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Quinn stands by decision to close 2 prisons, despite inmate crowding

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 9:40 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday stood by his decision to close two prisons and several halfway homes, even as overcrowding at remaining facilities has forced the Illinois Department of Corrections to convert gym space into housing for inmates.

The state agency said it plans to use gymnasiums at six more prisons to bunk inmates, a practice already in use in at least one prison. Only minimum-security inmates will be housed in the "temporary dorm settings," according to spokeswoman Stacey Solano.

About 100 inmates live in temporary housing, Solano said, and it is unclear how many more will be added. She said the department expects to phase out the temporary housing in the "coming months," though the agency's own projections estimate the overall prison population will increase by the end of the year.

The state's largest public employee union contends that the move puts workers at direct risk because the gymnasiums are not equipped with the necessary safety features to properly house inmates.

"What this means is that prisons that were already overcrowded and dangerous are going to become even more overcrowded and dangerous," said Henry Bayer, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. "It's unbelievable."

Bayer said the situation is a direct result of Quinn's decision to close several corrections facilities, including the only "supermax" prison in Tamms in far southern Illinois. That prison shut down in January along with a juvenile justice center in Murphysboro in southern Illinois.

The Dwight Correctional Center for women in central Illinois and a juvenile justice center in Joliet are also in the process of being closed. And three transitional centers for inmates, including one on Chicago's West Side, closed at the beginning of the year.

Quinn defended the closings Monday, particularly the shutdown of Tamms, saying the prison had "many, many problems."

"I made the decision to close it," Quinn said. "And I think Illinois is better off because we did."

The Democratic governor said he hoped overcrowding would be eased by a revamped good-behavior credit program the administration plans to implement in the coming months. But that's likely to be tricky, as the governor learned when he suspended good-behavior credit after a botched program saw some prisoners released after just a few weeks behind bars. Quinn was hammered on the issue during the 2010 campaign and could tread lightly as the 2014 governor's race begins to heat up.

Quinn will have a little more political cover this time, however, as lawmakers approved the broad outline of the early-release program, including requiring inmates to spend at least 60 days in prison before they could be released for good-behavior credit for completing things like drug treatment and job training.

But even if more inmates start to get out early, overcrowding likely will persist. The agency estimates that even with the additional credit, the inmate population will rise from 48,821 this month to an estimated 49,253 in December.

A watchdog group contends the state's prison system was built to handle about 34,000 inmates and argues that Quinn should keep the Dwight women's prison open to ease some of the burden.

"The (state) just does not have adequate bed space right now," said John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois. "The math will catch up to you."

The prisons slated for temporary housing include those in Centralia, Vandalia and Danville, as well as Graham in Hillsboro, Shawnee in Vienna and the Illinois River prison in Canton. Stateville in Joliet has operated with temporary housing for about a year.

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