Gov. Pat Quinn revealed Tuesday that he is closing state prisons in Tamms and Dwight even though the budget sent to him by legislators includes money to maintain the prisons and the hundreds of jobs they create.
The administration also said it will close halfway houses in Carbondale, Chicago and Decatur, along with youth prisons in Murphysboro and Joliet.
Tamms, in far southern Illinois, is home to a "supermax" prison that houses the most dangerous inmates and employs about 300 people. The Dwight facility is a women's prison in north-central Illinois with 350 employees. Together they house about 1,400 inmates.
Closing them will mean squeezing more inmates into the remaining prisons, which are already seriously overcrowded. The system now houses about 14,000 more inmates than it was designed to hold.
Word of the governor's decision came in the form of a memo to state employees letting them know they would soon get information on how layoffs will be handled.
Later, Quinn spokeswoman Kelly Kraft released a statement saying the Tamms prison is only half-full and far more expensive than other facilities. Dwight is close to several other prisons, she said.
"Overall, these closures will allow the state to better live within our means and address the state's most pressing needs," Kraft said.
State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, a Republican, warned that the move could jeopardize safety. "Overcrowded prisons pose a real danger to employees and local communities," he said in a statement.
Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, was clearly angry that his region stands to lose a prison, a halfway house and a youth camp.
"The governor says he's a jobs governor. I don't know if I can believe that anymore when he's cutting 500 jobs in southern Illinois," Phelps said.
Sen. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga, said much the same about closing Dwight, calling it "reckless."
Most of the closures will take effect Aug. 31. The Joliet youth camp will stay open until Oct. 31.
Quinn's decision "elated" activists with Tamms Year Ten, a volunteer campaign to reform or close the supermax prison. Tamms inmates are kept isolated in their cells 23 hours a day for years at a time, a practice that some view as cruel and harmful for the prisoners.
Organizer Laurie Jo Reynolds said the prisoners' "family members, especially the mothers, are relieved and grateful that the long nightmare at Tamms has ended."
Kraft said the declining number of young offenders made the two youth camps unnecessary. The future of another adult halfway house, in Chicago, is still being decided, she said.
Quinn proposed closing the facilities in February to save about $100 million.
Phelps said he had thought Quinn was willing to keep the prisons open when legislators maneuvered to come up with the money for them. Still, he acknowledged there's little that legislators can do to make the Chicago Democrat run the prisons.
"He's the governor. He can dictate which ones he wants to fund and which ones he does not," Phelps said.
The union for prison employees has been pushing Quinn to keep the facilities open.
"All of these proposed closures have dire consequences for the safety and well-being of real human beings — and all of them can be prevented," Henry Bayer, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, wrote in a letter to Quinn last week.