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Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009 09:51 am

Employee union blasts plans to sell Thomson prison

AFSCME says sale would increase overcrowding in Illinois prisons

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When it was built eight years ago, the Thomson Correctional Center in northwest Illinois held the promise of new jobs and safer streets, but the state-owned prison sits largely empty even today, the vacant victim of underfunding.

Governor Pat Quinn has announced a plan to sell the $145 million prison to the federal government, saying the sale would create thousands of new jobs and relieve the overcrowded federal prison system. Built in 2001 to alleviate overcrowding in other state prisons, the facility is a 1,600 bed, state-of-the-art, maximum security correctional center housing adult males.

In a Nov. 12 letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Quinn said of Thomson, “…there definitely appears to be a much greater need for this on the federal level, as overcrowding has become a pressing issue.”

Quinn’s plan has support from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler, who says the village borrowed $9.6 million to build a water treatment facility and other infrastructure in anticipation of the prison’s opening. President Barack Obama even favors the prison as a possible place to transfer detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But the largest union of state employees says the sale would worsen an already critical problem in Illinois.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 says Illinois prisons are overcrowded already, and moving the estimated 200 prisoners housed at Thomson to other state prisons will only exacerbate the problem. Additionally, AFSCME says the Illinois Department of Corrections has renewed a push to close Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, a move that would require shipping an additional 1,500 inmates to other state prisons as well.

“Bottom line, the IDOC plan to eliminate Thomson and Stateville will worsen the state system’s overcrowding crisis at the same time that it turns some 2,000 beds over to the federal government,” said AFSCME Council 31 executive director Henry Bayer in a statement released in anticipation of Quinn’s announcement.

The IDOC Web site shows that 25 of Illinois’ 28 prisons are operating over capacity, with at least three prisons holding more than double their capacity of prisoners. Compiling the online data shows Illinois prisons hold about 44,000 inmates – almost 14,000 inmates over their combined capacity of about 30,000. Those numbers do not include the state’s adult transitional centers, some of which are overcrowded as well.

Januari Smith, spokeswoman for IDOC, responded via e-mail to AFSCME’s overcrowding worries by pointing out that Thomson is barely being used, and the state’s inmate population has remained stable for the past decade.

“There is no expectation that it will increase under current criminal justice system practices,” Smith said.

AFSCME also says the Thomson plan should not go through until Quinn can guarantee federal or state jobs for the 300-plus state workers who would be displaced if the prison changed hands. IDOC would have to negotiate with the union on that matter, Lindall points out.

“It’s not only putting the jobs of our members in jeopardy, but it has a very real emotional and psychological impact,” Lindall says. “Suddenly, you’re being told that your job may be ending at no particular date. You may have the option to take another position, but you don’t know what your choices may be, and you certainly don’t know if it will be the same community.”

Quinn was unavailable for comment by publication time.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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