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Quinn's Prison Closure Plan Must Be Supported by Comprehensive Prison Reform

Posted: 02/24/2012 3:51 pm

In an attempt to address the state's hemorrhaging finances, Governor Pat Quinn has announced plans to close ten correctional facilities as part of his fiscal year 2013 budget. The proposed closings include eight adult facilities (Tamms Correctional Center, Dwight Correctional Center, and six Adult Transition Centers) and two juvenile facilities (IYC-Murphysboro and IYC-Joliet). As Illinois spends more than one billion dollars on corrections annually, Quinn is smart to look to the state's prison system to save taxpayer money. But in order to have a real, long-term impact on the state's fiscal health, Illinois must look beyond closing prisons and work toward ending our costly over-reliance on incarceration.

In the past year, the John Howard Association (JHA) has visited more than 20 correctional facilities, and we appreciate the work that the staff and administration at the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) do every day to keep them operating with shrinking resources. However, with an adult prison population that is ballooning with the suspension of good time credit, we must question the wisdom of trying to consolidate more people into less space.

Prison overcrowding in DOC is an urgent problem. Currently DOC houses almost 49,000 inmates in a system designed to hold a little more than 33,000. While every adult prison struggles with the state's exploding inmate population, medium and minimum -- security prisons, which overwhelmingly incarcerate low-level offenders serving short sentences, face the most severely crowded conditions. Without a significant reduction in Illinois' prisoner population, closing Dwight and the six ATCs will make this bad situation worse. The safety of the staff and the inmates must be given equal consideration to the need to reduce DOC's budget.

Nonetheless, some closures are justified. DJJ can afford to close Murphysboro and Joliet. Over the past six years, DJJ's population has been steadily dropping and is well below its design capacity. So long as DJJ sustains these current numbers, its remaining six facilities can safely absorb Murphysboro and Joliet's population.

Despite the severe overcrowding overall, DOC can safely close Tamms. The facility holds about 200 prisoners in near solitary confinement and another 180 in an adjacent minimum-security unit at extraordinary costs. Per inmate, Tamms costs more than $64,000 a year -- the highest of any facility in the state. Defenders of Tamms have always argued that the facility and its regimen of solitary confinement is necessary to protect prisoners and staff from DOC's most dangerous inmates. While JHA recognizes the need to isolate the small number of inmates who put others at risk, Tamms goes too far, and these inmates can be safely detained in the state's other maximum-security prisons.

Having proposed these closures, Quinn must partner with state legislators to safely decrease Illinois' prisoner population. Together they must bolster on-going reform efforts and look to other states, like Texas, Ohio, and New York, which have found that a combination of sentencing reform, alternatives to incarceration, and rehabilitation not only helps cut out-of-control state budgets, but also controls crime and strengthens public safety.