Quick Hit Matthew Blake Wednesday September 19th, 2012, 1:14pm

As Prison Population Goes Up, Facility Closure Plan Stalls

Illinois prison reform advocates received news sparking two causes for concern in the last few days.

On Friday, a state appellate court denied Gov. Pat Quinn’s appeal to undo a restraining order that has postponed state facility closings, including the shut down of Tamms Supermax Prison. And yesterday the Associated Press reported that the state’s prison population hit a record-high of 49,154 inmates over the weekend. The Illinois Department of Corrections system is designed to hold 33,700 prisoners.

John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association prison reform group, says the record prison population may be the more alarming development. “Illinois needs to find a way to reduce its prison population one way or another,” Maki says. That could mean the administering of early release measures such as Senate Bill 2621 that Quinn signed into law in June, but has yet to implement. Or, more dramatically, a reduction could come via federal order as it has in California.

Malcolm Young, an adjunct professor at Northwestern University who focuses on prison issues, says the overcrowding is now “intolerable”, adding that more forceful state action is needed.

As for the court ruling, Maki and Young have joined other prison issue advocates in pushing for the closure of Tamms because it is only partly used, despite the larger overcrowding problem in IDOC facilities, and the facility places inmates in almost 24-hour solitary confinement.

Quinn planned to close Tamms and also Dwight women’s prison on August 31, largely on the basis of budgetary concerns. He also planned to shutter five other corrections and juvenile justice facilities. The AFSCME Council 31 public employees union sued to stop the closings, arguing that they furthered the prison overcrowding problem and "jeopardize the safety of prison employees, inmates and the public," according to the union's spokesman Anders Lindall.

Prison reform advocates like Maki say AFSCME might have a point in their argument that the closure of Dwight and other facilities will cause overcrowding. However, the Tamms facility is only partly used. AFSCME counters that Tamms is a safety valve for the entire state prison system as it holds the most dangerous inmates.

The union has enjoyed initial success in court.

Associate Circuit Court Judge Charles Cavaness ordered the halt of all inmate transfers related to the closing on August 8, the first day the case was brought before him. Next, arbitrator Steve Biereg determined that Quinn did not honor the state contract with AFSCME because the two parties did not negotiate over the closings' potential impact.

Following Biereg’s decision, Cavaness issued a temporary restraining order on the closings on September 4, providing Quinn and AFSCME 30 days to negotiate and discuss the potential impact of the closures. The decision on Friday by the Fifth District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon means that the restraining order may continue for its 30-day duration, though Quinn spokeswoman Kelly Kraft says the administration is seeking an appeal in the Illinois Supreme Court.

When the restraining order does end, what happens next is anybody’s guess.

Kraft says the state is now “in good faith negotiations” with AFSCME “to enact a contract that is in the best interest of Illinois’ taxpayers.”

But Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, points out that Quinn has gone to court instead of complying with the arbitrator's decision to go back to the bargaining table. Lindall says that the "union is committed to resolving our grievances [at the bargaining table] or through further arbitration, if necessary."

However, neither Quinn nor AFSCME indicated that they might be willing to change course on whether or not the facilities should be closed.

One partial historic precedent is AFSCME’s successful campaign to prevent then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich from closing the Pontiac maximum-security prison in 2008. A circuit court judge in November 2008 issued a temporary restraining order on the Pontiac closing.

The similarities, though, perhaps end there because federal agents arrested Blagojevich three weeks later, and his administration’s prison closure plan stalled. Upon replacing Blagojevich, Quinn kept Pontiac open, arguing that its closure would do too much harm to the regional economy.

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