Frerichs, other legislators urge Quinn not to close prisons
DANVILLE — State Sen. Michael Frerichs on Monday urged Gov. Pat Quinn to abandon his plan to shutter several prisons, youth detention centers and adult transitional centers throughout Illinois as a way to save money.
While he understands the need to reduce spending, the Champaign Democrat said that offering up the state's overcrowded prison system as a cost-savings solution would only create more problems — namely further compromising the safety of correctional officers, inmates and the public.
"The logic is flawed," said Frerichs, one of several state lawmakers who spoke out on the closures at a series of news conferences across Illinois. His took place near the entrance of the Danville Correctional Center, with about 15 to 20 correctional officers in attendance.
"When you have a system with an all-time high population of more than 49,000 inmates in a system that was designed for 33,000, how does closing two prisons benefit the state of Illinois?"
Frerichs also announced he plans to vote to restore funding for the facilities in the fall legislative session. The money was included in the General Assembly's 2013 budget, but vetoed by the governor.
"My hope is other people can make the case to him that we need to look at all state spending, not just prisons," Frerichs said.
Quinn's plan — which is on hold — calls for closing the super maximum-security prison at Tamms, which houses some of the state's most violent offenders; the women's prison in Dwight; two juvenile detention centers; and three adult transitional centers. Assistant Budget Director Abdon Pallasch said the closures would save the state about $100 million a year.
"Keeping these facilities, which are no longer needed, open is costing taxpayers $7 million a month," he said.
Currently, about 800 employees work at those facilities. That wouldn't cause sweeping layoffs, Pallasch said.
"Pretty much everybody gets the chance to move to the nearest prison that isn't closing," he said. Since the closures were announced, he explained, positions at other prisons have remained unfilled as employees have retired.
But members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 — which represents prison employees, many of whom work on the front lines — argued the prison system already has too few staff to handle the number of inmates. They also fear the state would transfer volatile offenders from Pontiac to overcrowded medium-security prisons, like Danville's, to make room for Tamms inmates.
"It makes it that much more dangerous," said Michael Wilmore, an AFSCME staff representative.
The Danville facility was built for 896 inmates. But with a current population of 1,825, it's more than 200 percent of capacity, said Rick DePratt, president of AFSCME's Local 2052.
"Violence has definitely spiked," Wilmore said, adding that as recently as Sunday, an incident prompted guards to put an area on lockdown.
Frerichs said an independent arbitrator and courts have agreed that closing the facilities will make the prison system more volatile and more dangerous. Last Wednesday, a judge in Alexander County in southern Illinois, home to the Tamms prison, issued a ruling temporarily barring the closure and said the state violated its labor agreement with AFSCME by not negotiating the conditions of the closures and transfer of inmates.
Arbitration on those matters will continue.
Frerichs said an override of Quinn's veto wouldn't necessarily stop the closures, but it would set boundaries on how he could spend money.