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Supermax Showdown

Update: On December 19, an Alexander County judge lifted the injunction blocking the closure of Tamms and six other state facilities. Illinois prison officials began transferring inmates out of the facilities following this move, which was taken on an earlier order from the Illinois Supreme Court. The facilities are scheduled to close by January 4. The judge did not dismiss AFSCME Local Council 31's underlying lawsuit, however, and the union said in a statement on the closings that “AFSCME will be able to continue to seek a legal remedy that addresses the dangerous conditions that the closures will cause throughout the prison system.” 

“I am a mom,” read dozens of signs lofted by protesters outside Illinois’ Tamms Correctional Center last spring. Many of the demonstrators were family members of the prison’s 100-plus inmates who are held in 23-hour-a-day isolation. But the slogan—an allusion to AFSCME’s famous 1968 “I am a man” campaign for striking sanitation workers in Memphis—was also seeking to shame the union that once marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., for its current fight to keep the supermax prison open.

In June 2012, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced that Tamms and five other state correctional facilities would be shuttered that August to help fill the state’s $43.8 billion budget deficit. But all have remained open thanks to a lawsuit filed by AFSCME Local Council 31, which represents guards and other workers at the prison. A bruising fight has followed between a union trying to preserve its members’ jobs and activists insisting that the labor movement must draw the line at supporting the prison industry’s cruelest facilities.

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