SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ crowded prison system soon could get squeezed even tighter.

By Andrew Thomason

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ crowded prison system soon could get squeezed even tighter.

Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn said Tuesday in Chicago that he would announce later this week whether he will send pink slips to thousands of state workers and close several state facilities, including at least one prison.

Quinn’s statements came after a recent Chicago Tribune report that said he was looking at shuttering a prison, a juvenile detention center and homes for people with mental ill and developmental disabilities.

“If the General Assembly appropriates less money, then everyone has to adjust to that, so that’s what happened this year. … We have to maintain our schools, maintain our basic public safety and our health care, and you have to make reductions in order to make that possible,” he said.

Illinois’ 27 prisons hold about 49,000 inmates, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. If Quinn closes one of the state’s smaller facilities, each of which hold about 1,200 inmates, those prisoners would have to be housed in other facilities.

Prisons in the state initially were were built to hold 33,373 inmates. Corrections officials, however, switched how they determine that number by counting the number of beds a prison can hold instead of the number of cells. By doing so, the corrections officials could show that the facilities were technically not overcrowded.

Inmates have 34 square feet of living space, or slightly more space that one finds in a typical bathroom, according to the state Department of Corrections. Closing a prison could cause that square footage to get even smaller by putting more prisoners in crowded facilities.

John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison watchdog group, has toured many of the prisons in the state.

“I don’t see how you close a facility without severely overcrowding the system,” Maki said. “They can keep on putting beds in there, and if that’s their yardstick, they have some more room to go. But in terms of what these prisons were designed to hold, they’re way beyond that.”

State Sen. John Jones, R-Mount Vernon, has two prisons in his district and also is concerned about where prisoners would go. The combination of more inmates in fewer cells with fewer guards creates serious safety concerns for the remaining Department of Corrections staff, Jones said.

The governor said earlier this summer that the General Assembly did not appropriate enough money to keep at least 12 state agencies operating through the end of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

What Quinn is billing as a way to cope with a budget he said is inadequate could create more bills for the state, Jones said.

“This could just end up costing the state because not only might the inmates sue the state, there are organizations out there that could sue on (inmates’) behalves,” he said.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California in May to decrease its prison population by 30,000 due to overcrowding. The cash-strapped state has scrambled to figure out whom to move to county facilities, whom to release early, and which convicts need to stay behind bars.

Additionally, these kind of decisions can have “unintended consequences,” said Maki.

The state’s prison system is “held together by all these very tenuous policies and laws. You don’t want to tinker with it too much; it could blow up,” Maki said.

Quinn’s predecessor, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, attempted to shut down two state prisons — Pontiac Correctional Center and Vandalia Correctional Center — but both plans stalled because of public outrage and legislator opposition.

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