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Back-and-forth on funding for prisons is set for a House vote
The latest legislative volley in the fight over the closures of four downstate prisons is now in the Illinos House and lawmakers could vote on it as soon as Wednesday.
The Senate voted 35-16 to bring back funding for Tamms Correctional Center and three other prisons in last week's veto session. It was the latest setback in Gov. Pat Quinn's plan to close four prisons and three adult transitional centers by vetoing their funding.
Quinn's plan quickly escalated into a larger battle between prison reform advocates, the prison workers union and downstate legislators. It also opened a state-wide conversation on the conditions at Tamms and other Illinois prisons as well as the reliance on prison jobs in some communities.
The facilities that had their funding restored were Tamms Correctional Center, Dwight Correctional Center, Illinois Youth Center Joliet and Illinois Youth Center Murphysboro. The three adult transitional centers included in the original closings plans did not have their funding restored in the veto session.
Tamms, the state's only supermax prison, came under fire for holding prisoners in long-term solitary confinement. Investigations into the conditions at the facility found that inmates were placed in isolation for often arbitrary reasons, with no guidelines for how to get out of solitary confinement.
Quinn called for the prison closures in February of this year, on the basis that they were underutilized and would save the state money. In May, the House and Senate brought funding for the facilities back into the budget. In June, Quinn vetoed the funding for the facilities again.
The prison workers, represented by AFSCME Local 31, have argued that closing prisons will lead to overcrowding as well as the loss of unionized jobs in rural communities.
Sen. Gary Forby led the bi-partisan vote in his chamber. Though, Sen. Jacqueline Collins was among those who were against restoring the funds.
"I voted against restoring Tamms' funding, and I urge the governor to proceed in closing this troubled and controversial facility, transferring its inmates to other prisons and respecting their human rights through responsible correctional practices.
"Before there was a legislative effort to reform or close Tamms, I don't think there was very much conversation about prison conditions in Illinois," said Laurie Jo Reynolds, an organizer with Tamms Year Ten campaign.
The Tamms Year Ten Campaign began in 2008, when a group of prison reform advocates, former prisoners and family members got together to strategize for a way to get information about their family members in the prison.
Since then, groups including the Illinois House of Representatives Committee on Prison Reform, Amnesty International, the ACLU and the John Howard Association have done reports on conditions inside Tamms.
It has also forced the spotlight onto other prisons, said Reynolds. "We had other advocates start asking: Is Tamms really better than Statesville (Correctional Center)? Is it better than Menard (Correctional Center)?"
When WBEZ visited Vienna Correction Center, a minimum security prisons, it found overcrowding, unhygenic conditions and little space for free movement. All of this was in an institution that was to be less punitive than a maximum security prison. In September, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Illinois for conditions in its juvenile facilities.
Abdon Pallasch, a spokesman for Quinn's office, said they were disappointed with the Senate's decision to restore funding.
"It is not in the best interest of Illinois taxpayers to keep open empty and half-empty, very expensive facilities that are no longer needed," said Pallasch in an email to The Chicago Reporter. "Murphysboro has no youth residing at the facility. Tamms is half-empty. Taxpayers are paying $7 million a month to keep on the lights in facilities that are unnecessary and very expensive."
Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, said the closures would have had "the statewide impact of making all facilities more overcrowded and unstable." But, Lindall noted, there were still closures that would go through like those for the adult transitional centers (ACT) that help people transition out of prison.
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