SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Pat Quinn defended his state prisons chief on Wednesday, a day after reappointing S.A. "Tony" Godinez to the post despite criticism about ethics, inmate overcrowding, understaffing and violence.
Godinez's name was one of two dozen the Democratic governor sent to the Senate for confirmation as agency directors, but it's clearly the most contentious. The Senate has not set a date for voting on the appointments.
Republican senators have questioned Godinez and his Department of Corrections as Quinn ordered the closure several prison facilities to save money, even though there is a record-level inmate population that critics believe has sparked an uptick in violence. But the director of a prison watchdog group said Godinez's 40-year prison career is well-suited to those and other challenges ahead for Illinois' prisons.
"I have confidence in his ability to go forward," Quinn said during an event in Springfield, adding, "The importance of public safety for everyone, for the prison guards, for the public, and for the inmates – Tony understands that."
A Corrections spokeswoman did not respond to a request for an interview with Godinez.
Godinez, who makes $150,228, was director of the Cook County Department of Corrections when he took the state post in April 2011. He took over a state agency recovering from a credibility crisis brought on by the secret change made by his predecessor, Michael Randle, to the agency's inmate-release procedure that sent 1,700 ex-convicts – hundreds of them violent – back to the street within weeks or even days of arrival in state prison. The practice was revealed in a series of articles by The Associated Press.
Quinn halted all good-conduct early-release practices, and Godinez was soon faced not only with a prison population that swelled by 4,000 inmates, but an order from the governor to close two prisons and three inmate-transition centers. There are now 49,000 inmates in a prison system designed for 33,000. The high-security Tamms Correctional Center closed in December, and the agency is in the process of shuttering the women's prison in Dwight.
Godinez and his chief executive were knocked in a January report by the Executive Ethics Commission for hiring a politically connected man as prison administrator even though he did not meet qualifications in education or experience.
And the union representing Corrections employees, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has complained for years about understaffing and the problems that accompany it: fatigue from forced overtime and potential safety risks. The agency now has about 11,000 employees, compared to 17,000 in mid-2001.
People inside and outside the agency have reported what they say is an upswing in inmate attacks, including the vicious beating earlier this year of a Pontiac Correctional Center guard and the death of segregated Menard prisoner which authorities are investigating as a murder.
"The things that concerned us the most basically were safety of the officers, and of course that comes from overcrowding (and) the overtime," said Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, one of three GOP senators who met with Godinez in February to express concerns.
"It's really difficult for a guy to work 16 hours, go home, come straight back," he said.
Quinn's proposed budget plan calls for four new classes of correctional-officer cadets and, according to Luechtefeld, Godinez plans to hire more clerical workers to free up some higher-paid correctional officers currently shouldering clerical duties.
Acknowledging "it's a very difficult job," Luechtefeld said he's unsure how he'll vote on Godinez's reappointment.
Luechtefeld said current and former prison workers have claimed that the system is returning to days when imprisoned gang members were accommodated to keep peace, a practice that exploded in 1996 when videotapes of infamous mass-murderer Richard Speck surfaced showing him indulging in sex and what appeared to be drugs unencumbered.
Luechtefeld said Godinez and his staff strenuously disagreed with those claims.
The difficulty Godinez faces is the reason he has support from John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, an independent prison watchdog group. Maki supported Tamms' closure but objects to shuttering Dwight because of crowded conditions that have forced hundreds of inmates to sleep in makeshift quarters in prison gymnasiums.
But Godinez's 40-year prison career makes him one of the state's most experienced directors in history should serve him well in challenging times ahead, Maki said.
"He's going to need this experience as his administration and staff address some of the most difficult operational and budgetary challenges that the Illinois Department of Corrections has ever faced," Maki said.
Other department directors Quinn wants reappointed to two-year terms include Richard Calica at Children and Family Services, Dr. La Mar Hasbrouck at Public Health, Michelle R.B. Saddler at Human Services, and Ann Schneider at Transportation.