Prison guards hired amid budget mess

SPRINGFIELD — Just weeks after Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced hundreds of layoffs because of the state budget mess, his administration hired 208 prison guards who don’t have a prison to guard, The Associated Press has learned.

The Department of Corrections hired the employees for the Thomson Correctional Center in October at a cost of $10.8 million for their first year of work, according to a review of state records.

They were supposed to provide security at the prison in northwestern Illinois for inmates being transferred from the Pontiac prison, which Blagojevich has said he’d close to save $4 million a year, a Corrections spokesman said Monday.

But the Pontiac prison is still open because of a lawsuit filed by union officials on behalf of employees. And the Pontiac mayor says his city was “duped” because corrections officials promised jobs for most of the displaced workers.

Without new inmates at Thomson, 89 of the new hires will be reassigned to Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet starting Wednesday, meaning $9,000 a week in housing costs, Corrections spokesman Derek Schnapp said.

The turmoil dates back months.

In August, Blagojevich said cuts he made to an unbalanced budget would mean laying off 325 human-services and tourism workers, cutting substance-abuse treatment and closing two dozen state attractions.

By October, when the prison guards were hired, the Legislature had sent the governor more than $200 million to spare the reductions. Blagojevich laid off 85 employees and closed 20 state parks and historic sites. He said he was using the rest of the money to prevent future layoffs in a weakening economy and facing a budget deficit of up to $2 billion.

Attrition claims about 50 corrections employees a month, Blagojevich spokeswoman Katie Ridgway said. She said counting the new positions, the agency’s October head count was lower than the number the previous two years.

“Even with our current budget deficit, we still need to make sure that we are filling front-line positions to keep people safe,” she said.

Among 179 workers originally targeted for layoff by Blagojevich in August were “front-line” child-abuse investigators and case workers. Those jobs were restored when lawmakers scraped up extra money.

Blagojevich’s plan was to close Pontiac by year’s end. To meet that deadline, the new officers had to be hired in October so they could complete a six-week training course and two weeks of orientation at Thomson, Schnapp said.

A lawsuit by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees halted inmate transfers. The next hearing isn’t until Jan. 5.

Pontiac workers will still have the right to transfer to other facilities based on seniority, Schnapp said. But he said the agency’s contract with AFSCME requires hiring some new employees whenever a facility opens.

Thomson, located near the Mississippi River about 40 miles northeast of Moline, was completed in 2001 but the state has never had the money to fully open it. It has 1,600 unused maximum-security cells and instead houses just 160 minimum-security prisoners with 77 staff members.

Complete staffing of Thomson’s maximum-security wing would require 534 people, Schnapp said. With the 208 new hires, that leaves 326 at Thomson compared with 570 at Pontiac.

The displaced workers will still be able to get jobs at Thomson or other prisons such as those at Dwight, Dixon and East Moline, Schnapp said.

Pontiac Mayor Scott McCoy has fought the closure, saying it would devastate the city’s economy. He isn’t convinced there is enough work to go around.

“We were duped,” McCoy said. “We were told one thing by the state and promised jobs and that never materialized.”

Of the new employees, 89 are ready to go to work, so they will be reassigned to Stateville to spell other workers who would normally have to work overtime, Schnapp said. The department will bus them there Monday and return them to Thomson on Friday.

Housing costs in Joliet will run $9,000 a week, with some staying in housing on prison grounds and others in hotels. They may only be reassigned for six weeks at a time but Schnapp would not predict what will happen if the Pontiac dispute isn’t resolved.

The other 119 recruits finished their six-week academy training on Friday and will go through about two weeks of orientation at Thomson, Schnapp said.

source

http://www.pantagraph.com/articles/2008/12/08/news/doc493d7c0477bba028508107.txt

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