Thursday, August 02, 2012

AFSCME sues to keep prisons open

By Jamey Dunn

The state’s largest public employee union is suing to block Gov. Pat Quinn’s plans to shut down several correctional facilities on the grounds that the closures would create unsafe working environments for its members.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 is seeking an injunction against the closure of seven facilities. Two of the facilities are prisons, a super-maximum-security prison near Tamms and a women’s prison in Dwight. The union is also suing to keep open adult transition centers in Decatur, Carbondale and Chicago and youth prisons in Joliet and Murphysboro. According to AFSCME, Quinn’s closure plan would result in the transfer of almost 5,000 prisoners, including youth offenders. “Many of the inmates that will be moved are those who have been intentionally segregated in the correctional system because of the danger they pose to guards and to other inmates. Almost a thousand maximum security female inmates will be moved, and several hundred maximum security youth will be moved as well. The insertion of these inmates into the overcrowded prisons of the state will inevitably foment unrest that will put employees, other inmates and the general community at risk,” said AFSCME’s complaint.

According to the complaint, AFSCME is suing to protect its members from the “risk of injury and death” that the group says they would face under Quinn’s plan. “Inmates are being sent to prisons that are too crowded, too short of staff or lacking appropriate security features to safely incarcerate them,” AFSCME Council 31 executive director Henry Bayer said in a prepared statement. “We’re asking the court for an injunction to prevent the state from moving forward with any closure until the related grievances have been resolved.”

Lawmakers approved a budget that contained money to keep facilities open for the current fiscal year, but Quinn used his veto pen to reject the money and has moved forward with closures. “They’re going to be closed. I do believe that we have to see our budget as what our priorities are,” Quinn said when he announced his changes to the budget. He called on lawmakers to instead use the money to defer other cuts that were in the budget, including an $86 million reduction to funding for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.  The State-Journal Register reported that the agency recently issued layoff notices to 600 employees as part of a restructuring plan that would result in a net reduction of 375 jobs. The department claimed that the layoffs were a direct result of the budget cut.

Legislators opposed to the closures have asked Quinn to hold off on shutting down the facilities until they have a chance to act on the governor’s vetoes. “Anyone who calls to keep these outdated, half-full, expensive facilities open is calling for the continual waste of taxpayer dollars on facilities the state no longer needs, ” Kelly Kraft, a spokesperson for Quinn, said in a prepared statement. “The overall population is down from last year, and female entries into the system are declining. Inmates will be safely and securely transitioned into appropriate facilities fully capable of securing offenders and resulting in costs savings to Illinois taxpayers. Some will say that money was provided in the budget to keep these facilities open, when in reality, legislators made a choice on how to spend taxpayer dollars: choosing outdated, half-full, expensive prisons over educating our children and keeping them safe.”


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