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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block this week at NPR West in Southern California. Supermax stands for super-maximum security, the kind of prison for inmates deemed too violent for the general prison population. Human rights groups routinely criticize these prisons for keeping people in solitary confinement for months or even years on end. These groups say many inmates suffer from mental illnesses. But that's not the only thing working against super-maximum security prisons; some states simply can't afford them anymore. And Illinois is the latest as we hear from Jacob McCleland of member station KRCU.

JACOB MCCLELAND, BYLINE: I'm standing in Tamms, Illinois, a tiny dot of a town in the southernmost tip of the state. Just across a field of hay bales is the largest employer in this village of fewer than 650 people - the Tamms supermax prison. It's a low-lying, nearly windowless building, surrounded by fences and light posts. But inside those tan walls, murderers, gang leaders and the so-called worst-of-the-worst live out their days in long-term solitary confinement. But this prison's days could soon be numbered.

JOHN MAKI: In Illinois, we're broke. We don't have the money to run our state in the ways that we have in the past.

MCCLELAND: John Maki heads the John Howard Association, a watchdog group that monitors Illinois prisons.

MAKI: You know, it costs $26 million of taxpayer money to incarcerate less than 200 people. If we don't close Tamms, I don't know where that money comes from.

The Illinois prison system is bursting at the seams with about 14,000 inmates beyond capacity. Meanwhile, the Tamms supermax typically holds fewer than 200 prisoners at a time, and it's expensive - very expensive. The Tamms prison costs about $62,000 per inmate per year, about three times the statewide average. Supermax prisons experienced a building boom in the 1980s and '90s, largely in response to get-tough-on-crime policies. In Illinois, gangs effectively ran some prisons, and violence was epidemic.

MCCLELAND: Toby Oliver was there then as a prison guard at a maximum security prison in 1995. An inmate stabbed Oliver four times with a shank. Oliver is now a guard at Tamms.

TOBY OLIVER: There's several factors that have taken place to turn the Department of Corrections to a safer environment, but Tamms is also one of those.

DAN MEARS: And that has some kind of intuitive logic.

MCCLELAND: That's Dan Mears, a criminologist at Florida State University. He says it's unclear if supermax prisons actually reduce violence in the general prison population.

MEARS: Gangs are a great example. You remove a gang member or a gang leader from a facility and put him in, say, Tamms. It's not like the organization they belong to disappears. Someone else steps up to the plate, and it's more than conceivable that all the gang activity remains the same as it was prior to removing the gang leader.

MCCLELAND: While budget problems loom large in Illinois, lawsuits, human rights complaints and new research are all leading other states to give their supermax lockups a long, hard look. Mississippi recently cut its solitary population by nearly 90 percent. Colorado reduced its from 1,500 to about 900 over the past year and will shut down a facility that's only two years old. In Maine, the Corrections Department adopted several reforms establishing stricter requirements before sending prisoners to solitary. Inmates at the supermax earn privileges for good behavior. Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte says he has to give his personal approval for long-term solitary confinement.

JOSEPH PONTE: You know, we didn't just do this change to make somebody feel good. We didn't do the change for budget reasons. We did it because we thought it was a more effective way to manage these inmates, and the proof is in the data. The data says that it's working.

MCCLELAND: Since then, Maine's segregation unit dwindled from 130 to about 40 inmates, and violent incidents in the general population have decreased. Back in Illinois, state legislators have proposed converting Tamms into a lower-security level prison. Either way, the lockup's days of housing the so-called worst-of-the-worst are likely coming to a close soon. For NPR News, I'm Jacob McCleland.

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