AFSCME Council 31, the state’s main public employees union, and a group of state lawmakers vowed today to undo Gov. Pat Quinn's closing of corrections facilities, including Dwight women’s prison and Tamms supermax prison, during the fall veto session.
Overriding Quinn’s decision requires 3/5 approval from the House and Senate. Any vote would take place in November – after the scheduled closings of Tamms and Dwight.
With that timetable in mind, Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said in a press conference call today that the union might take legal action. In 2008, AFSCME-represented employees at the maximum-security prison in Pontiac sued to block then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s plan to close that facility. Quinn later reversed the Pontiac closing when he became governor in 2009.
Bayer said the union is “exploring all options.”
Prison closures are a debate largely defined by region. On today’s call, downstate lawmakers from both parties repeatedly lambasted Quinn, who is from Chicago, as “out of touch.”
Last month, Quinn vetoed funding the General Assembly approved for this fiscal year, which started July 1, to keep Dwight, Tamms, as well as youth prisons in Joilet and Murphysboro and halfway houses in Chicago, Decatur, and Carbondale in operation. Then, the governor declared closing dates for the facilities: Tamms and Dwight will each shutter August 31.
Quinn says the closings save money, but opponents have two main beefs: The shut downs damage fragile rural economies and dangerously strain an already overcrowded prison system.
Quinn promised that all employees affected by the closures would be transferred to other IDOC jobs. But Bayer points out that, “In most cases, people would have to uproot their families.”
“It would have a devastating effect on those communities where the jobs will disappear,” Bayer says.
State Rep. Dave Luechtefeld (R-Okawville) described the situation in Tamms, where the prison has 302 employees surrounding a village of about 1,000 people. “Four hundred jobs lost in Tamms would be like losing 130,000 jobs in Chicago,” Luechtefeld said, implying Quinn cared more about his urban constituents.
As for overcrowding, the Illinois prison system is designed to hold 33,000 inmates, but currently houses about 49,000. Bayer cited an Associated Press article on individual recent incidents of Illinois prison violence to claim that, “Quinn’s closures are already destabilizing the system.”
Closing Tamms means relocating 186 supermax inmates; closing Dwight will move 961 inmates, all of them female. Tamms inmates will mostly go to the Pontiac and Menard maximum-security prisons, while Dwight prisoners will be routed to the Logan Correctional Center.
The Bloomington-Pantagraph has reported that closing Dwight will result in musical chairs: If all the inmates from Dwight go to Logan, as planned, that means that means that Logan's current male inmate population would then be forced to transfer to other facilities.
Prison reform advocates like John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, acknowledge closing Dwight could further stress the system. However, as PI has examined, advocates side with Quinn, thanks to the Tamms closing.
Prisoner reformers and civil liberties groups long campaigned against Tamms, which holds prisoners in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.
Malcolm Young, an adjunct professor at Northwestern University who focuses on prison issues, says that the answer to an overcrowded system is a multi-pronged effort to lower the prison population.
This includes “vigorous implementation” of a bill Quinn signed into law last month that grants early release to some non-violent offenders who exhibit good behavior.