Prison woes are on the rise
Prison overcrowding and a consequent safety threat is the latest result of Illinois' dysfunction.
Gov. Pat Quinn and members of the General Assembly have jointly failed to address the state's serious financial woes, the result being that state officials are constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul.
They move money around from one state account to another to put out fires. They also have closed state facilities in an effort to save money, placing added pressure on the facilities that remain open.
The impact of those closings on the state's prison system is starting to show. Quinn closed the super-maximum facility in Tamms in early January, citing underuse, and he's in the process of closing the women's prison in Dwight.
But the inmates being displaced at the various prisons to go somewhere, and that's causing a problem.
Prison officials at six medium-security prisons, including the one in Danville, will start using their gymnasiums as sleeping quarters for inmates, according to state corrections department director S.A. Godinez.
Meanwhile, the union representing correctional officers has charged that increasingly crowded facilities pose a safety risk to them as well as inmates. They cite a recent attack on prison employees at the Menard Correctional Center as evidence of a growing threat of violence inside prison walls.
The union is at odds with Gov. Quinn and corrections department officials on a variety of issues, including job security. So what union officials say may be exaggerated for political effect. But at the same time, it's inarguable that jamming nearly 50,000 inmates into facilities meant to hold 33,000 poses extra pressure.
State prison officials insist, of course, that all is well and there is no reason for any concern. But what else would they say?
That they're sitting on a powder key that could blow anytime? Not likely.
But jamming inmates who are impulsive and prone to misbehave together and using gymnasiums to house inmates rather than to let them blow off steam is a recipe for disaster. It may not happen, but the chances of an increase in violence, even a riot, are certainly greater than they were before.
We're not blaming prison officials for these latest changes. They're simply doing the best they can with the available resources.
The prison problem is just another in a long line of dominoes that are starting to fall, all caused by the chronic mismanagement of state finances over the past 10 to 20 years that have left Illinois effectively bankrupt.
Circumstances will get worse before they get better. Indeed, every day that passes adds another $100-million plus to the unfunded liability of the state's five public pension systems. As Quinn and legislators contemplate the upcoming state budget, which takes effect July 1, they'll confront debt and deficits that are starving basic state functions like education, public safety, roads and mental health of the funds they need to operate.
Our prison system is the problem today, but it will be something else tomorrow.
One would not know from watching our legislators go about their business in Springfield. Like so many ostriches with their heads planted firmly in the sand, they prefer not to think about the consequences of their collective behavior.
But whether legislators recognize it or not, the inmates who are bunking in prison gymnasiums testify to this state's growing failure to manage its duties in a responsible fashion.