Prison plan is a risky business
Proposed reductions in the state's corrections budget pose inescapable public safety concerns.
lllinois' budget crisis is forcing difficult choices on Gov. Pat Quinn and members of the Legislature, the consequences of which many of them will feel compelled to minimize.
But don't believe it — not even for a nano-second. When budget chickens come home to roost, there can be a terrible price to pay, and a recent Associated Press story on a planned 9 percent cut in the state's $1.2 billion corrections department budget shows why.
Gov. Quinn has announced plans to close two prisons — the supermax in downstate Tamms (population 400) and a women's prison in Dwight (population 1,000-plus). If they are closed, their inmates will be transferred elsewhere.
How can the state do that when the state's prison system, which has a population of roughly 48,000, already is overcrowded? The obvious answer, and the one no one really wants to talk about, is that corrections department administrators will be pressured to release more inmates on parole.
Illinois has four prisons for women and 23 for men.
The Tamms' population, theoretically at least, will be the easiest to absorb from a numbers' perspective. The reality, however, is not reflected by the numbers.
Tamms was designed to hold the most violent inmates — those who attack guards and even their fellow prisoners — in isolation. It's a tough place and was designed to be.
Criticized by prisoner advocate organizations as inhumane to the point of threatening inmates' mental health through excessive isolation, supermax facilities like Tamms are the best idea corrections officials have come up with for addressing problems posed by relentlessly violent inmates.
If those 400 inmates are moved into the state's regular prison population, there will be serious consequences.
The greater impact on population will come from the closing of Dwight. Its 1,000-plus population will be placed in just three facilities, and overcrowding almost certainly will become an issue.
Then the priority will be to reduce the pressure inside by releasing more inmates on parole. Quinn has pledged increased supervision of parolees, but the AP said that under Quinn's budget there will be roughly a 150-person drop in parole services — a manpower cut of one-third.
The Quinn administration rushed to debunk that story, but it did so in a ham-handed way. The corrections department released five different statements on the issue in a four-day period, the most common refrain being that "it is not the governor's intention to reduce parole staff."
The word "intention" is a weasel-word lawyers use. Who can say what the governor's intention is? But it's easy to discern what the effect will be — more parolees on the street and fewer people to keep track of them.
Here's the problem in a nutshell — releasing large numbers of inmates won't solve the problem because they keep coming back.
The Quinn administration already has been burned once by an early-release program. When Quinn was running for re-election in 2010, the news media reported that the corrections department was secretly giving early releases to selected inmates to help keep the prison population down.
Many of those who were released were subsequently re-arrested, some for violent crimes.
When the news got out, Quinn cancelled the program and subsequently fired the state's prison chief.
What he's planning now is not really an early release program, but his proposed budget cuts represent a distinction without a difference. Quinn is not intending to create a public safety issue, but that will be the bottom-line result.
If state legislators are going to follow Quinn's recommendations, they should do so with their eyes wide open and be candid with the public.