SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers served up possible solutions to prison crowding this week, including money to keep penitentiaries open. But Gov. Pat Quinn gave few hints Friday whether he’ll dig in.
The General Assembly’s final day in session Thursday included allotting enough money to keep open more than a dozen facilities – including Tamms and another prison at Dwight – that the Democratic governor said had to close in budgetary restraint.
Legislators also sent him a refined early release plan for well-behaved prisoners. They said it removes pitfalls that contributed to a 2009 scandal that forced Quinn to shut off all early outs, which in turn helped push the prison population to 14,000 above capacity.
In comments to reporters in Springfield, Quinn did suggest that if the Tamms prison stays open, it won’t remain a super-maximum-security lockup for troubling inmates. While he would not endorse a new early out program, the idea’s Senate sponsor said Quinn’s staff was “cheerleading” for its passage.
The Democrat repeatedly refused to say whether he’d approve either measure but did say Tamms’ days as home to the “worst of the worst” are numbered.
“I made a decision that I thought the supermaximum-security mission of that prison was not one that we could continue and afford and I think it could be done in a different way,” Quinn said.
That jibes with a deal worked out in the Legislature to keep the far-southern Illinois prison open but renovate it to house inmates who require lower-level security. Tamms’ detractors say its forced periods of long isolation are inhumane. Proponents say the state needs a place for violent men who hurt guards and gang leaders who, in regular prisons, continue running drug operations or even order hits on guards.
“We know there were some philosophical differences about what Tamms is, so we decided to make concessions instead of losing it,” said Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg.
Phelps said there’s $8 million in the budget to retrofit Tamms, which is only 14 years old. Changes might include adding a cafeteria and common area or gym, and fixing cells to house two inmates.
Quinn halted a previous early release program called “meritorious good time” in December 2009 after The Associated Press reported the Corrections Department’s loose use of the program was letting out violent inmates within weeks or even days of arriving.
The governor said Friday he’d review the legislation. But Sen. Kwame Raoul, the Chicago Democrat who sponsored the bill, believes a bipartisan legislative endorsement will be a signal to Quinn. And he had positive signs from the governor’s staff.
“I had conversations with representatives of the governor’s office who were supporting and cheerleading and hoping we would get it through,” Raoul said. “One of the critical things about the program is it provides additional safeguards that should make him more comfortable with implementing it.”
The safeguards include retaining a required 60-day minimum penitentiary stay added to state law after the scandal. A key provision allows the Corrections director to decide early release eligibility on a range of factors, including past violence. That’s something Corrections currently believes court rulings prohibit, even though the law gives the director complete discretion on who gets out.