Saving Dollars... With Good Policy

The closing of the facility at Tamms provides the State of Illinois with a unique opportunity to save money and make an important public policy change that promotes human rights and public safety -- reducing the use of solitary confinement.

As residents and concerned citizens in Illinois know, our state faces difficult fiscal challenges. From annual budget deficits to structural issues begging for long-term reform to the need to provide a meaningful safety net for the most vulnerable in Illinois, we have big problems that need bold solutions. Recently, Governor Pat Quinn delivered his annual budget message, replete with a list of cuts that he proposes for the year ahead to save money in Illinois. One proposal that garnered attention and acclaim was the governor's suggestion that Illinois close the so-called "supermax" correctional facility located in downstate Tamms. Opened in 1995, the facility has been enormously expensive to Illinois taxpayers. The best estimate is that it costs three times more to house a prisoner in Tamms than the state's average per-prisoner cost. So, it is easy to see why the governor targeted this facility for closure -- it will save the state tens of millions of dollars each year.

Part of the reason that the facility was so expensive was the nature of incarceration at Tamms. The "supermax" structure was constructed to hold prisoners in solitary confinement or without contact with others for extended periods of time. Solitary confinement became a norm at Tamms, resulting in more than 50 prisoners being held in continuous solitary confinement for more than 10 years. Yes, a full decade in solitary confinement.

The evidence of the past few years suggests that the use of long-term solitary confinement of the type used at Tamms profoundly and irreparably damages the prisoners exposed to such harsh treatment. Speaking specifically about Tamms, a federal judge in 2010 wrote that "Tamms imposes drastic limitations on human contact, so much so as to inflict lasting psychological and emotional harm on inmates confined for long periods."

Over many years, courts have recognized this damaging psychological effect and the extreme suffering caused by long-term solitary confinement. Some courts have suggested that such treatment violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, particularly when a prisoner suffers from a mental illness. The use of this brutal form of punishment at supermax prisons like Tamms even has resulted in the United States being criticized by the human rights bodies of the United Nations. Since the announcement by Governor Quinn that Tamms would be shuttered under his plan, some have (predictably) raised concerns, suggesting that Illinois residents might not be safe if the facility is closed. No evidence is offered for this suggestion, only dark inferences of some pending threat. There is a reason that these voices offer no evidence: It does not exist. Indeed, there is evidence from other states across the nation that prisoners who are held in solitary confinement actually have a higher rate of recidivism than those held in the general population. In other words, Tamms -- like other supermax facilities -- simply has not added to our public safety.

Closing Tamms offers the State of Illinois a unique opportunity to re-examine the Department of Corrections' use of solitary confinement in all of its facilities. Recent years have seen such evaluations in other states, with a reduction in the use of solitary confinement in states like Mississippi, Maine and Colorado. These states have seen no increase in crime and they have enjoyed considerable cost savings. Illinois can follow this path. Governor Quinn's call to close Tamms and other facilities will lead appropriately to an examination of all the state's functions -- in an effort to save money and create policies going forward that are smart and cost-efficient. We should not let voices of alarm about public safety deter state officials from looking at the use of solitary confinement as part of that process. It turns out that we can save money by implementing good, humane policies.