AFSCME Local Council 31, which represents state corrections workers, forcefully argued in Springfield today that Gov. Pat Quinn’s planned prison closings put an overcrowded system over the edge – and could lead to more prison violence.
There is clear evidence the system is overcrowded. Less clear is whether the August 31 closure of Tamms super max prison and Dwight women’s prison, along with additional facility closings, will lead to more violence.
Corrections employees gave vivid testimony at a forum outside the capitol building earlier today. Kevin Hirsch, president of AFSCME Local 1175, which represents employees at Menard maximum-security prison, described a recent incident where “one inmate stabbed another inmate repeatedly with an ink pen.”
Hirsch said these incidents might increase with the closing of Tamms. “We already house 500 more inmates than we are designed to hold,” he said. “We understand we are getting more Tamms inmates, and not getting any more staff to handle them.”
Rob Fanti, president of AFSCME Local 472, which represents employees at Sheridan medium security prison, claimed that Quinn is “pouring gas on a fire” by closing Dwight. The facility currently holds 983 female inmates. About 300 more will be routed to Sheridan due to the Dwight closing.
According to an April 2012 Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) report, there are 48,308 Illinois prison inmates, or 143 percent of the 33,704 inmates the system is intended to hold.
The closing of Dwight and Tamms diminishes inmate capacity by approximately 1,400.
Quinn spokeswoman Kelly Kraft wrote in an e-mail that the governor will reduce the inmate population via SB 2621, a law enacted in June to provide early release to some non-violent offenders exhibiting good behavior.
Kraft also notes that that the “overall [prison] population is down from its high in October 2011.”
John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison reform group, argues that, “Closing the facilities is part of a broad move toward criminal justice reform.” However, this reform will happen only if the governor cuts the prison population, Maki added.
Until then, prisons will be overcrowded and under staffed. How these problems correlate to violence is unclear.
According to data provided upon request by IDOC, inmate assaults on staff in state prison precipitously declined from 941 in fiscal year 2000 to 453 in fiscal year 2012. Amid this decline, though, was a spike between 2007 and 2011.
In fiscal year 2007, inmate assaults on staff declined to 344. Then, they steadily increased until hitting 503 in 2011, before falling to 453 in the last fiscal year.
The 2007 to 2011 spike in assaults does correlate with a growing prison population. However, despite recently publicized attacks, the evidence available is that violence has not increased in the last year and did not increase in anticipation of the prison closings.
“To indicate there is a correlation between prison closures and the number of assaults is simply false,” Kraft states.
In addition to safety issues, AFSCME and a bipartisan group of mostly downstate lawmakers are upset Quinn defied the General Assembly. The state legislature passed a budget in May with money to keep Tamms and Dwight open.
Also, the governor is forcing hundreds of corrections employees to either relocate or lose their jobs.
Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said last week that the union plans to work with the legislature to override the closings in the fall veto session.
In addition to Tamms and Dwight, youth prisons in Joliet and Murphysboro along with halfway houses in Chicago, Decatur, and Carbondale are scheduled to close.
Image: AFSCME Council 31