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Illinois Governor Threatens Prison Closure, Gets New Budget

by Joe Watson

Nothing inspires politicians to scour under the seat cushions for change like a threat to close prisons.

Following months of tense discourse and panic, the Illinois legislature extended its session in November to reach a new budget deal that would thwart Governor Pat Quinn’s plans to close seven state-run facilities, including the Logan prison complex in Lincoln and three psychiatric hospitals.  A revamped budget, according to Quinn’s office, should keep the facilities open until at least the end of June.

“We are prepared to move ahead,” Quinn senior adviser Michael Gelder told the Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) on Nov. 10, when the panel voted 9-2 against the governor’s plan to close Logan.

Quinn’s plan, which was unveiled in September, would have relocated Logan’s 1,980 prisoners and packed most of them into prison gymnasiums around the state.  That prompted concerns within the prison system that crowding gym floors – which Illinois tried to do once before – would result in increased violence.

“I can’t tell you the numerous fights, (prisoner) assaults, and staff injuries when this did take place,” said Randy Hellman, who worked as a guard in the 1980s and currently works at the Pinckneyville prison complex.

Legislators, however, were less worried about safety issues and more concerned about the economic impact of closing Logan.  The prison shutdown would’ve forced 356 workers to find new jobs, and eliminated $73 million from the Lincoln economy, according to an Illinois Department of Corrections report.

Overall, Quinn’s plan to close Logan; psychiatric hospitals in Rockford, Tinley Park, and Chester; developmental centers in Dixon and Jacksonville; and a juvenile prison in Murphysboro, would have resulted in 2,660 lost jobs and almost $300 million in lost economic activity.  With Illinois’ unemployment rate hovering above 9 percent, and higher than the national average, Quinn used the proposed closings as leverage to get state lawmakers to reassess the budget.

“Last spring, the administration made it clear to the General Assembly there would be serious consequences to the budget they passed,” Quinn’s spokeswoman, Brie Callahan, told the Illinois Statehouse News.  “The General Assembly did not appropriate enough funds in these particular lines to keep up all these facilities staffed and running for the entire year.”

As many as 180 prisoners at Logan, a medium-security prison, would’ve been moved to a super-maximum-security prison in Tamms.  And another 300 to 350 prisoners would’ve moved to medical and segregation yards at other prison complexes.

“I’ve read closure documents before, but none so outrageous and irresponsible as the Logan prison plan,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME, the largest union representing state employees.

Even the mere possibility of Logan’s closure resulted in a 13-percent decrease in retail spending in Lincoln, according to Lincoln Mayor Keith Snyder.

“There definitely were cutbacks,” Snyder said.

COGFA also voted against closure plans for the other six facilities, saying that Quinn’s proposal was too hasty.  It was COGFA, however, who was said to be moving too rapidly to implement Quinn’s plans.

In September, AFSCME wrote a letter to the state senators and representatives on the COGFA panel, sharply criticizing them for not exposing Quinn’s plans to greater public scrutiny.  But as the chorus of those with an economic stake in the closures of Logan and the other facilities grew louder, COGFA became more vigilant.

Gelder, Quinn’s senior adviser, said that governor’s new plan – contingent upon a revised budget – would likely target four developmental centers throughout the state over a two-and-a-half-year period, and would move 600 disabled residents out of the institutions and into privately run group homes, forcing the closure of those state facilities.