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Guest Column-Illinois needs moratorium on prison closures

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By The Staff

It's time to quit playing with peoples lives with regard to prison closures, and end the political gamesmanship that surrounds prison site decisions. A bipartisan group of my colleagues in the General Assembly are advocating a comprehensive review of Illinois correctional facilities and programs.

Imagine if a prison in another part of the state, that was announced to be closed by the governor, received its "pardon" on a Friday, only to have Vandalia Correctional Center take its place on the facility chopping block the following Monday. That has happened. For weeks, the Illinois Department of Corrections had been justifying the closure of the Roundhouse at Stateville Correctional Center. That was all the way up to a Friday, but by the next Monday, they changed course and made a surprise announcement to close Pontiac Correctional Center.

Announcements of prison closures in Illinois have come out of thin air. Over the past three years, the Blagojevich administration has announced the closure of at least three different facilities without any analysis or planning.

One of my colleagues, State Sen. Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), appropriately dubbed the process, roving prison closures. The surprise announcements are the reason legislators of both political parties are calling on the governor to implement a prison closure moratorium and establish a long-range plan for corrections facilities and programs.

Sen. Radogno and I are joined by others in asking Gov. Rod Blagojevich to act by executive order.

We believe it makes sense to create a Correctional Facilities Panel, composed of legislators, correctional facility employees, the director of the Illinois Department of Corrections and representatives from organizations that have a thorough understanding of correctional facilities and inmate populations.

The panel would be charged with reviewing the physical conditions of the states prisons, the size and composition of the inmate population, the corrections programs presently provided and any programs the state may need to be added or expanded.

The idea is to have a well-thought-out plan, similar to the five-year plan of the Illinois Department of Transportation, with regards to building and refurbishing roads and bridges. One does not decide to close a bridge over a weekend or to change the location of road construction on a whim.

There is an aging population in our prison system, and perhaps having a specialized corrections unit for older prisoners could be more efficient. Perhaps an expanded drug treatment prison will help with recidivism. Using facilities that taxpayers have already built and employees that are already trained seems to make sense. Knowing what programs we need to give a better return for public safety and tax dollars is how Illinois should plan.

The Illinois Correctional system is already at 135 percent of capacity. Closing perfectly good facilities does not make sense.

We encourage Gov. Blagojevich to act, by executive order, to place a moratorium on prison closures and convene a panel of experts to analyze the existing system and determine future needs. Long-range planning makes sense.