Illinois facing a prison dilemma

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 9:35 a.m. CST

The following editorial appeared in The Telegraph, Alton, Ill., on Feb. 19, 2013:

(MCT) — Even before Gov. Pat Quinn ordered the closing of Illinois’ maximum-security prison, Tamms, dangerous games were being played with prison safety.

While the population within the prison walls continued to rise sharply, fewer people were available to handle the crunch — victims of budget cuts that have sliced and diced their way through most state agencies.

Now, with the closing of Tamms and plans to shutter a female penitentiary in Dwight, it’s worth questioning whether existing safety nets can handle the strain.

If not, there could be serious ramifications for the welfare of those who work within the razor wire-encased facilities and potentially for those who live in the communities that house them.

Fading, for example, is a segregation of prisoners based on their level of violence. While once the worst of the worst would have been sent to maximum-security prisons such as Tamms, more are finding themselves sent to minimum- and medium-security facilities.

Not only that, many of these prisons are already overcrowded, so makeshift cells are being created by putting beds in the gymnasiums at six mostly medium-security facilities.

The mixing of offenders with varying levels of violence is an issue within itself. Although corrections officials are trained to handle a multitude of problems, it bears questioning whether they could handle something along the lines of a massive fight that erupted just weeks ago among hardcore prisoners at maximum-security Menard.

There are an estimated 49,000 prisoners in Illinois; there is room to house 33,000.

And while prisons are not hotels and are not intended to cater to prisoners, studies have shown overcrowding is an impetus of violence.

The lack of everything from enough showers and toilets to places to exercise can create a dangerous game of musical chairs.

State prison officials have said this is a short-term solution and deny overcrowding is a concern.

That remains to be seen. Words and numbers can be parsed in many ways to support an idea.

What has to be of utmost consideration is the safety and security of those who work in the facilities and the general public that relies on being protected from those inside its walls.

©2013 The Telegraph (Alton, Ill.)
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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