SPRINGFIELD – The number of inmates locked up in Illinois prisons is at an all-time high, according to an Associated Press analysis, and coincides with Gov. Pat Quinn's administration battle with state employees over closing correctional facilities.
The Department of Corrections disputes the AP's findings and says the number is about 100 inmates lower. But the department's own numbers confirm that the prison population has grown to near-record highs despite its prediction of a decline in incarcerations.
The AP's review of Corrections Department data shows the population hit 49,154 over the weekend. That's 19 inmates more than the previous record, which the agency said last week was set on Oct. 6, 2011.
Agency spokeswoman Stacey Solano said the AP's numbers were inaccurate, and added that the October 2011 record had not been broken. But the AP's analysis was done using inmate data made public by the department on its website.
The dubious milestone for a system designed for 33,700 inmates comes after promises last spring that the prison population would continue to decline. A Corrections report at the time did forecast that the population would reach 49,000 — but not until January 2013. And despite that acknowledged spike, officials said the overall trend was downward and projected that the number would drop to an average of below 46,000 by the middle of 2013.
Solano said the system can handle more than its design capacity indicates but did not dispute that the number of inmates has risen.
"It is not unusual for intakes to increase during the summer months due to additional commitments from the local courts," Solano said.
Even without the forecasted drop, the news came at an inopportune time for Quinn, who's in the middle of a legal knock-down, drag-out skirmish with the largest state employees' union over closing prisons. The Democratic governor wants to shutter major lockups at Dwight and Tamms and three halfway houses because of the budget crisis.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees won a judge's order last month to delay the closures until the two sides negotiate terms regarding workers' safety and fate of displaced staff members.
The union says talk of shuttering facilities makes no sense when prisons are overcrowded and lawmakers voted to keep the facilities open, providing money in the budget which Quinn cut. AFSCME also argues the prisons are understaffed. Records show there are 4,000 fewer Corrections employees than a decade ago, when there were just over 43,000 inmates.
The AP used a computer to collect and sort information about state prisoners from the Corrections Department's website. It determined the population reached its new record sometime on Saturday. Solano said the agency's Sunday number came from an internal computer program but had no suggestions about why that system would have different numbers than those made public on the website.
After hitting the peak, the number dipped by four on Sunday, and Monday's total of 49,144 reflects an increase of 323 inmates just in the last month.
John Maki, of the prison watchdog John Howard Association, said he's watched the numbers rise all summer. He agreed with Solano that intakes increase with warm-weather crime and that even a rapid change is not usually reason for concern. But, he said, Illinois is in a unique situation.
"We have a prison system built for 34,000 and any extra bodies is alarming," he said. "The numbers we've seen ... just puts more stress on the system that's already very stressed out."
Maki said it should be another nudge to Quinn to consider reforms, such as safe alternative sentencing for low-level offenders and putting rules in place for a revamped early release program for well-behaved inmates, which the Legislature approved last spring.
Solano said officials are writing early release rules and plan to submit them for legislative approval next month.
Associated Press editor for newsroom innovation Troy Thibodeaux contributed to this report.