By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Statehouse News
CARBONDALE — Gov. Pat Quinn’s unilateral decision this week to close prisons in southern lllinois could flip a traditionally Democratic area of the state to the GOP, outraged Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday.
State Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, said Democrats five years from now will be able to point to Quinn’s actions this week as the reason Republicans have political control in southern Illinois.
“When you’re doing something like this to southern Illinois, you’re not helping any Democrat, to be honest with you,” said Phelps, who was notified by fax of Quinn’s plans to proceed with the closures. “I don’t know what his plans are in the next election, but he has a chance to make this right.”
Lawmakers and labor leaders gathered in Carbondale Wednesday to deride Quinn as a coward and an enemy to southern Illinois for his abrupt announcement Tuesday that he still intends to shutter numerous correctional facilities throughout the state, including three in southern Illinois.
They said they were shocked Tuesday afternoon by news that Quinn wants to proceed with the closures, even though the Legislature included money for the facilities in the budget it approved at the end of May.
Phelps noted the two southern Illinois counties Quinn won in the 2010 election were Alexander and Jackson, each of which have a correctional facility slated for closure — the Tamms “super-max” prison in Alexander County and the Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro. Quinn said he intends to close the Southern Illinois Adult Transition Center in Carbondale, as well.
“Alexander County is the poorest county in the state. You’re going to take away their biggest employer?” Phelps said.
State Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, said Quinn does not care about southern Illinois.
“I don’t even know why he comes past I-80 anymore,” Forby said. “When he got elected he said, ‘I work from the bottom up.’ He doesn’t understand from the bottom up. He just understands Chicago.”
Forby would not speculate on whether union donations to the governor could dry up in light of his closure order. Unions continue to support Forby, though, he said.
“I haven’t seen it in my campaign,” he said. “The unions … they’re bigger now for me than they’ve ever been. The working people are for me because they know where I’m at and they know what I do.”
Randy Clark, a lieutenant who has worked at Tamms for 13 years, said he has no idea what Quinn is thinking.
“He’s taking some bad advice, and I think he really needs to reconsider what he’s getting ready to do,” Clark said, saying he believes injuries — and possibly killings — would increase at the state’s prisons without Tamms.
“Stabbing incidents are going up at Menard (prison). We’re getting offenders from Menard at Tamms now. If Tamms isn’t needed, why send them to us?” he said.
Clark said he believes southern Illinois is being targeted politically. He said the workers at Tamms are devastated by news of the closure, which could happen Aug. 31.
“I’m not sure what’s left. The staff, naturally, we want to keep our jobs, but we also want to make the senators and the representatives — and especially the governor’s office — more fiscally responsible in Springfield,” he said.
“We can give up part of our pension system, we can give up our salaries. There are people who are willing to make concessions. However, when they continually abuse the checkbook in Springfield, at what point do you give in?”
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, said Quinn’s decision helps southern Illinois Republicans from a political standpoint.
“The problem is, this issue is so much bigger than that. It’s so much bigger than Republican-Democrat,” he said. “This is a safety issue statewide. This is a local issue in the fact of jobs and employment.”
Bost told dozens of workers in Carbondale on Wednesday that legislators did their jobs by putting money in the budget for the correctional facilities to stay open. He said votes on other issues were cast under the understanding Quinn would keep the facilities open.
“If the governor proceeds with this, he has gone back on his word,” Bost said.
Jayette Bolinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.