House upholds prison-funding veto, meaning Tamms and other facilities may close

House upholds prison-funding veto, meaning Tamms and other facilities may close

The funding fight over the future of some of Illinois prisons and other facilities has been settled, at least for the time being.

The Illinois House on Wednesday decided not to take an override vote on Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget cuts. It was the last legislative volley of sorts in a long back-and-forth over the facilities' funding.

Just last week, the state Senate voted 35-16 to restore the money, but with Wednesday's action, or rather inaction from the House, Quinn’s cuts will stand.

“Closing these empty or half-empty prisons and juvenile detention centers that are no longer needed will save Illinois taxpayers $88 million a year, once the closures are fully implemented,” Quinn said in a statement Wednesday. “These closures will strengthen our long-term effort to cut state expenses and put Illinois on sound financial footing.”

Quinn’s plan to close the facilities opened a statewide conversation on the living conditions for those behind bars.

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, 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 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 31 has argued that closing prisons will lead to overcrowding as well as the loss of unionized jobs in rural communities. The union, which represents prison workers, had previously gotten a preliminary injunction blocking some closures.

Sen. Gary Forby led the bipartisan 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," Collins said.

Though the funding was in limbo for months, advocates welcomed that the fight over money opened up a much-needed discussion.

"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 met to figure out a way to get information about their imprisoned loved ones.

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.

The funding fight 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, unclean 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.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, said the Quinn's closures would have "the statewide impact of making all facilities more overcrowded and unstable."

Note: This story was updated to reflect that the House did not consider an override vote on Quinn's budget cuts that aimed to close the state facilities. An earlier version of this story stated the House voted on keeping the funds. We regret this error.

Photo credit: samuelalove

Leave a comment