By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD — State lawmakers and the union representing thousands of correctional officers are calling for an override of Gov. Pat Quinn‘s veto that slashed funding for two prisons and two youth centers.
A lawsuit to stop the closures is a possibility, too, a union official said Tuesday.
“The biggest concern I have is not only the safety of our employees, but the safety of our citizens,” said state Sen. John O. Jones, R-Mount Vernon. “We’re going to get to the point where the citizens are going to be in danger from the overcrowding here. I’m very supportive of overriding the veto. We (lawmakers) put that money in the budget for a reason, and that was to keep these facilities open.”
Eight lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans from both chambers of the General Assembly, joined in calling for a veto override Tuesday, pointing to resulting job losses in their districts and what they believe are Quinn‘s broken promises. They also pointed to the potential for overcrowding and increased violence in the state’s prisons, citing an Associated Press report from Monday that identified several recent reports of violence.
Among the incidents in the Associated Press report are:
- An inmate using a “self-made plastic weapon” to assault a correctional officer on May 26;
- Two maximum-security inmates attacking a guard on June 3;
- Heroin overdoses by two inmates at a prison on June 10;
- A fight on June 29 that resulted in one inmate stabbing another nine times in a cell.
Illinois Statehouse News filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Illinois Department of Corrections on June 26, requesting documents regarding security incidents and injuries to inmates, correctional officers and staff at each of the state’s prisons. The department is working on that request, according to a July 3 letter seeking more time to respond.
Quinn wants to close four correctional facilities:
- Tamms “super-max” prison in economically depressed far southern Illinois;
- Dwight Correctional Center, a women’s prison in Grundy County about 80 miles southwest of downtown Chicago;
- Youth correctional centers in Joliet outside of Chicago and Murphysboro in southern Illinois.
Lawmakers provided funding for the facilities in the budget they passed in May, but Quinn, who had vowed to close them, later vetoed the funding.
Kelly Kraft, Quinn’s budget spokeswoman, responded to the lawmakers’ call for a veto, saying, “Anyone who calls to keep these outdated, half-full, expensive facilities open is calling for the continual waste of taxpayer dollars on facilities the state no longer needs.”
She added that there is “absolutely no connection between the announcement of the closure of Tamms and inmate behavior or the occurrence of incidents in the other prisons.”
State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, said the closures in southern Illinois will result in a loss of 400 jobs.
“That would be like losing 130,000 jobs in Chicago,” he said. “I wonder where the governor would be if there were 130,000 jobs leaving Chicago. I think we all know where he would be. He would be up there asking, ‘What can we do to keep you here?’
“We’re already struggling. This makes it extremely tough.”
Quinn has said he wants to use money earmarked for the prisons for the state Department of Children and Family Services. Quinn also has reached out to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to see if it would buy the Tamms facility from the state.
Kraft noted that the overall prison population is declining, which means transitioning prisoners to other facilities should be a safe and secure endeavor.
“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,” she said.
Henry Bayer, executive director of the American Federation for State County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents 12,000 corrections employees, said the union has not ruled out legal action to try to keep the prisons open.
“One way would be obviously if the General Assembly convened and overrode (Quinn’s) veto. Secondly, if he just saw that this plan makes no sense at all and there is public outrage and outcry against it and he would not go forward with the closures,” Bayer said.
“And there is the possibility of court action. It’s happened before. There’s precedent for it when Gov. (Rod) Blagojevich tried to close Pontiac (prison). The court delayed that. But we’re hoping the governor will come to his senses.”
Jayette Bolinski can be reached at [email protected].