Dwight prison tranfers could begin this week. (WJBC file photo)
By Zach Dietmeier
DWIGHT - Will Dwight prison close, or won't it? That's been the question on the minds of not just Dwight employees, but many Illinois prison workers this year.
The answer has been yes, then maybe, then no, then yes.
The fight to save Dwight Prison and other state facilities from Gov. Pat Quinn's budget cuts stretched over nine months. Thanks to the state's grossly underfunded pensions, Gov. Quinn turned his attention to saving money by choosing to close several state facilities, including Dwight women's prison and Tamms Correctional Center, along with transitional centers in Decatur, Jacksonville, Chicago, and Carbondale.
"We have to look at the overall budget picture in Illinois," said Quinn. "Our operating budget is below 2008 levels, and we may need to make cuts and efficiencies even more than that."
A public hearing in April with the state’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability heard testimony for and against the governor’s proposal to close Dwight. COGFA sided with the governor, and Dwight was slated to close on Aug. 31. Dwight Mayor Bill Wilkey spoke for the town.
"It's a shame that one person can do this, because it's not the way government is supposed to work," said Wilkey. "I want him to know that I am concerned and that I don't approve of this budget cut. I don't think it was well thought out and needs to be relooked at."
AFSCME sued the state over the closures, claiming Quinn was moving too fast and that he didn't consider the safety risks that come along with the closures. Prison workers even greeted Gov. Quinn in Normal, holding signs that said "Save Dwight Prison" during the high speed rail launch in October. The lawsuit pushed back the closures, which gave state lawmakers another chance to look for a fix.
"We just don't have a lot of time left," said State Rep. Jason Barickman (R-Champaign). "My concern is that it may simply be a philosophical belief of the governor's that we need fewer prisons."
"We are really putting at risk the public safety of guards and of other inmates," said State Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington).
State Treasurer Dan Rutherford was more candid.
"To announce that you are going close a major state facility and you're going to it in X-1-2-3-4 months is insane," said Rutherford.
The Fall Veto Session came and went with no progress, and the decision eventually came in a courtroom in Alexander County in December, with the court siding with the governor. Prisoner transfers out of Tamms are almost complete, and transfers out of Dwight could start this week. Even now, Mayor Wilkey remains defiant.
"I don't think it's the deciding blow," said Wilkey. "I think there are still a few things in the fire."
The state projects $30 million annually in savings by closing Dwight.