PONTIAC – The warden at one of the state’s toughest prisons said Friday his staff has absorbed highly volatile former Tamms Correctional Center inmates without violence or other trouble by explaining expectations and “giving them what they have coming – nothing more and nothing less.”
Pontiac prison chief Randy Pfister proudly displayed his facility – whose oldest part dates to the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant – lifting a curtain that Gov. Pat Quinn had drawn over his penitentiaries until last fall but reversed after media agitation.
The Good Friday tour came on the last day for Dwight Correctional Center – the women’s prison 20 miles northeast of here. Quinn, a Democrat, ordered Dwight and Tamms and other facilities closed, claiming it will eventually save $100 million a year.
Nearly 150 staff members from Dwight will join staff at Pontiac, where 165 security officers typically staff a day shift at the prison of nearly 2,000 inmates.
Employees affiliated with the union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which fought Quinn’s closures, bemoaned afterward that additional staff promised when Tamms closed came only at the expense of another penitentiary’s closure. There are 49,100 inmates in a prison system designed for 32,100.
The Associated Press requested a tour of Pontiac in August when it became clear it would be the new home of about 160 of “worst of the worst,” the moniker given to inmates exiled for violence or causing other trouble to Tamms, the state’s supermaximum-security lockup before it closed in January because of its high price and the state’s budget crisis.
But Friday’s tour for about a dozen reporters – who were allowed notebooks, but no cameras or audio recorders – omitted the part of the North Cell House that’s now home to roughly 50 convicts who had been shipped to Tamms because they had attacked staff or other inmates. It was skipped was for safety and security reasons and to limit disruption, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said.
It would have been eye-opening, said Frank Turner, a correctional officer and Pontiac AFSCME president, who took the tour.
“North segregation, it’s a different atmosphere,” Turner told reporters outside the prison gate after the tour. “The inmates that you saw, they’re going to be, to a certain extent, respectful, because they don’t want to end up in the North house.
“These are people no one wants in society and in the prison system, no one wants them either,” Turner said.
Pfister and his top staff guided reporters through the grounds – which, except for guard towers and razor wire, could almost pass for a college campus – and into the commissary and dietary units, and the cell houses – including the units that make up the original prison which opened in 1871.
“What you saw today, none of that was done in the last week or for the purposes of you guys coming,” Pfister said, alluding to fixed windows and painted walls that greeted media visitors at a southern Illinois facility. “The line staff here take much pride in what they do.”
Although discouraged from talking to them, the visitors did see ex-Tamms inmates, but not those who had not gone to the former supermax for violent incidents. Even if Tamms had stayed open, the languid-looking inmates who stared and occasionally waved at reporters would have finished their disciplinary time at Tamms and likely returned to Pontiac by now, Pfister said.
The warden and his staff exchanged greetings with inmates and listened to updates on their progress.
“We just deal with them respectfully and professionally and treat them like a man,” Pfister said. “They’ve already been judged. That’s not our job.”
Illinois Department of Corrections Director S.A. “Tony” Godinez promised lawmakers last spring that procedures at Pontiac for the Tamms inmates would be “identical,” but by August, when the first inmates transferred, procedures had changed.
While noting that life at Pontiac may not be as restrictive as at Tamms, Pfister said there have been no disturbances since Tamms men took up their new residences in December.
That’s been accomplished, Pfister said, by “just making sure that they understand what our policies and procedures are, keeping them informed, and giving them what they have coming – nothing more and nothing less.”
Turner, the AFSCME president, said additional inmates from Tamms have increased the number of “segregation” cells that include two inmates, which could lead to violence. At the other end of the state, the maximum-security Menard prison has seen three inmate deaths in double-bunk segregation cells that have been labeled suspicious – including one in which murder charges have been filed – in two months.