Quinn’s Prison Closure Plan Hits Snag


Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's plan to save money by closing seven correctional facilities was halted again Wednesday when a southern Illinois judge ordered the Democrat to negotiate terms with a union representing prison workers.

Associate Circuit Judge Charles Cavaness issued the ruling from Alexander County in far southern Illinois. It's home to the central point of the dustup, the high-security Tamms prison Quinn wants shuttered.

The preliminary injunction sought by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees would continue holding up closure of the Tamms "supermax" prison, where gang leaders and extraordinarily violent inmates are housed, the women's prison at Dwight, three halfway houses and two juvenile detention centers. It also bars any employee layoffs.

Quinn spokesman Abdon Pallasch said delaying the closures, most of which were scheduled for Aug. 31, is costing the state $7 million a month it doesn't have. Pallasch said the administration plans to appeal the ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The two sides will go back before an independent arbitrator in hearings next week, AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said. The arbitrator, Steven Bierig, is the same official who ruled in late August that the administration had violated its labor agreement with AFSCME by not negotiating conditions of the closures.

Cavaness agreed with AFSCME's argument that Quinn's changes, such as closing Tamms and transferring highly troublesome inmates to the maximum-security prison at Pontiac, are so critical they require adjustments to contractual working conditions. From the union's point of view, it's particularly crucial in a prison system designed for 33,700 inmates but holding more than 49,000.

The union claims the Department of Corrections has too few staff to handle the number of prisoners and is transferring volatile inmates to lower-security prisons to make room at Pontiac for Tamms arrivals. The Associated Press reported last week that Corrections loosened security rules for Tamms inmates transferring to Pontiac after Corrections Director S.A. “Tony” Godinez promised lawmakers last spring that protocol would be “identical” to the tough restrictions at Tamms.

In the order, Cavaness reiterated his believe that AFSMCE had shown the closures “have the potential to make the prisons that remain more dangerous for employees.” He previously made that statement a month ago when he issued a temporary prohibition on closures. Quinn appealed that decision to a state appellate court but lost, and that case remains before the Supreme Court.

Cavaness wrote Wednesday that AFSMCE “met its burden of showing irreparable harm if the closures are implemented” before the two sides agree on conditions. “The employees represented by plaintiff may suffer physical injuries that cannot be fully remedied later,” Cavaness said.

The administration argues that the court's intervention interferes with a governor's executive power to close facilities when necessary and violate the Constitution by spending money that has not been appropriated. Lawmakers hoping to spare the closures appropriated money to run them but Quinn vetoed it, saying it would be better spent on the agency that helps abused children.

Besides Tamms and Dwight, Quinn wants to shutter adult inmate transition centers in Carbondale, Chicago and Decatur and juvenile detention facilities in Joliet and Murphysboro. The Murphysboro site has already been emptied of juvenile residents and its employees assigned to other locations.

Pallasch did not know how the judge's ruling or the administration's appeal would affect facility closures. He did not know how the administration planned to make up the budgetary shortfall caused by the forced operation of the prisons, but options include asking the Legislature for more money or reducing spending for other programs in the Departments of Corrections and Juvenile Justice.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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