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Thursday, July 23, 2009 08:55 am

Union to Quinn: Don’t cut staff, don’t release inmates early

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John Black, a correctional officer at Logan Correctional Facility in Lincoln, says he can sum up the morale among his fellow prison workers in just one word.

“Sucks,” says Black, a member of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 2073.

For the past several years, under the strain of the state’s ever-present fiscal problems, Illinois prison guards say they feel like they’re the ones who are on lockdown. They complain of long hours supervising prisoners in facilities that in some cases exceed capacity by 180 percent.

A level four medium-security facility, Logan was built in 1978 to hold 1,050 men. Today, the average daily population at the prison is just over 1,900 inmates. Meanwhile, some 61 correctional officer positions sit vacant, triggering mandatory overtime on 1,488 occasions last year, Black says.

System-wide, overcrowding resulted in IDOC paying $63.1 million in overtime in fiscal year 2009, up from $12 million in 2001. At Logan alone, IDOC paid out $2.5 million in overtime to the prison’s 326 employees, which works out to an additional $7,668 per person.

Overextended guards aren’t sure the extra money is worth the stress or potential danger, however.

“We sometimes work 16-hour days on holidays, we have families that don’t see us, don’t have weekends off,” Black says. That’s when the exhaustion factor kicks in. “You’ve got a guy on his 15th hour, how fresh is he?”

And they fear their working conditions will get worse before they improve if the layoffs Gov. Pat Quinn says are needed to help balance the state budget are implemented. Quinn has stated that the layoffs — 1,000 are threatened in the state corrections department — would mean $1 billion in savings. The governor has also proposed that state workers take 12 furlough days.

But cutting staff and implementing furloughs would ultimately cost more than the amount Quinn believes the moves will save. At IDOC, if a prison guard has to take a day off, another corrections officer must be called in to cover the shift.

In other words, the state is paying out $1.50 in overtime for every dollar it saves with the furloughs, explains Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31.

Quinn has suggested the early release of upwards of 10,000 nonviolent offenders to alleviate the burden on prison staffs. Members of AFSCME Local 2073 at Logan Correctional Center oppose that idea.

“Releasing people early will not solve problems,” states a letter the union is sending to Lincoln residents.

“Currently county jails across the state are overcrowded and are being paid by the state to house inmates because DOC doesn’t have the space for them. Police officers and county sheriffs have been told not to make arrests due to the fact that they don’t have room in the jails for them.”

Says Black, the guard: “If they’re so good to be put out on the street, why wouldn’t the judge have done that? Obviously the judge wants them behind bars for a reason.”

Nor is Illinois’ parole system equipped to handle an influx of newly released prisoners, says Lindall, whose organization also represents parole agents. Currently, just 400 agents oversee the state’s 35,000 parolees.

Meanwhile funding for support services such as substance abuse counseling and community mental health treatment are also facing cuts.

“You don’t make decisions of such gravity in a budget cutting panic,” Lindall says. “This is a hasty plan done under the budgetary gun.”

In 2008 AFSCME filed a lawsuit against then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to block the closure of Pontiac Correctional Center. Lindall says the union is currently “looking at all our options and will do anything in our power to stop these layoffs.”

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