Thursday, April 10, 2008

"We built too many prisons"

By Patrick O'Brien
A controversial plan to shut down part of the Stateville prison in Joliet became just a bit more contentious after a packed meeting at the Statehouse Wednesday.

Department of Corrections Director Roger Walker told a House committee that the reclassification and transfer of more than 1,000 maximum security prisoners and the relocation of hundreds of employees was being done to justify the state’s $140 million new prison in Thomson.

Walker said that he inherited the newly built prison when he took over the agency and he “had to use it.” The statement caused more than a little discontent from the hundred-plus group of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees members who witnessed the testimony. The union is fighting the plan, saying it will cause disruptions for workers’ families and for inmates, leading to more dangerous inmates.

The facility in Thomson was completed in 2001 and remains empty, and the Illinois Department of Corrections plans to transfer 200 inmates from Stateville to open the new facility. Prison workers would also be moving with the inmates, but there will be room for far fewer workers at Thomson than would be dislocated by the plan.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich said the closing of Stateville’s maximum security wing would help the Department of Corrections save $31 million in operating costs by using the newer facility in Thomson.

Stateville was built in 1925, and the state estimated it would cost $108 million to renovate the prison.

Henry Bayer, executive director of the AFSCME council that represents the Stateville employees, said the plan is dangerous because it also transfers maximum-security inmates to crowded prisons in Menard in Randolph County and near Sumner in Lawrence County. The union also accused the agency of reclassifying violent inmates to lower security levels to make it easier to transfer the prisoners to less secure facilities in the state.

Bayer also says the state inflated the amount of money it would take to renovate Stateville to make it easier to shut down a portion of the prison.

Walker said the prison is outdated and that the budget savings will help pay for 765 new positions in the understaffed agency. Bayer said the lack of staff forced correctional workers to log 700,000 hours of mandatory overtime in fiscal year 2007, which he said cost the state $24 million.

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