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Our View: Prison system safety must be assured

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

Prisons make easy targets for budget cuts.

They’re not supposed to be pleasant places, after all. And although there’s the hope that those who are sent there might ponder the loss of their freedom and seek to rehabilitate themselves, when it’s between prisoners and schoolchildren, the latter should win every time.

So it naturally follows that Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed closing two Illinois prisons, the high-security prison in Tamms, the women’s maximum-security prison in Dwight, and a handful of other facilities. The state has an overall budget deficit of more than $40 billion, including a backlog of unpaid bills and a still-simmering pension crisis it has yet to confront in a meaningful way.

Quinn’s office estimates the state eventually will save about $100 million a year through the closures. Advocates of the move rightly point out that the “supermax” prison in Tamms is only about half full, and the prison and accompanying intake facility in Dwight are at about 75 percent of their capacity. Tamms is also more expensive to operate than an ordinary prison because of the high-security measures in place there. (About 164 of the inmates are in the high-security area, the others are minimum-security prisoners.)

But the state’s other prisons are quite full. There are more than 49,000 people incarcerated in a system designed to hold 33,700.

Although we support measures to cut state spending, there are questions about the plan to close the facilities. Most importantly, can the system still be safe for the corrections officers asked to control it and the prisoners ordered to live there?

The male prisoners at Tamms are the state’s most violent offenders. Many were sent there because they could not be trusted inside other prison facilities.

An independent arbitrator ruled over the weekend that Quinn’s plans to close the facilities would not make the system any more dangerous than it already is, although he noted that the best scenario would be to keep the prisons open. The state corrections officers union, AFSCME, has challenged that decision in court, and Quinn has asked a Cook County judge to allow it to go forward. The issue could end up before the state Supreme Court.

Decreasing the capacity of an already overcrowded system would seem to have the potential to make things more dangerous, even more so considering that some of the new inmates are among the state’s most violent offenders. Adding to the concern is the fact that state corrections officials have yet to allow reporters to view conditions inside the prisons.

Although the state desperately needs to find ways to cut spending in a time of budget crisis, it must demonstrate that the overcrowded prison system is equipped to handle an even denser inmate population.

The safety not only of prisoners, but of those who work in the state’s prisons, is at stake.

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