September 04, 2012

Fight over Prison Closures Heads to Courtrooms

The legal fight between Gov. Pat Quinn and the union that represents prisons workers continues this week, and it will be in courtrooms at opposite ends of the state.

Gov. Quinn had wanted the prisons closed by last Friday. Instead that day an arbitrator said the administration violated its contract with the prison workers' union by moving to close the facilities before they had finished "impact bargaining."

The arbitrator said the Quinn administration should not have rushed to close the Tamms supermax prison and the women's prison at Dwight to save money. He also wants to close two youth detention centers and several other correctional facilities.

Union spokesman Anders Lindall said the rush to close these facilities before bargaining wrapped up meant workers could have been laid off without knowing whether they could transfer to another job, and be forced to move their families or sell a home.

“All of those things had not been decided, and yet the state was rushing forward to try to clear out the facilities and close them,” Lindall said.

The state had argued that the union shouldn’t be able to delay the closures, which the administration said are critical to getting Illinois’ finances in order. However, the arbitrator disagreed, and gave the parties 30 days to keep bargaining.

Both sides immediately went to court: the union to keep the administration from rushing to close the facilities before bargaining is finished; and the administration to try to get the arbitrator’s ruling overturned.

August 31, 2012

Arbitrator: Quinn, Prisons Violated Union Contract

Two major Illinois prisons and other facilities will stay open for at least another month after an arbitrator ruled Gov. Pat Quinn's administration violated workers' rights in rushing to close them.Arbitrator Steven Bierig concluded Friday that the state departments of Corrections and Juvenile Justice did not properly negotiate with workers over the impact of closing the supermax Tamms prison, the Dwight women's lockup and several juvenile facilities.

Bierig ordered the government and the workers' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to continue negotiating and reach an agreement on the closure process and its effects within a month.

"The arbitrator stated very clearly that the Quinn administration has violated the union contract with respect to not honoring their obligation to conclude bargaining with the union before implementing a closure and layoff," said AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall.

Democrat Quinn wanted to close the prisons and juvenile lockups by Friday. But AFSCME sued and a southern Illinois judge ordered arbitration.

An updated statement from AFSCME: Upon receiving the arbitration award described below, AFSCME Friday afternoon filed suit in Alexander County, asking the judge to declare the award binding, to order the state to comply with the award, and to issue an injunction preventing the state from implementing the closures or transferring inmates in violation of the award. Later, the state filed suit in Cook County seeking to vacate the arbitrator’s award.

Separately, in a status call with Judge Charles Cavaness in Alexander County, the union requested a hearing on its motion seeking a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prevent the state from moving forward to close facilities or transfer inmates. Judge Cavaness scheduled the hearing for Tuesday, Sept. 4 at 9:00 a.m.

UPDATE:   A spokeswoman says Gov. Pat Quinn's office is disappointed by an arbitrator's ruling that his administration must properly negotiate with state workers over the impact of prison closures.

Quinn spokeswoman Kelly Kraft says the state has filed an appeal seeking to vacate the ruling.

Kraft says state officials are committed to closure plans and want to "resolve this matter as quickly as possible.''

The governor has said the state can't afford to continue to operate the facilities.

August 30, 2012

Child Abduction Attempts Prompt Stranger Danger Classes

Reports of two attempted child abductions in Champaign last week hit close to home for the Champaign County chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters.  The child involved in one of the incidents happens to be a participant in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.  That’s prompted the organization to sponsor two classes on “Stranger Danger” for the public, next month at the Champaign Public Library.

Eric Batsie of Big Brothers Big Sisters says the half-hour classes provided by the Central Illinois Red Cross provide practical information on what to do to stay safe in a potential abduction situation.

"I never realized that a young girl should not have her hair in a ponytail, because that just makes it much easier for someone to grab that ponytail", said Batsie. "You know, a kid should always know a password. That way, if anyone says, oh I’m here on behalf of your mother who fell or something. … If the person doesn’t know the password, the person obviously is not there from the mother, because the mother would have given them the password."

The program is led by Kelly Formoso, who teaches the “Stranger Danger” course for the Red Cross’ Central Illinois chapter. She says she usually finds a receptive audience in the children who take the course. Formoso says her goal is teach children what to do if a stranger approaches --- without being frightening, "because that won't help them, if that situation does occur".

The half-hour "Stranger Danger" classes will be held on Monday, September 17th at the Champaign Public Library. There’s a 6 PM session for pre-schoolers and a 6:30 session for older children. Parents and adult guardians are encouraged to take part on the class.

For free reservations, you can call Big Brothers Big Sisters at 217-355-2227. For information on other “Stranger Danger” classes, contact the Central Illinois Red Cross at 217-351-5861.

August 30, 2012

Former Warden in Indiana says Prison Can't Afford Daily Prayers

The former warden of the federal prison that houses American-born Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh says the facility can't afford to accommodate daily group prayers for Muslim inmates.

Charles Lockett testified Thursday in federal court in Indianapolis that the prison would have to hire 84 chaplains to provide daily prayers for all inmates. He says that would cost $8.4 million a year.

Lockett says providing accommodations for only some inmates would foster dissent at the Terre Haute, Ind., facility.

Lindh says the policy in the tightly controlled unit where he's held violates his religious rights. The government says the restrictions are necessary for security.

The trial in Lindh's civil lawsuit began Monday.

Lindh pleaded guilty in 2002 to supplying services to the now-defunct Taliban government and carrying explosives for them.

August 30, 2012

Supreme Court Gives Ford County Teens New Trial

The Illinois Supreme Court says an attorney for two boys accused of sexual abuse was wrong to worry about the truth of the charges and what was best for society.

Instead, he should have given the boys the strongest possible defense. 

"Austin M." was 16 when he was accused of sexually abusing younger foster children in his adopted parents' home. 

A court sentenced him to probation, but Austin says his lawyer acted improperly.

There are two types of attorneys appointed in cases involving juveniles: regular defense attorneys, who simply work to get their clients off; and guardians, who look out for the best interests of the child, even if that means going against what the child or parents want. 

Jackie Bullard argued on behalf of Austin before the Supreme Court last year.

"Children like Austin, who have been charged with a crime, and face the same potential prison sentences that adults do, are entitled to defense attorneys," she said.

In a divided opinion, a majority of the justices agreed, finding that the boy's lawyer acted more as a guardian than a proper defense attorney.

The ruling involves a Ford County case in which two teenage boys were accused of abusing foster children in their home. When the defense didn't object to key evidence, one boy was found guilty.

The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a new trial.

August 27, 2012

Dwight Residents Await Prison's Uncertain Fate

Lawsuits by prison employees have prompted the state of Illinois to hold off on the closure of any such facilities, at least through August.

But there’s no telling what could happen later in cities like Dwight, home to the state’s only all-female prison.   

The battle between the employees’ union and Gov. Pat Quinn leaves the lives of many on hold – including prison guards, businesses backed by the prison, and the community itself.  The 4,000 residents of Dwight wonder what the future holds for their town, and their livelihood.

Jim and Betty Donovan volunteer each week at the Dwight Information Center.  The former gas station on Old Route 66 is a tourist attraction, complete with the old Texaco pumps, a model-T Ford fire truck, and a guestbook to sign.

Jim says many of those who come through know the famed highway from old movies and the famous song.  That includes a couple from Italy that came through on this Friday morning. 

Donovan remembers a day when the highway was a main artery for traffic, and the site was a 24-hour gas station.

“My dad was on third shift when he started here in about 1947," he said.  "And then when they built the other road they cut the third shift off, because traffic wasn’t as heavy.  And they just went down to two shifts after that.  He worked the second shift up until he passed away in ’57.”

Donovan is a native of Dwight, and a retired meat cutter.  His son works for R.R. Donnelley and Sons.  Besides the prison, the phone book publisher is the other major employer in town.  

But in a time of cell phones and few phone booths, Jim says there have been gradual layoffs at Donnelley, and speculates things could get worse.

“The whole place, if it shuts down – is really going to devastate the town," he said.  "Both the prison and Donnelley’s – both would really be bad.”

Many of the 343 prison guards and other staff from the Dwight Correctional Center live in town, or nearby.  AFSCME Local 1133 president and correctional officer Dan Dunlap says Governor Pat Quinn’s February announcement that he would shutter the prison was the first time the facility had even been threatened with seeing its doors close.  

"That’s one of those things that I don’t think anybody could ever really be prepared for," he said.  "It’s surreal, the amount of stuff you have to do to get everybody motivated, get everybody on the same page.”

Dunlap is happy the union’s legal efforts have extended the hold on prisoner transfers – and holds out hope Quinn’s efforts are reversed.  Some workers have job transfers to other prisons in place, but Dunlap says he’ll stay in town, and fight for the prison’s survival.

“I did not take an open position," he said.  "I didn’t want to take a spot away from a younger guy who has a family, and didn’t want to push him out.”

Lance Leeds is a Methodist pastor in Dwight.  He’s new to the community,  though he has counseled prison workers before - near two facilities in Southern Illinois.  Leeds understands the stress such employees go through.

“There’s a daily fear of, ‘I might not come home," he said.  "And I think there’s a certain amount of uncertainty as far as what they’ll be getting into at the new assignments.”

Livingston County is heavily Republican, and it certainly doesn’t help that Democratic Governor Pat Quinn sought to close Dwight Correctional Center even after lawmakers set aside funding for it, and members of a legislative panel voted against the move.  But the prison isn’t the only state-run facility in town.

“If you walk into Fox Center, you will see a home atmosphere, it’s not an institution,' said Paula Holsten, who's nearing retirement from Fox Developmental Center, a state facility that serves more than 100 residents with developmental disabilities who have severe medical or behavioral needs.

Holsten and husband Roger are part of a steady lunch crowd at the Old Route 66 Family Restaurant in Dwight.  There have never been specific plans for closing Fox, but Paula says there are always rumors. 

And having cared for their residents for years, she thinks not only of what correctional workers are going through, but what inmates and nearby family members are thinking.

“It’s supposed to be a correctional center," Holsten said.  "And how would corrections deal with families who are really upset that their loved one is that far away?”

Alex McWilliams’ family has been in Dwight for four generations, running a farm management company.  He notes the town was already facing difficult fiscal challenges.

“We’ve lost some stores downtown – which has not helped our economy at all," he said.  "People seem to want to go out of town to buy, when they do that, the sales tax dollars go out of town with them.”

McWilliams is involved with Dwight Main Street, which uses state expertise to revitalize downtown.  But he says it seems that for every step forward, the program becomes mired in Illinois’ political red tape.

If the prison does close, the city’s newest downtown business owners could be dealt a bad break, but they still hope to become a catalyst for that sagging local economy.

“I think this town, with Route 47, and Interstate 55 coming here, that’s huge.  It’s  a destination point," said Pete Meister, co-owner of Station 343, a new steakhouse and pasta restaurant in downtown Dwight.

Meister still looks at the location as a plus.  He and wife Joy, both area natives, just opened the restaurant in refurbished 130-year old building.  Pete will only say they spent ‘a lot’ to fulfill a lifelong dream.

“I mean there’s already people coming from Chicago that’s been here, Peoria, St. Louis, and they’ve talked highly about it," he said. "And I think they’ll come back.”

A local realtor says the looming threat of a prison closure hasn’t caused any panic selling of homes, and the market isn’t any worse than it is elsewhere.

Dwight Chamber of Commerce President Bob Ohlendorf says there’s a resiliency in town – one that shone through when a 2010 tornado caused significant damage. 

“People stepped up to the plate and got that fixed rather fast," he said.  "I think there will still be – people will work harder about bringing in other businesses and things like that.  But it’s going to be hard to cover that income level.  Most people don’t start out at a level that state employees do.”

And one of those state employees, AFSCME Local 1133 president and corrections officer Dan Dunlap isn’t about to give in, even if the correctional center does close.

“My current plan is if this does happen, that I’ll remain here, and lobby to get the prison reopened until it’s reopened, and I’ll go back to work," he said.

That willfulness might be just what Dwight needs as the village faces up to an uncertain future.


August 27, 2012

Prison Officials Drop August 31 as Shutdown Date

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has officially abandoned his hope of shutting down prisons by Friday.

A letter from the Corrections Department instructs employees at targeted prisons to keep reporting to work. In it, Director S.A. "Tony'' Godinez announces a "temporary delay for the layoffs and closures'' that were scheduled for Aug. 31.

The letter was obtained today by The Associated Press.

Quinn wanted to empty the Tamms supermax prison and the women's prison at Dwight to save money.

Despite being granted another extension, State Senator Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) says the damage has already been done.

"Workers and residents of Dwight and Livingston County still face an uncertain future," said Cultra in a statement.  "We will continue to work throughout the fall and into the Veto Session for a desirable solution that will hopefully keep Dwight Correctional Center open.”

But the prison workers' union filed a lawsuit. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees claims Corrections must negotiate conditions, particularly on handling the Tamms population.

Union spokesman Anders Lindall said arbitration hearings will take place daily this week.

August 21, 2012

Chief Judge: Cook Co. Readying for Court Cameras

Cook County's chief judge says his court system should be ready to introduce cameras in courtrooms by the end of the year, although Illinois Supreme Court officials say there's no specific timetable for putting them in place.

Judge Timothy Evans spoke to Chicago-area media Tuesday about a Supreme Court pilot project that's allowing cameras in Illinois courts for the first time.

Evans says the high court has deferred Cook County's application while officials watch how the experiment plays out in 13 other counties. He says Cook County can learn from the smaller counties' experiences.

Supreme Court spokesman Joseph Tybor says the court will review DuPage County's application for cameras next and that Kane County has also indicated it will apply.

August 21, 2012

Champaign Man Gets 50 Years in Prison

A judge in east-central Illinois has sentenced a 22-year-old Champaign man to 50 years in prison for his attack on a neighbor.

Judge Tom Difanis called Dominique Alexander-Smith's actions ``a brutal and senseless attack'' before sentencing him to 20 years for home invasion and 30 years for aggravated criminal sexual assault. The sentences will be served consecutively.

<a href="">The (Champaign) News-Gazette eports</a> that Alexander-Smith spoke in court to the victim and to his family before being sentenced. He acknowledged making ``some bad decisions in life'' and apologized.

Authorities say Alexander-Smith attacked a 26-year-old pregnant woman in her apartment while armed with a knife, robbing her of a debit card and assaulting her repeatedly.

He pleaded guilty to the two felony counts in June.

August 15, 2012

Man Charged in Logan County Deaths Claims Self-Defense

One of the two men charged with murder in the 2009 deaths of a central Illinois family now claims he killed one of the victims in self-defense. 

The Pantagraph newspaper in Bloomington reports ( ) that lawyers for Chris Harris of Armington filed documents Wednesday in Logan County Circuit Court claiming Harris was justified in using force against 14-year-old Dillen Constant. Harris attorney Daniel Fultz declined to comment on the reasons behind the claim.

Constant and two of his siblings were found bludgeoned to death in their home in Beason along with their parents, Rick and Ruth Gee. Beason is about 35 miles northeast of Springfield.

Harris and his brother, Jason Harris, are both charged with murder in the killings. Chris Harris is a former in-law of the Gees.

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