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Illinois prisons at bursting point if Logan closes

September 29, 2011

By Benjamin Yount
Illinois Statehouse News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Closing the Logan Correctional Center may save Illinois taxpayers $9 million in the short term, but potential lawsuits resulting from overcrowding and civil rights violations could burden the state financially in the long term.

The loss of 1,970 beds at the Lincoln facility would force Illinois to squeeze 48,743 into 49,030 beds at the state’s 27 prisons, leaving only 287 beds available statewide.

Guards, advocates and the state Department of Corrections (DOC) say this limited space creates a difficult and dangerous situation because few beds are available for new inmates and inmates who need to be separated from the general prison population.

Gov. Pat Quinn (D) said Logan is one of seven state facilities recommended for closure because of budget shortfalls. Quinn spokesman Brie Callahan said lawmakers did not give the governor enough money to run state government for a full year.

Logan’s 1,970 inmates would be sent to other prisons, and plans for the transfers have been filed with the Legislature’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA), which will play a role in deciding if Logan — or any state facility — closes.

The Department of Corrections estimates it could save $9 million this year by closing Logan, though questions surround the additional cost to other prisons that take in Logan’s inmates.

John Maki, president of the Illinois chapter of the John Howard Association, one of the nation’s largest prisoner advocacy groups, said closing one prison and shuffling inmates throughout the rest of the system will make prison overcrowding worse.

The Department of Corrections is already understaffed … (and) the prison population is way beyond capacity, and getting close to maxing out the bed space,” Maki said.

DOC spokesman Sharyn Elman, said the “blueprint capacity” for Illinois prisons is around 33,000 inmates, but renovations and additions have pushed actual capacity to 51,000.

This is like a puzzle, and we’re trying to put the pieces together,” Elman said.

The plan to solve DOC’s puzzle would send 1,500 medium-security inmates from Logan to other prisons, and a similar number of minimum-security inmates from across the state to gymnasiums at 11 other prisons, said Elman.

Medium-security inmates will never be going into gyms,” Elman said. “Only minimum-security inmates may be shifted around.”

Medium-security inmates include convictions for drug or property crimes as well as those cycling out of prison for more serious charges. Minimum-security inmates are almost never convicted of violent crimes.

Randy Hellmann, shift supervisor for Pinckneyville Correctional Center in Pinckneyville, said it doesn’t matter who sleeps in the gym, because adding 1,500 inmates to overcrowded prisons is inviting violence.

The most recent data from the DOC annual report for 2010 show that there were 3.1 inmate-on-staff assaults per 1,000 staff members per month. DOC also reports 4.1 inmate-on-inmate assaults per 1,000 inmates per month. In 2010, there were 7,703 security staff members in DOC and 47,504 inmates.

With today’s population, and the low number of staff in these facilities, this is the making of disaster,” said Hellmann. “You have an opportunity here for inmates to take over certain parts of the facility.”

Maki said if Logan closes, and inmates are shuffled, Illinois could find itself in the same situation as California where the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to start releasing inmates because of overcrowding.

This will certainly … invite legal challenges,” Maki said. “It seems obvious that this violates the Eighth Amendment dealing with cruel and unusual punishment, and invites a human rights case.”

Not only would Logan inmates occupy gym space at other prisons statewide, but they would dwell in medical housing units and behavior segregation cells. Elman said the 300-500 Logan inmates would fill nearly every open medical bed or segregation cell.

Maki pointed out that filling medical and segregation units with healthy and well-behaved inmates means inmates who are sick or need to be kept away from others will have no place to go.

Without medical and segregation units, you’re looking to jeopardize the safety of inmates and the safety of staff,” Maki said.

Another 130 to 180 inmates from the medium-security facility at Logan are scheduled to be sent to Illinois’ supermax prison, Tamms Correctional Center in Tamms. Elman said those inmates would be sent to Tamms’ minimum-security work camp, and not the 23-hour-a-day isolation units in Tamms’ supermax wings.

Quinn has blamed lawmakers for sending him a $33.2 billion state budget when he wanted a budget closer to $36 billion.

State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, who shepherded the DOC budget through the Senate, said no one should be surprised that a smaller state budget is forcing this showdown.

With the budget that was passed, clearly reductions are needed in the Department of Corrections,” said Steans. “Many difficult and painful options are thus on the table.”

Lawmakers return for the fall veto session at the end of October to address Quinn’s threatened closures, among other issues.

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