Center, 300 miles to the north, Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said.

That leaves 106 inmates in the single-cell isolation portion of Tamms. The prison also has a minimum-security unit that holds just fewer than 100, but none of those were moving Thursday, Solano said.

Gov. Pat Quinn ordered the transfers after a judge in Alexander County, where Tamms is located, followed a Supreme Court order and on Wednesday lifted an injunction that had blocked shutdowns. A lawsuit by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, representing correctional employees, had blocked the Democratic governor's plan to close Tamms, the women's lockup in Dwight, three adult inmate transition centers and two juvenile detention sites.

Aside from 40 halfway-house residents who took an intercity trip to a new home in Chicago, no other detainees in either adult or juvenile centers moved Thursday.

"IDOC will implement the closures in a thoughtful and responsible manner that prioritizes public safety and security while minimizing the impact on staff and inmates," Solano said.

Tamms, which opened to much ballyhoo in 1998 as a "supermax" to segregate gang leaders and inmates who caused trouble in general-population prisons, had been criticized for years for its harsh treatment -- particularly the way it isolated prisoners from one another and kept them in their cells 23 hours a day.

The Tamms transfers actually are a resumption of moves after a 4 month break. Corrections shipped eight of Tamms' most volatile inmates Aug. 2, a day after Corrections Director S.A. "Tony" Godinez jettisoned a policy for gradually returning the isolated Tamms residents to general population lockups, according to a confidential memo obtained by The Associated Press.

Dumping the policy meant abandoning the tough Tamms rules that Godinez had promised lawmakers would follow the prisoners to Pontiac. Remaining guidelines required fewer guards and fewer chains on inmates when they were moved out of their cells. Corrections officials then acknowledged not every procedure at Pontiac would be "identical," as Godinez had said, but sufficient to provide the same level of security.

Only eight were moved, though, before an abrupt stop forced by an AFSCME lawsuit filed the same day. Court action Wednesday allowed Quinn to continue, but AFSCME continues to press the Alexander County court to reverse an arbitrator's decree stating that Quinn followed union-contract rules in forcing the closures.

Among other things, the union fears shutdowns will endanger inmates, correctional employees, and the public because the statewide system has more than 49,000 inmates in facilities designed for 33,700.

The three adult transition centers scheduled to close in Carbondale, Chicago and Decatur hold 159 inmates. Solano said 40 people from Westside Adult Transition Center in Chicago moved about two miles to Crossroads ATC on Thursday.

The transition centers, like Tamms, will close Jan. 4, but an end date for Dwight has not been determined. Closing Dwight means moving men and women inmates among three different prisons.

The Illinois Youth Center at Murphysboro, opened in 1997, has been empty since its last resident was moved July 9, said Jennifer Florent, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice.

Joliet, the other youth center slated for shutdown, will close after its 138 residents -- most of which are considered maximum-security detainees -- are moved to youth centers in Harrisburg, St. Charles and possibly Kewanee, Florent said.

"Many factors, including the youth's home county, will be taken into account when determining the best placement," Florent said.

Unlike in the adult system, juvenile incarcerations have dropped. There were 906 juveniles in detention Thursday, housed in facilities that can hold about 1,500, Florent said.

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