SPRINGFIELD — Not only does Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget proposal call for shoehorning more inmates into fewer prisons, but his plan would reduce drug counseling and job training programs for prisoners.
Critics say that combination of cuts could make the state’s overcrowded penal system more dangerous and could result in more inmates returning to prison because they lack job skills and still suffer from substance abuse problems.
“If you remove those programs, you’re essentially adding more people to the prison system,” said John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group.
With the state facing a massive pile of unpaid bills and rising pension and Medicaid costs, Quinn is calling for significant cuts throughout state government. At the Illinois Department of Corrections, his plan would close the state’s lone super-maximum-security lockup in Tamms and the lone maximum-security prison for women in Dwight.
He also wants to shutter six of the state’s eight adult prisoner transition centers, which serve as halfway houses for inmates as they prepare to move back into society.
The cuts to job training and substance abuse programs amount to about $12.1 million. Among the prisons affected are the state’s two facilities that specialize in drug treatment: Sheridan Correctional Center and Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center.
Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano said the cuts are forcing the agency to find new ways to deliver services. In addition to having Sheridan and Southwestern continue to serve as the main prisons for drug abuse programs, Solano said the agency is in the process of identifying additional facilities to focus on specialized programs.
For now, the department isn’t saying which facilities are being targeted.
“There are still many details to be worked out and further specifics will be provided as the department continues to progress in the budget process,” Solano said.
The closure of adult prisons and facilities for juvenile offenders will result in more than 1,100 state employees being laid off, administration figures show.
But, some of the private vendors that provide drug counseling and job training also will be cutting employees if the legislature adopts Quinn’s cuts. Substance abuse programs operated by the Jacksonville-based Wells Center, for example, are being reduced by $1 million, potentially affecting 28 workers.
“It will really have a big impact on us,” said Wells Center executive director Bruce Carter. “We’ll have real people losing real jobs.”
Prison experts say inmate programs help prisoners shave time off their sentences and prepare them to lead a productive life once they are released. Job training programs also can help reduce violence by keeping prisoners busy, Maki said.
“Vocational programs are already on life-support in the department,” Maki said.
“Pat Quinn’s budget is full of bungled priorities,” added Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. “It decimates drug treatment and job training in our prisons when he knows that it helps reduce recidivism.”
The state’s prison population has expanded at a rapid rate since Quinn ended an early release program in 2009 after it was revealed that some inmates were being released after spending virtually no time behind bars. The inmate population at the end of February was listed at 48,300. The state’s facilities were built to house about 33,000 inmates.
State Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, whose district includes the Sheridan Correctional Center, said the governor could relieve some pressure on the system if he would implement some kind of early release program.
“I would hope he would restore the good time credit that was shut down for political reasons,” Mautino said.
Maki said the General Assembly also has to get involved by approving changes in criminal law that could keep people out of prison in the first place.
“Some of this stuff could really work if it was accompanied by safe, effective reform,” said Maki.
Other states, including New York, have seen their prison populations drop after implementing drug courts and community-based supervision for nonviolent offenders.
Both Maki and Mautino, however, say such reforms are a tough sell in the legislature, especially in an election year.
“It’s an unpopular vote,” Mautino said.
Lawmakers are scheduled to finalize the budget plan by May 31.