Inmates at Illinois prisons will be living in gymnasiums within the next few weeks as the prison system struggles to deal with overcrowding.
It doesn’t seem to make much sense, since Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration recently shuttered several prisons to save money. If the move is temporary, as prison leaders say, it may be a short-term glitch. If the move is long term, it will become clear that Quinn closed prisons without a well-conceived plan.
The Department of Corrections recently closed the Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois, moving some of those high-risk inmates to Pontiac Correctional Center, and has plans to close the all-female Dwight Correctional Center. Those prisoners eventually would move to Logan Correctional Center, after its male prisoners are moved to the all-women Lincoln Correctional Center, and Lincoln’s women are moved to Logan.
The closing of adult transition centers in Carbondale, Decatur and Chicago are also part of the plan.
Currently, there are about 49,000 prisoners packed into a space intended for 33,000. One of the causes of overcrowding is that the Department of Corrections hasn’t implemented an early release program planned since last year. Prison leaders have been given the OK to begin releasing nonviolent offenders who meet certain qualifications, but the program hasn’t begun. It’s hard to see how an early release program would relieve the overcrowding in a short time.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union said the prisons were overcrowded before Quinn canceled a controversial early release program in 2009. They asked the governor to rescind the decision to close the prisons and adult transition centers.
The fact that prisoners are being housed in gymnasiums at the same time prisons are closing emphasizes a criticism that had been made in these pages before. While we understand that Illinois needs to cut its spending, and we salute Quinn for delivering the necessary medicine, the prison closures have not been well planned.
The early release program — which can be done in a way to keep the public safe — should have been in place long ago in order to reduce the prison headcount. The state needed a better plan to make sure the existing prisons weren’t overcrowded.
Without a doubt, the state needs to spend less money and one of the ways to achieve that goal is to close facilities. While Quinn understands that reality, the General Assembly has been slow to move toward those types of solution.
The result has been an unplanned closure of prisons and situations like housing prisoners in gymnasiums. That doesn’t necessarily mean that closing the prisons is a bad idea — but it does indicate a lack of proper planning and preparation.