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Prison workers' union supports study of early-release program

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By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

A hostage situation, the third in recent history, offers continuing proof that Illinois needs to address staffing shortages at state prisons, according to a union official at Vandalia Correctional Center.

On Monday, an inmate at Pinckneyville Correctional Center held a 62-year-old prison employee hostage. The hostage situation was resolved when that inmate, who was serving a sentence for aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping, was fatally shot.

This kidnapping followed sexual assaults of prison workers by inmates at Jacksonville and Dwight prisons.

These situations are arising, according to Stunkel, because of staffing shortages and the state’s policy of transferring its most-dangerous inmates (Level 1 is the most dangerous) to lower-security prisons. The inmate who was shot and killed on Monday had been moved from Stateville Correctional Center to the Pinckneyville prison.

“Normally, with enough security, an inmate would not have been able to take an employee hostage,” said Stunkel, president of Local 993 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

At this point, he said, VCC – which typically houses levels 6 and 7 inmates – has received inmates classified at levels 4 and 5, “but only by mistake.”

“These attacks on prison employees are happening because our prisons continue to be short-staffed,” Stunkel said.

Earlier this year, the Illinois Department of Corrections announced the implementation of a new program to help deal with budget shortfalls – the early release of some inmates. But that new policy is not being followed for the time being.

One day before the situation at Pinckneyville Correctional Center, Gov. Pat Quinn suspended IDOC’s “meritorious good time” release program, saying that the suspension will be in effect “as the entire program undergoes a comprehensive review by senior staff members of the Quinn Administration and the Illinois Department of Corrections.

The governor said that he ordered the suspension of the program “because some issues regarding the administration of the program have surfaced, and it is in the public’s best interest to review the plan.

“My mandate to the Department of Corrections is that the public’s safety always comes first,” Quinn said. “A top-to-bottom review of this program will make sure that we never waiver from this all-important goal.”

Stunkel said that AFSCME is glad to see that Quinn wants a comprehensive review of the program, having felt from the start that it’s not a good idea.

“Some of these guys who are sentenced to three to six years in prison are serving only 18 days,” Stunkel said.

“We will be pro-active in fighting to have this program discontinued, because we believe it’s not right that inmates don’t have to serve their full sentences. This is putting criminal offenders back out on the street, which puts the public at risk.”

In recent months, that early release program has affected the number of inmates coming into VCC.

“Normally, we get a lot of inmates who are to serve one-year sentences,” Stunkel said. “We haven’t been getting those inmates, because they’ve been diverted into receiving and then are released,” he said.

The population at VCC has dropped to 960 inmates, with 400 being housed at the VCC Work Camp and 500 in dorms at the main facility. Of the 12 dorms at the main facility, six are now being used.

That will likely change in the near future.

“We’ve been told to get ready to accept 300 more inmates,” Stunkel said, noting that some of those inmates may be ones currently housed at Thomson Correctional Center in Moline.

At last Monday’s meeting of the Vandalia City Council, a representative of Governmental Consulting Solutions, an independent contractor that has a contract with the city for lobbying services, reported recent population increases at VCC.

Vandalia Mayor Rick Gottman said the city is interested in increases in the inmate population, because that number helped determine how much federal funding the city receives as a result of the 2010 Census.