CommitteeComments from one of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s agency directors have one state lawmaker concerned that the recent progress to reduce the state’s prison population could suddenly be undone.

“Forgive me for being suspicious, but we’ve got a governor saying he wants to reduce the prison population while at the same time his prison director is holding onto empty prisons just in case they’re needed? Something doesn’t add up,” said State Senator Mattie Hunter, a Chicago Democrat.

Hunter’s comments came in response to recent testimony from Illinois Department of Corrections Acting Director John Baldwin before a key Senate budgeting committee. Senator Hunter, a member of that committee, asked what the Department of Corrections’ plans were for unused prisons in Dwight and Tamms that once combined to house more than 1,000 inmates but have been shuttered for nearly four years.

With the prison agency seeking a funding increase in the next budget, Hunter suggested selling the property so the state could make some money in the midst of a budget crisis.
Acting Director Baldwin said there are no plans to sell off the prisons.

“You never know when you’re going to all of a sudden need it,” Baldwin said.

That set off warning bells for Hunter.

“When you have President Trump talking about the National Guard rounding up people in Chicago, I’m on high alert for the rights of our people,” Hunter said after the hearing.

Up until now, the Rauner administration has worked with lawmakers to cut the prison population. Rauner came into office vowing to reduce the inmate population by 25 percent. Hunter, also a member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, shared that goal, concerned that too many productive lives are being lost in prisons.

Adding to Hunter’s concerns was that Rauner-backed Republicans recent opposition to a Senate plan that would have reduced prison sentences for non-violent offenses. The general idea was to reduce prison costs by focusing available prison space for longer sentences for violent, gun-related crimes. The idea grew out of a task force the governor created.

But that provision was doomed in the Senate after Republicans backed out.

That turnabout, combined with the prison director’s desire to hold onto surplus prison space, has Hunter worried there’s a dramatic shift in direction within the Rauner administration on criminal justice policies.

“Those prisons were built for one thing: to be prisons. They’ve been closed for years. The Rauner administration should pursue ideas for selling off the land or tell the public what’s really going on,” Hunter said.

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