Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Report of assaults stirs new debate over prison closures

By Jamey Dunn

Lawmakers and unions officials are asking Gov. Pat Quinn to but the brakes on prison closures after reports of recent assaults have surfaced.

The Associated Press reported that a corrections officer was stabbed at the Stateville Correctional Center and another guard was stabbed at the Pontiac Correctional Center in the last six weeks. The AP also reported that more than a dozen weapons have been found during recent searches of inmates cells, and that two prisoners were found unresponsive in the cell they shared. Officials from the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents prison guards, said that the two had overdosed on heroin. A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections said she could not comment on the incident because it is part of an ongoing investigation. According to the IDOC, both inmates survived.

Legislators and union leaders say the reports bolster their arguments against closing some of the state’s corrections facilities.

Last week, Gov. Pat Quinn made clear his intentions to move forward with the closures with a few strokes of his veto pen. Quinn signed the budget sent to him by the General Assembly, but he vetoed $19.4 million that was included to run the state’s only super-maximum security prison located near Tamms and the $21.2 million included to operate a women’s prison in Dwight. In addition to the prisons, he plans to close three transition centers meant to help inmates reenter society. The prisons and transition centers are scheduled to be closed on August 31. (For more on the debate surrounding the closure of Tamms, see Illinois Issues, June 2012.)

Quinn also cut $8.9 million for a youth prison in Joliet and $6.6 million for a youth prison in Murphysboro. The facility in Joliet is slated for closure on November 30, and the Murphysboro facility is scheduled for closure on August 31.

Quinn’s administration said that the assaults have nothing to do with the governor’s closure plans. “There is no evidence of an increase in weapons found or assaults within the facilities as a result of the closure plans,  Stacey Solano, a spokeswoman for the IDOC, said in a prepared statement. As common practice, to ensure safety and security within the facilities, IDOC often searches for contraband and removes it. Inmates found to be in possession of contraband, or those who display negative behavior, are swiftly and appropriately disciplined.” 

However, opponents today called for the governor to halt the closures until lawmakers return for their fall veto session scheduled for November. They said the legislature should have a chance to vote to override the governor’s vetoes before the facilities are shuttered. “They should be halted. The governor should halt them, and he should wait for the General Assembly. ... The General Assembly worked very hard on this budget. They did allocate money to keep these facilities open,” said Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31.

Lawmakers who oppose closing prisons argued that news of recent assaults undermines Quinn’s claims that the prisons will be safe after the closures. “Every prison now is overcrowded,” said Sen. Gary Forby, a Benton Democrat. “You’re going to hurt officers. You’re going to hurt prisoners. You’re going to hurt the state of Illinois.” Forby said that he and other opponents of the closures plan to lobby lawmakers to reject Quinn’s vetoes of corrections spending. “We’re going to try to override him. I’m going to stick to my guns.”

Republicans said Quinn should not have vetoed the money for prisons and then urged for spending elsewhere, such as the Department of Child and Family Services. Quinn also plans to close mental health centers and centers for the developmentally disabled as part of an effort to save money and move away from institutional care.

Sen. David Luechtefeld, an Okawville Republican, said Quinn rejected the money for facilities and “in the next breath, he doesn’t say to ‘pay some of our bills.’” He added, “It’s to simply spend the money someplace else.”

Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican, said: “We did our jobs. We put the money in the budget. We showed where our priorities were.”

Quinn argues that the facilities are a drain on the state’s budget, and money to fund them should instead be used to fund things that he sees as more pressing priorities. “Anyone who calls to keep these outdated, half-full, expensive facilities open is calling for the continual waste of taxpayer dollars on facilities the state no longer needs, Kelly Kraft, a Quinn budget spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement. The overall population is down from last year, and female entries into the system are declining. Inmates will be safely and securely transitioned into appropriate facilities fully capable of securing offenders and resulting in costs savings to Illinois taxpayers. Some will say that money was provided in the budget to keep these facilities open when in reality, legislators made a choice on how to spend taxpayer dollars: choosing outdated, half-full, expensive prisons over educating our children and keeping them safe,” 

Frank Mautino, a budget point man for the House Democrats, said that the budget bills would not have had the support to clear appropriations committees and reach a floor vote in the House if they had not contained funding for the state facilities targeted for closure. “Facility closures were the linchpin of the budget. ... Amongst the committee negotiations is where it became the linchpin,” he said.

Mautino, from Spring Valley, said that while there were not explicit agreements that he knows of between lawmakers and Quinn’s office to trade votes on other issues for assurances of facilities remaining open, Quinn had staff at committee meetings, and he should know that the budget would have been shot down without the funding for state institutions. “That’s how you put a budget together,” Bayer said. “Now it’s like: ‘Heads I win; tails you lose.’ The governor got many of the things he wanted.”

He criticized Quinn for not making public all the details of his plans for closing facilities and moving staff and prisoners to new locations. “If the department has a plan, we think they have an obligation to present it, to show us that things aren’t going to be out of hand. They haven’t done that. I don’t think they can do it,” Bayer said. “They’re taking places that are already overcrowded and making them even more overcrowded and trying to lead us to believe that it won’t be any more dangerous.” But Solano said the governor’s staff met with union representatives last week, briefed them on the plan and answered their questions. “The closure of multiple facilities is an ongoing process, and the department continues to work with the union as it moves forward with responsibly carrying out the closures.”

Bayer said the union has not ruled out taking legal action if Quinn proceeds with the closures, which AFSCME maintains would create unsafe working environments for some of its members. “We’re exploring all options,” Bayer said. “We’re very concerned about the dangers that are going to be exacerbated by this move.”

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