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Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008 05:33 am

Taylorville fears its prison will be overcrowded with violent inmates

Transferring prisoners from Pontiac worries a peaceful town

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Taylorville, a minimum-security prison, houses 1,172 inmates, double its capacity.

As the Blagojevich administration and AFSCME gear up for another round of court proceedings regarding the closing of the Pontiac Correctional Center, Taylorville is “gravely” concerned about the effects the closing may have on its community.

In October, 50 medium-security prisoners from Pontiac were shipped to the already overcrowded Taylorville Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison. If the administration is ultimately successful in its attempt to close the Pontiac prison, more are likely to be transferred to the Taylorville prison.

“Our concerns are twofold,” says Taylorville Mayor Frank Mathon, who has received countless phone calls from local residents regarding the transfers and overcrowding. “We, of course, are concerned about the safety and well-being of the guards and other staff. We are also concerned about the safety of minimum-security inmates housed with inmates previously classified as medium
security.”

“When the city sought out the prison 27 years ago, it did so on the basis that the facility would house minimum-security inmates incarcerated for relatively minor offenses,” states Mathon. “Today, we have a prison with inmates convicted of committing some really serious crimes.”

Mathon told Illinois Times that before inmates are transferred to the Taylorville prison, the Department of Corrections (DOC) sends him a list of the prisoners, as well as the prisoners’ criminal records. The most recent transfers, said Mathon, included an attempted murderer, an armed hijacker and sexual predators. “We’re talking, in some cases, inmates who have rap sheets that are five pages long.” He added: “It’s very sobering. This is not what we signed on for.”

Like Mathon, AFSCME, the union representing correctional officers, is also concerned with DOC reclassifying inmates to lower security levels simply to accommodate space needs. A chart recently released by AFSCME shows that over the past several months 267 inmates were reclassified and transferred from Pontiac to lower security prisons across the state. The chart further states that over the past several months, 40 inmates, including 13 classified as “elevated escape risks,” were transferred to Taylorville from Pontiac’s medium-security unit.

According to both DOC and AFSCME, reviewing, reclassifying and transporting prison inmates to different facilities is quite common. DOC spokesman Derek Schnapp says that an inmate, particularly one with a lengthy sentence, may serve time in three or more prisons before being released. “Reclassifications or ‘step-downs’ to lower security levels are a natural progression within any correctional system,” states Schnapp.

Schnapp further maintains that every Pontiac inmate reclassified and transferred to a lower security level has met department guidelines, which include assessing factors such as an inmate’s background, crimes, length of time in prison, disciplinary record, mental health and participation in educational and other self-improvement programs.

“That’s laughable,” responds AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall. “It’s highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for Illinois inmates to be reclassified and transferred in such numbers.” Lindall adds that the union is concerned with these reclassifications because the physical structures of the state’s minimum-security prisons are simply not equipped to handle the more violent inmates. In maximum-security prisons, the walls go below the ground to prevent inmates from digging tunnels and escaping. Also, while plastic may be used for a variety of purposes in minimum-security facilities, Lindall says the more violent inmates are more likely to chip away the plastic and use it as weapons against guards and other inmates.

In addition to concerns about reclassification of inmates, Mathon and AFSCME are concerned with prison overcrowding and the low staff-to-inmate ratio throughout the prison system. By all accounts, Taylorville Correctional Center, as well as most of the rest of the state’s prisons, is grossly overcrowded. According to the DOC Web site, Taylorville, built to house a maximum of 600 prisoners, has a daily population of 1,172 inmates — nearly double the capacity. Before the announcement this week that the administration has hired new prison guards, AFSCME expressed concern that DOC has chosen to remove guards from locations where they were previously posted. “In the past 10 years, this has led to some heinous assaults at several prisons across the state. Overcrowding, coupled with wrongly classified inmates, and lack of security, poses an eminent health and safety risk for guards and inmates,” argues Lindall.

Schnapp: “DOC understands the concerns. But we assure you that safety and security are at the forefront. The department continues to review operations, particularly as it pertains to safety.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Blagojevich announced the closing of Pontiac prison at the end of the year. Since the announcement, AFSCME has filed three lawsuits in an attempt to stop the closing. Late last month, a circuit court judge issued an injunction stopping the transfer of Pontiac inmates. The next hearing regarding the closing of the Pontiac prison is scheduled for January 5.

Jolonda Young is a former staff writer for Illinois Times. She currently serves as director of Intercultural Programs and Services at Blackburn College.

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