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Court steps into spat over closure of Illinois prisons

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012 4:58 a.m. CST

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The following editorial appeared in The Telegraph, Alton, Ill., on Oct. 15:

(MCT) — Few issues in Illinois are as perplexing as the dilemma involving the state’s efforts to close the Tamms “supermax” prison in Southern Illinois, the women’s prison at Dwight and five other corrections facilities.

And a judge’s ruling last week threatens to throw the whole process into confusion again. On Wednesday, Associate Circuit Judge Charles Cavaness of Alexander County issued an order halting Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to save money by closing the seven facilities and requiring the governor to negotiate terms with the union representing prison workers. The order also bars the state from laying off any corrections employees.

Not coincidentally, Alexander County is the home of the Tamms prison, which houses gang leaders and other extraordinarily violent inmates. That’s where the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees went to court and obtained the preliminary injunction granted by Cavaness.

Of course, it’s easy to feel sympathy for the corrections employees who face the loss of their jobs. Their duties are unpleasant and often dangerous, especially those who have to deal with the violent inmates housed at Tamms. Just as police officers do, these corrections employees are helping to keep everyday Illinoisans safe by maintaining control over these dangerous criminals.

And it’s also easy to sympathize with the plight of the people of Tamms, Dwight and the other communities that face having facilities closed. Often, these are the best jobs in those communities and counties, with entire regions facing a huge economic loss if the prisons, halfway houses and juvenile detention centers are shut down.

On the other hand, there’s huge pressure on Quinn to bring the state’s ballooning deficit under control. Everyone wants to see the state cut spending, but wherever the governor tries to make cuts, someone’s ox is being gored. As taxpayers, we want to see our money spent wisely, but we also wish the state could learn to live with less of it.

Unfortunately, the situation with the prison closure controversy catches taxpayers right in the middle. A Quinn spokesman says delaying the closures, most of which were scheduled for Aug. 31, is costing the state $7 million a month that it doesn’t have. That’s disheartening for taxpayers. But now the state plans to appeal Judge Cavaness’ ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court. That means more legal costs for the state — i.e., for taxpayers.

And the big problem that still hangs over the state is the fact that its prison system, designed to house 33,700 inmates, now is holding more than 49,000. Such overcrowding creates dangerous conditions for inmates and employees alike. It also increases the likelihood that dangerous criminals could be released early because there simply isn’t enough room to house them, which in turn threatens the safety of our communities and our families.

We don’t envy anyone in this process. Quinn, his administration and our state lawmakers are in what could be viewed as a no-win situation. The prison employees, their families and their communities stand to lose their livelihoods.

And no matter what happens, the long-suffering taxpayers probably will wind up footing the bill.

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