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Ruling not end of Ill. prison feud

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration and the union representing correctional workers filed dueling court pleas Monday over a ruling allowing the state to proceed with prison closures, actions that promise to prolong the struggle over whether penitentiaries can shut their doors to save money while keeping a crowded penal system safe.

The administration sought permission to proceed with closures in a Cook County courtroom while at the other end of the state, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees asked an Alexander County judge not to dismiss a prohibition on shutdowns he ordered earlier this month.

The legal bustle was ignited following an independent arbitrator’s weekend ruling that Quinn had followed the rules in negotiating impact of closures on AFSCME members. Arbitrator Steven Bierig also decreed that shuttering the high-security Tamms prison and the maximum-security women’s lockup in Dwight would “not create any greater danger” than already exists in the prison system.

AFSCME Executive Director Henry Bayer said Bierig – who noted in his ruling that keeping the prison doors open “would be the best possible solution under the circumstances” – had used an incorrect standard on the safety question, the basis for the union’s request for court intervention.

“This is good news for taxpayers,” said Quinn spokesman Abdon Pallasch, estimating the state would eventually save $100 million a year “by closing empty or half-empty, very expensive prisons and juvenile detention centers that are no longer needed.”

The Democratic governor said the state cannot afford to keep running Tamms, Dwight, inmate transition centers in Decatur, Carbondale and Chicago, or juvenile detention facilities in Murphysboro and Joliet. His aides have repeatedly used “half-empty” in referring to Tamms, a segregation prison for violent inmates, a status the administration has in part created by halting inmate transfers there.

Murphysboro is empty because the state transferred all its residents during the summer.

Other facilities are packed – overall, there are more than 49,300 inmates in a system designed for 33,700.

Quinn wanted most of the facilities closed by Aug. 31, but Bierig ruled with the union that he had to negotiate conditions. The arbitrator’s latest ruling declared even though those talks reached impasse, the administration had held up its end.

Bierig also dismissed AFSCME’s claim that Quinn’s plans jeopardized inmate and employee safety or posed a “clear and present danger,” noting some risk comes with the territory.

“The state’s actions in this case do not create any greater danger than already inherently existed in the prison system,” he wrote.

But Bayer said neither the contract nor state law requires a “clear and present danger” standard be reached for the union to win an arbitration ruling, so AFSCME is taking the rare step of appealing an arbitrator’s opinion.

“We believe this decision clearly violates the state’s public policy that requires the employer to provide a safe work environment,” Bayer said in a statement. “We have asked the judge to vacate the arbitrator’s award and submit the case back to the arbitrator to correct his mistakes.”

AFSCME had persuaded a judge in Alexander County – home to Tamms prison – to halt shutdown plans until negotiations concluded. Now the union is asking him to keep it in place.

Bierig ruled that even if Quinn’s proposal created a “clear and present danger,” the administration had taken necessary precautions, such as fortifying cells at Pontiac, where violent Tamms inmates will be transferred, and providing training for officers overseeing them.

However, The Associated Press reported earlier this month that Corrections loosened security rules for Tamms inmates at Pontiac after Department of Corrections Director S.A. “Tony” Godinez promised lawmakers last spring that protocol would be “identical” to the tough restrictions at Tamms.

The scuffle will not likely be concluded soon. Even without court action, AFSCME officials say the union has the right to enter into another form of arbitration that is guaranteed to public safety workers who are not allowed to go on strike.

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Contact John O’Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor

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