Quinn Wants Feds to Buy Tamms Prison

A closure of Tamms could cost 300 jobs

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is offering to sell the state's prison at Tamms to the federal government, the second time in less than three years that he's courted Washington to buy a state penitentiary.

In a letter dated Friday and obtained by The Associated Press, Quinn told the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons that the 14-year-old supermaximum-security lockup, which he plans to close by autumn, would be a "valuable addition'' to the U.S. correctional system.

"Tamms is located in a rural area without major growth around the perimeter of the facility, which adds to the secured environment, but it enjoys access to the Interstate system located only a few miles away,'' Quinn wrote to federal prisons director Charles Samuels.

The proposal was made the same day Quinn received budget legislation which includes money to keep the 14-year-old Tamms open. Quinn wants to shutter Tamms and other facilities and redirect the money to the Department of Children and Family Services, the Chicago Tribune reported Friday.

The state's financial year begins Saturday.

A sale that keeps Tamms operating "could impact employment in that area and that's positive news,'' Quinn budget spokeswoman Kelly Kraft said.

She said state law likely would require the sale price to be the average of three independent appraisals. The 500-bed prison cost $70 million to open in 1998.

Tamms' closure means about 300 layoffs, although the administration maintains that with Department of Corrections attrition, jobs at other facilities should be available to everyone. More than 1,000 correctional workers could get pink slips with additional shutdowns planned for the Dwight prison, two juvenile centers and six halfway houses.

Kraft said the federal prison agency had received the Tamms pitch but agency spokeswoman Traci Billingsley would not comment on it. Billingsley did say the prison system often tries to buy state facilities when they are adequate and there is available money.

Money is the holdup in a U.S. purchase of Illinois' maximum-security prison at Thomson. Quinn floated that idea in 2009. Thomson was completed in 2001 but Illinois never fully opened it because of budget problems. Thomson is appraised at $220 million.

Tamms was opened in 1998 to house "the worst of the worst''  inmates who were violent or caused other trouble in general-population penitentiaries. But Quinn says it's too expensive to run and some prisoner advocates oppose its practice of round-the-clock inmate isolation.

Quinn's decision to close Tamms despite legislation providing operating funds has angered southern Illinois lawmakers worried about lost jobs around Alexander County, one of the state's most impoverished.

Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican, said Friday he'd be pleased if the federal government took over Tamms if the state closes it. But he repeated supporters' concerns that the supermax keeps a lid on violence elsewhere.

"I'm all for jobs. I'm also for safety for our correctional facilities,'' Bost said. "So many inmates in other correctional facilities, if they're in on a life sentence, they've got nothing left to lose. Tamms sends a clear message: 'Act up. Go ahead. You're going to Tamms, in isolation.'''

Along with Tamms, lawmakers found money to keep open other prison operations Quinn said had to close: Dwight and youth correctional sites in Joliet and Murphysboro. But the governor said last week he'd proceed with shuttering them, leaving about $90 million unspent.

For the most part, he would need legislative approval to spend that money elsewhere. The state's child-welfare agency stands to lose about $85 million in the budget sent to Quinn. Department of Children and Family Services Director Richard Calica told the AP last week he has been discussing with the governor ways to restore that money but wouldn't provide details.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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