Details on plans for Stateville, Logan prisons remain scarce

SPRINGFIELD — After two lengthy and occasionally tense public meetings during which employees and others complained about a lack of information from the state on its nearly $1 billion plan to demolish and rebuild two Illinois prisons, a bipartisan legislative panel that was supposed to make recommendations on the proposal adjourned without taking action.

Only three lawmakers on the 12-member Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability showed up at the panel’s meeting Friday, not enough for a quorum to vote on advisory recommendations for the Illinois Department of Corrections’ proposal for Stateville and Logan correctional centers.

“To suggest that I’ve been disappointed with how this process has played out would be an understatement,” state Sen. Donald DeWitte, a Republican from St. Charles, said at Friday’s hearing. “The issue of possibly closing one or more of our correctional centers is extremely important and should have been taken care of while we were in session the last month of May.

“Instead what we saw was another rushed process with an agency, the Department of Corrections, that has not, despite our asking, been able to provide any real detail regarding a plan.”

The proposal to dismantle Stateville and Logan and rebuild both facilities on the Stateville site outside Joliet was announced by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration this spring. The budget Pritzker signed earlier this month sets aside $900 million in capital funds for the projects. Both prisons are in disrepair and the plan would allow the state to avoid hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance costs, according to IDOC.

The agency has indicated Stateville, in Crest Hill near Joliet could be shuttered as soon as September, while Logan in downstate Lincoln could remain open until its new facility is built.

The lack of a firm timeline and scarcity of details on how prison workers and those housed in the facilities will be transferred was a key point of contention during public meetings on the prison closings in communities affected by the plan, each attended by about 200 people.

In Joliet, Michael Newman, deputy director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, said IDOC’s plan for Stateville “not only lacks critical details” but “is needlessly and drastically disruptive to the employees of the department, to individuals who are currently incarcerated at Stateville and to their families, and to the entire IDOC system.”

“The extremely rushed closure timeline should be slowed to ensure that there are sound answers to the many questions raised during this COGFA process,” said Newman, whose union supports building new prisons but opposes the plan to shut down Stateville while it’s being rebuilt.

Charles Mathis, a corrections officer at Stateville, said IDOC’s alternative worksites while Stateville is closed include Sheridan Correctional Center in LaSalle County and Pontiac Correctional Center in Livingston County, both about 90 minutes from his home on Chicago’s South Side, about twice the length of his current commute.

“That kind of commute round trip would take an enormous toll on my mind and body,” said Mathis.

IDOC officials have said that a Stateville satellite facility, Northern Reception and Classification Center, would remain open while the main prison is torn down. James Porter, a corrections lieutenant at Stateville, expressed concern over whether the center could accommodate the number of Stateville employees who could get sent there. He also said there has been a lack of clarity over whether jobs will be lost.

“This has caused tremendous stress and anxiety for those of us who work in a career in the Department of Corrections,” said Porter, a 25-year veteran of Stateville.

Latoya Hughes, IDOC’s acting director, said the department is a defendant in a federal lawsuit over Stateville’s conditions and delaying closure could weaken IDOC’s control over the prison and put crucial decisions made about the prison in the hands of a judge.

“The primary reason for the facility’s closure during the rebuild is to address serious safety and security concerns close to those who work and live in Stateville by the aging infrastructure,” Hughes said. “This is not just a matter of preference but a necessary step to ensure safety, efficiency and the fulfilment of our rehabilitative mission.”

The squalid conditions at Stateville were made clear by James Soto, who was incarcerated for more than 40 years after being wrongfully convicted in a 1981 double homicide before being released from the prison last year. Soto described what he called “the toxic water” and “black mold” at Stateville, blaming the prison for providing him with lead-infested water that caused him health issues.

“Is there going to be a cleanup of the facility? I mean, like, a real thorough cleanup where they don’t have to live in those conditions for any prolonged period of time?” Soto asked the COGFA panel. “There’s people here. Human beings on both sides of the fence.”

DeWitte was at the meeting and asked when construction would begin at Stateville and how far along the department was in discussions about the transitions. IDOC officials said ground wouldn’t be broken for about a year and transition discussions were moving slowly.

“What assurance can you give the legislature that there is even an intention to rebuild Stateville?” DeWitte asked, to applause from the audience. “I’m only asking the question because the general population in all of the DOC facilities is down.”

Hughes sought to assure DeWitte that Stateville “is important to the ecosystem” of IDOC.

“Stateville is one of the facilities that we receive the most interest (in) as it relates to programming for the individuals in our custody,” said Hughes. “Stateville is one of the facilities that we utilize for the individuals in our custody for a number of reasons.”

Lincoln, a city of about 13,000 people, has been dealt various economic blows in recent years such as the closures of Lincoln College and Lincoln Christian University and the loss of the Lincoln Developmental Center, a compound for developmentally disabled adults that was shuttered years ago but is slated to be converted into a juvenile justice facility.

During the public meeting at a local middle school, Marrisa Hayes said she and her husband are both correctional officers at Logan and explained how their “sole financial stability” comes from the prison as they serve as caretakers for two family members with health issues.

“We cannot afford to uproot our lives and leave our family behind should the facility move to northern Illinois,” Hayes said. “For me, Logan is my home. My spouse and I will be forced to choose between leaving our family and friends or our financial well-being, and that’s a devastating choice to make.”

Logan opened in the 1870s as the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children. It was repurposed as a prison in 1977 and became a facility for women and transgendered inmates in 2013. Now, according to IDOC’s Hughes, there are roughly 1,080 women incarcerated at Logan and about 450 staffers, most of whom are security personnel.

Kenny Johnson, president of AFSCME Local 2073 and a Logan correctional officer, testified how its prison staff works to “house, care and protect” incarcerated women, some with mental health issues.

“If the governor and DOC’s plan to rebuild Logan Correctional Center in Crest Hill comes to fruition, the state would be losing the vital staff that (makes) the women’s division work,” Johnson said. “We are not going to relocate our families two hours north. Our roots are deeply embedded here in central Illinois.”

While much of the criticism was about the lack of information from IDOC and the potential upheaval to people’s lives, there was some support for the overall concept.

Colette Payne, director of the Women’s Justice Institute Reclamation Project in Chicago, acknowledged before the meeting that if Logan gets rebuilt on the Stateville site, it’s an opportunity for the state prison system to treat women more humanely.

“We failed for so long as a system. Let’s make it work,” Payne said.

Hughes said that relocating Logan to the Stateville property makes sense because a substantial percentage of the women incarcerated at Logan who are from Cook County are serving lengthy sentences for serious crimes, and therefore are most in need of rehabilitative services.

IDOC also has said moving Logan to the Stateville site would provide a better geographical balance for women’s prisons in the state “by providing a northern facility to pair with” Decatur Correctional Center for women, which is about 36 miles from Logan’s current location.

But Alfred Campbell, a corrections sergeant at the Decatur prison, noted that Decatur is a minimum security facility and adding women who are considered more dangerous could pose a safety risk.

“Security staff already have enough going on to where they have to worry about individuals coming up from behind, attacking them, or attacking other individuals, when we have blind spots,” Campbell said at the hearing in Lincoln.

In a statement issued on Friday, IDOC said its goal was to “present a starting point and create an open process in which feedback from all impacted stakeholders is considered — not to present a complete plan without discussing it with all involved.”

The department said it would “continue conversations to gather feedback from impacted stakeholders and collectively incorporate it into a better comprehensive plan moving forward.”

Even if COGFA did have enough members to vote on IDOC’s proposal on Friday, the panel’s decision would merely be advisory, and the Pritzker administration would continue to have authority to carry out whatever plans it has in mind. But the uncertainty of those plans was the focus for the three members who showed up.

Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability co-chair state Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer calls the meeting to order during a hearing on the proposed closure of Stateville Correctional Center during a multiyear rebuild, at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center, June 11, 2024, in Joliet. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)
Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability co-chair state Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer calls the meeting to order during a hearing on the proposed closure of Stateville Correctional Center during a multiyear rebuild, held at the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center on June 11, 2024, in Joliet. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

Republican state Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer believes IDOC has more of “a thought bubble” than a plan.

“This is far from shovel-ready,” said Davidsmeyer, of Jacksonville. “If the department thinks they’re going to start building in a year, and that’s what they said, I bet they don’t even have plans in a year. Unless they’re working behind the scenes without us knowing with an architect and engineers and everyone else who are putting this together, but I don’t believe that to be the case.”

He also said he will encourage IDOC to move forward with its plans to close Stateville but to start rebuilding it “immediately” and to work with all affected parties regarding Logan’s future.

State Sen. David Koehler, a Democrat from Peoria who co-chairs the panel, said IDOC still “needs to engage all the primary stakeholders” in ways to “minimize any hardship or disruption” for anyone impacted by the project as the agency works on a more comprehensive plan.

“I think you need to have the primary stakeholders at the table and that’s staff, that’s families, incarcerated individuals as well, the communities that are involved,” Koehler said at the hearing. “I mean, they know who the primary stakeholders are. I think there needs to be a true engagement on this thing.”

After the meeting, Koehler told reporters that it’s important to build new facilities that provide “a 21st century model of what corrections ought to be.”

“I really heard that throughout the hearings is that people didn’t criticize having a new facility,” he said. “What they criticized was kind of the unknown of where are they going to be moved and are they going to have to relocate. That’s the details. That’s what a plan includes is the details of what happens when and to who and how.”

COGFA members say they still plan to compile a written opinion about Stateville and Logan’s future. At an unrelated news conference Friday in suburban Chicago, Pritzker said the public hearings “are useful to hear what people have to say” and it’s important “in determining what the plan ultimately will be.”

“It’s clear that much more ultimately will need to be done to upgrade or change the facilities. We already have. This is just the beginning,” Pritzker said.

Chicago Tribune’s Olivia Olander contributed.

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