By BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
The Illinois Department of Corrections is making plans to downsize—plans that a major public employee union claims have not been shared with its members.
With inmate population dwindling to 28,000 and mounting maintenance bills on prison buildings at correctional centers across the state, DOC developed a plan which may include significant downsizing at the Vandalia and Pontiac correctional centers.
“These facilities are referenced due to current operational needs,” IDOC chief of staff Camille Lindsay said in an email when asked about a draft plan obtained by Capitol News Illinois.
Under the proposed plan, Pontiac would close the medium security unit and go from 1,740 beds to 642 beds. Pontiac currently houses 1,144 inmates, including a unit that houses seriously mentally ill individuals.
Vandalia Correctional Center currently has a capacity of 1,001 and would be reduced to 401 inmates under the plan.
Both facilities face maintenance costs, including $3.8 million at Pontiac. The reduction of beds at Vandalia will save the state $12 million, according to plan estimates.
Gov. JB Pritzker’s spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said the plan is still preliminary.
“The document is a draft plan that was put together for discussion within the agency and in order to start discussions with stakeholders. It was not presented to the governor’s office for final approval because it is a draft that is expected to be updated after more discussions,” Abudayyeh said. “The Department is always interested in considering new ideas to better serve their population and this draft plan is an attempt to spur discussion about ways to improve services.”
The preliminary plan noted that hiring continues to be a challenge at IDOC and staff overtime hours for are “extremely high, especially at Pontiac.”
IDOC plans to adjust staffing to account for closures.
“No one will be laid off or a transferred as a result,” Lindsay said.
Lindsay said in an email the department has not started moving people in order to reduce the populations in these facilities.
That claim was disputed by a representative from AFSCME Council 31 – the union that represents IDOC officers.
“The department began moving offenders out of Pontiac last week with no advance notice to the union, the employees or the individuals who were moved,” said Anders Lindall, public affairs director for AFSCME Council 31.
Lindall noted that the union subsequently received notice of IDOC’s intent to reduce populations at Vandalia and Pontiac with a target date of March 16 for the first phase with additional unit closures to be completed by the summer.
Lindall said the union began to hear rumors early last week about possible changes at Pontiac and met with IDOC officials on Feb. 9, during which IDOC denied that possible changes may be forthcoming.
“On Wednesday, seven buses arrived at the facility and began to empty out the medium security units. Only on Friday did they inform us of their plan to close the MSU that they earlier denied,” Lindall said.
In response to questions, Lindsay wrote in an email that “the department has not started moving people in order to reduce the populations in these facilities.”
“This is an unacceptable breach of trust from IDOC management and not the basis of productive labor relations,” Lindall said. “Especially given the history of closure threats at both Pontiac and Vandalia, these new changes introduce uncertainty and instability that hurt employee morale and the lack of truthfulness in presenting them make union members question whether they can rely on management’s commitments.”
In a letter to Pritzker and IDOC Director Rob Jeffreys, Reps. Thomas Bennett, R-Pontiac, Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, Paul Jacobs, R-Pomona, Patrick Windhorst, R-Metropolis, Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City, and Sens. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville, Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, and Terri Bryant, R- Murphysboro, asked about the transfers from Pontiac and Vandalia.
“(T)here is significant concern in these communities about the future of those facilities,” the letter stated. “As both of these correctional centers serve as some of the largest employers in their respective regions, any changes to staffing or inmate population levels would have a major impact on the economic health of those areas.”
Vandalia Mayor Ricky Gottman said Wednesday that he had been in contact with some of the legislators to let them know he was concerned about reductions in inmate populations or staff.
“This is an important employer in the area. And that makes it in an important part of our economy for Vandalia, for Fayette County and surrounding areas,” Gottman said. “These are good and high-paying jobs and it would be devastating to lose them.”
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.