Judge rules against Quinn; says state can't close prisons

October 10, 2012

A downstate Illinois judge ruled against the closure of seven state facilities Wednesday, which includes two prisons and two juvenile centers and three adult transition centers. The ruling marks a victory for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, the labor union that represents many state employees, including those who work at those facilities. 

AFSCME had sued to keep the facilities open. It argued in court that closing the prisons and adult transition centers had the potential to create dangerous working conditions for both employees and inmates. Union representatives who worked at those seven targeted facilities told stories of overcrowded conditions for inmates at some state prisons and dangerous working conditions for employees at others. Attorneys for the labor union argued closing more facilities would make working conditions even worse.

"We think it's high time for the governor to stop wasting taxpayer money on these lawsuits and arbitrations," said Henry Bayer, the executive director of AFSCME Council 31. "Instead he should be using those monies to make sure that our prisons and communities are safe."

In his decision, Judge Charles Cavaness wrote that AFSCME proved "irreparable harm"would come if the facilities closed because the employees "may suffer physical injuries that cannot be fully remedied later."

Abdon Pallasch, a spokesman for Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn, said the office will be appealing the decision directly to the state Supreme Court. He said the facilities are not being used to their full capacity and are costing taxpayers $7 million a month to keep them open and staffed. The governor has said cuts in many government services were necessary because of increased unpaid pension obligations and a massive debt the state owes.

In court filings, attorneys for the state argued that working in a prison is an inherently dangerous job and that there is no such thing as a safe prison. Attorneys said that AFSCME had only speculated and not presented any real evidence that working conditions will be more dangerous if the closures are allowed to go forward. 

One of the facilities targeted to close is the supermax prison in Tamms, Ill., which costs about $26 million a year to operate. Rob Osborne, the president of AFSCME Local 993 who works at the Vandalia Correctional Center, had testified that overcrowding and short staffing were problems. He said that if the Tamms prison closes, it would move dangerous inmates into his prison, which doesn't have cells, just beds in open spaces. He predicted there would be more violence in the Vandalia prison if Tamms is allowed to close.

The legal battle is one of several recent disputes AFSCME has had with the governor. Quinn won election in 2010 with large support from labor groups. But AFSCME has protested the governor in recent months, even booing him at a Democratic event at the Illinois State Fair in August.