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Democrats join call to drop Ill. prison closures

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012 5:30 a.m. CST

SPRINGFIELD – A handful of Democratic lawmakers turned up the heat on Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday, urging him to drop his plan to close some Illinois prisons and vowing to restore money to run them when legislators return to Springfield next month.

Pointing to an adult correctional system that has nearly 16,000 more inmates than it was designed for and a court ruling demanding Quinn slow down and consider prison employees' safety concerns, lawmakers from central and northern Illinois issued statements or spoke at press events, urging the Democratic governor to reconsider.

"Closing prisons in a system that's already overcrowded, it's illogical to say that's possible or safe," Sen. Michael Frerichs told The Associated Press as he headed to a news conference at the Danville prison in his district. It has double the 900 inmates for which it was designed.

"Talking to the guards there, it makes for a more difficult and dangerous situation," Frerichs said. "More (inmates) coming into Danville does not make it any easier for the employees here, it doesn't make it more safe."

Quinn ordered the closing of the super-maximum security prison at Tamms, the women's lockup at Dwight, three transitional centers and two juvenile detention facilities because of budget problems. Tamms, reserved for inmates who cause trouble, has many empty cells, and the administration says other facilities are "outdated" and too expensive to run.

Overall, the adult prison system has more than 49,000 inmates in facilities designed for 33,700.

Lawmakers opposed to Quinn's plan included money to run the prisons in the budget that began July 1, but the governor vetoed that spending. He wanted the money — about $56 million in the case of the prisons and youth centers — to go to the state agency responsible for controlling child abuse and neglect.

Spokesman Abdon Pallasch repeated Quinn's commitment to closing "half-empty" prisons and said the prisons and juvenile sites on the list are no longer needed. Frerichs acknowledged Tamms has plenty of empty space but said that was partly due to the administration's choice to not send inmates there. He called for a long-term analysis of correctional needs.

Like those who say Tamms must stay open as place to punish those who commit violence in other prisons, Sen. Pat McGuire said Monday that the Illinois Youth Center at Joliet is the only place devoted to the worst juvenile offenders.

"Closing IYC Joliet will make the remaining facilities more dangerous and poses a risk to public safety as well," the Joliet Democrat said in a statement. "The administration threatens to repeat this mistake across our prisons systems."

The General Assembly reconvenes the last week of November to consider legislation Quinn vetoed. In the case of Tamms and Dwight, Quinn reduced proposed spending by $41 million. That type of veto requires a simple majority in both houses to override.

But while lawmakers can restore funding for the prisons, they can't force Quinn to spend it.

The prison employees' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, organized Monday's coordinated effort. The union said a news conference was also scheduled by Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, and the Democratic House candidate in the area, Mike Smiddy of Hillsdale. Peoria Democratic Sen. Dave Koehler planned to issue a statement Monday, and Senate Democratic candidate Andy Manar of Bunker Hill planned an event next week to support the override, the union said.

The group joins southern Illinois lawmakers — both Democratic and Republican — who have been vocal in their criticism of closures all summer, and Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, lent his support to the idea in a campaign stop there in late August. A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Quinn wanted all the facilities closed by Aug. 31, except for an Oct. 31 Joliet shutdown. But AFSCME won a judge's ruling last week barring Quinn from closing any facilities before he negotiates an agreement with the union on safety and other working conditions affected by the closures.

The administration said the delays are costing the state $7 million a month.

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