Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Crowded Prisons Hamper; Illinois Quinn Is in a Quandary as Budget Woes Force Closings at Tamms, Dwight, Putting More Stress on System

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Crowded Prisons Hamper; Illinois Quinn Is in a Quandary as Budget Woes Force Closings at Tamms, Dwight, Putting More Stress on System

Article excerpt

In a large old house atop the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River at Chester, several nervous off-duty employees of the Menard Correctional Center gathered one long-ago afternoon to whisper to me about tinderbox conditions at the century-old penitentiary a few miles upstream.

They feared that one of them might die from insufficient resources and bad management.

I doubt my resulting story about security made them much difference. To my best knowledge, none of the whistle-blowers from that day around 1980 suffered serious harm from prisoners or management.

I'd visited Menard before that clandestine rendezvous, and would visit a couple more times after. I girded myself each time for a few hours in a maximum-security lockup, once roaming the yard at the mercy of some potentially very unpleasant people. But I have no idea how somebody would brace for spending a career there.

Had I pursued such work, I think I'd have preferred to be among the even more unpleasant residents in the federal super-maximum prison at Marion, or the Illinois equivalent at Tamms. I say this having gotten a close look inside both back before Marion - which effectively replaced Alcatraz - surrendered its worst to a new facility in Colorado.

Their advantage was continuous lockdown. Barring a significant mistake or major mechanical malfunction, supermax inmates had virtually no way to do serious harm to each other or staff.

Whether perpetual solitary confinement was driving the prisoners insane, a point critics raised as far back as stories I wrote about Tamms in 1998, is another matter.

It's easy to understand why corrections officers are aggrieved at losing Tamms this month to budget cuts. Not only is it relatively safe, but the mere specter of confinement there may have held down violence in other institutions.

It's equally easy to see why Tamms was a target for Gov. Pat Quinn. Per-inmate costs were double or more there. Its methods were subjected to investigations and lawsuits. Its location near the state's southern tip was a hardship for visitors who mostly live at the other end. The economic blow, while significant locally, is minor in the scheme of big-state politics. …

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