Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Future of the state's prisons
is likely up to the courts

By Jamey Dunn

The future of Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to close several state corrections facilities will likely be determined by the outcomes of dueling court challenges.

Gov. Pat Quinn scored a victory when an arbitrator ruled that his plan to shutter a super-maximum security prison near Tamms, a women’s prison in Dwight, adult transition centers in Decatur, Carbondale and Chicago and youth prisons in Joliet and Murphysboro would not endanger workers.

Arbitrator Steven Bierig said in his rulings that the best course of action would be to keep the prisons open. However, he said that Quinn’s administration had taken steps to ensure that the plan would be safe and not present a danger to prison workers.

Abdon Pallasch, a Quinn budget spokesman, said the administration would not resume the closures until getting the green light from a court. Quinn’s administration has asked a Cook County court to sign off on the ruling and also asked that a court in Alexander County remove a hold that was placed on the plan.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents prison workers, has asked the judge to keep the block in place. In a rare move, the union is also asking the court to nullify the arbitrator’s ruling. “AFSCME has only once before challenged an arbitrator’s decision in court,” AFSCME Council 31 executive director Henry Bayer said in a written statement. “Since we believe this decision clearly violates the state’s public policy that requires the employer to provide a safe work environment, we have asked the judge to vacate the arbitrator’s award and submit the case back to the arbitrator to correct his mistakes with regard to the interpretation of the state’s health and safety law.”

The Quinn administration has also asked the Illinois Supreme Court to step in, but Pallasch said that so far, the higher court has not responded to the request. He said that because the courts operate at their own paces, the administration has not set a new timeline for closing the prisons and other facilities. Quinn had planned to close the facilities by the end of August, but legal battles with AFSCME delayed the closure. “The courts can do whatever they want,” he said. “Obviously, we would love it as soon as possible. It’s costing us an extra $7 million a month, so the sooner the better.”

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