SPRINGFIELD – Storm damage forced the transfer of dozens of maximum-security, mentally ill inmates Saturday, leaving the Dixon prison locked down with emergency generators providing power and prompting the correctional workers' union to raise more questions about the practicality of Gov. Pat Quinn's plan to close penitentiaries in a severely crowded system.
The Department of Corrections transferred 78 inmates from Dixon to segregated cells at the maximum-security Pontiac Correctional Center after severe weather that rolled through north-central Illinois Friday night ripped up roofs and caused other "significant" damage, spokeswoman Stacey Solano said.
The prisoners went to isolated units at Pontiac because they are not "general population" inmates, Solano said. Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the workers' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said those transferred were mentally ill inmates from a maximum-security Dixon wing.
No one was injured, Solano said. Generators are providing power to the prison, which is locked down, confining remaining inmates to their cells.
"The safety and security of staff and inmates remains the top priority and the department is addressing this swiftly," Solano said.
AFSCME opposes prison closures because the system already holds about 48,000 inmates in facilities designed to hold 33,000. The Dixon transfers to Pontiac make the Tamms closure plan "unworkable" if storm damage cannot be quickly repaired, Lindall said.
"This is a reminder of the interdependent nature of the prison system, that no facility stands alone," Lindall said, "and underscores that the state's dangerously overcrowded prisons have no margin for error."
Solano did not respond to questions about how many segregation cells remain open at Pontiac, but said Dixon damage should be repaired before the supermaximum-security lockup at Tamms is scheduled to close by Aug. 31.
"The department anticipates that all the transferred offenders will be returned to Dixon before the end of August," Solano said. "This will not impact the department's ability to proceed with the plan to transfer Tamms offenders to Pontiac."
The Corrections Department told the union that it was transferring 95 inmates, according to Lindall. He said extra staff was called into Pontiac "to handle this unexpected influx."
About the time inmates were being moved, Quinn was signing a state budget for the fiscal year that begins Sunday and includes closing Tamms and a women's penitentiary at Dwight.
Tamms, opened in 1998 to house inmates who are violent or cause other problems in general population prisons, is supposed to send its residents to segregated cells at Pontiac and the Menard prison in far southern Illinois.
Tamms has too few inmates and is too expensive to run, Quinn believes. The Associated Press reported that Quinn wrote a letter Friday offering to sell Tamms to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. But U.S. officials, although willing, have been unable to come up with money to buy another of the state's unused prisons. The Thomson Correctional Center in northwestern Illinois, completed in 2001 as a maximum-security lockup, never fully opened because of tight state budgets.
Contact John O'Connor at https://www.facebook.com/apoconnor .