Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s recently announced decision to close the supermax prisons at Tamms, along with several other IDOC facilities, has provoked a bitter battle between the many organizations who have long advocated the closings, on the one hand, and the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), the union representing the guards and staff who work at the prisons, on the other.The Governor’s decision, according to statements released by his office, was based in large part on budget considerations; the closure of Tamms alone would result in an estimated savings to the state of $26 million per year. Those supporting his decision site humanitarian reasons, particularly the abusive treatment of prisoners, including the onerous use of prolonged solitary confinement at Tamms. And the union is dutifully trying to do its part to protect its members’ jobs. Both sides of the issue have argued ancillary issues, as well, in their efforts to enlist support among other groups, individual voters and the Legislature. And now the union has brought suit that resulted in a court-ordered delay in implementing the Governor’s closure order.

The arguments on both sides of the issue have merit, and both sides are continuing to present their cases and solicit support during the ongoing discussions, negotiations and mediation processes. The Illinois Institute, along with many other organizations, has stated its support for the closure of Tamms. We are concerned, however, that this vitriolic battle may be obscuring some of the larger issues confronting the prison system in Illinois as well as in other states and the nation in general.
To put it simply and bluntly, our prison system is broken, perhaps beyond repair. While the Tamms issue is indeed important, it is only a symptom of the systemic problems that permeate our corrections methods and processes.
First, the terms “corrections” and “rehabilitation” are glaring malapropos. Our prisons do not “correct” or “rehabilitate” their prisoners. They do not educate their inmates. They do not provide job training. They do not prepare them, psychologically or emotional, for their return to the general population. They do not provide adequate or effective medical treatment, nor do they provide mental health care for those in even obvious need. Our prisons, overcrowded and under-funded, are simply places we use to warehouse undesirables to keep them away from civil society. Our prisons, as they now exist, are not capable of fulfilling their intended purpose. On the contrary, the conditions in our prisons work against those who wish to transform themselves into productive, law-abiding citizens.
Secondly, a vital part of the system works against itself. We continue to erect daunting barriers that effectively prevent ex-prisoners from becoming contributing members of free society. By increasing the number of statutes, ordinances, rules and regulations that substantially restrict the opportunities and choices ex-prisoners have upon their release, we make it extremely difficult for them to get a decent job. As a result, they cannot earn an honest living. We essentially set them up for failure – hence, the disturbingly high rate of recidivism.It’s altogether too easy to point the finger of blame at one segment or facility or group within our penal system, but the truth is that we – society – are to blame. And we bear the responsibility to do something about it.

The Governor’s decision to close Tamms is the right one. Tamms is inhumane, excessively expensive, under-utilized and serves no effective penological purpose. Its officers and staff can be relocated to other facilities, many of which are nearby and currently understaffed.

Closing other prison facilities, however, is problematical given that the system as a whole is badly overcrowded – the current IDOC population is almost 50,000; the system is designed to hold about 36,000. A better solution is a reduction in prison population, starting with long-term prisoners who have served substantial terms and who are statistically and realistically no longer a threat to anyone if they are released – i.e., the old and seriously ill. Additionally, we need alternatives to locking up people who are convicted of non-violent crimes, such as rehabilitation, redirection and training programs.

To accomplish this, we must effectively counter the provincial and self-serving arguments of the correction officers’ union, state’s attorneys, so-called “victims’ rights” groups, chambers of commerce, legislators who fear being labeled “soft on crime,” police organizations and others who oppose any significant changes in our severely broken system.

There are, however, no miraculous or quick-fix solutions. It will take considerable time and a lot of money. And it will take determination and perseverance on the part of all who hope to one day see a corrections system that actually does what it is supposed to do.