Lawmakers pass on oversight vote for Pritzker’s prison closure, rebuild plan

Two prisons in disrepair slated for demolishment but one’s relocation still up in the air

Left to right, Sen. Don DeWitte and Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, both Republicans, are pictured with Democratic Sen. Dave Koehler at Friday’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability hearing in Springfield. They were the only three members of the 12-lawmaker panel present at the hearing, leaving it short of the quorum needed to register an advisory vote on Gov. JB Pritzker’s plan to demolish and potentially rebuild two state prisons

SPRINGFIELD – For the last two decades, each time a governor has moved to close a large state-run facility like a prison or mental health center, a legislative oversight panel has voted on the plan.

That changed on Friday – at least for now – when only three lawmakers made it to Springfield for the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability’s scheduled vote on Gov. JB Pritzker’s plans to demolish and rebuild Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill and Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln. State Department of Corrections officials and the governor have indicated they’re strongly considering rebuilding Logan 140 miles northwest of its decadeslong home in central Illinois to the grounds of Stateville in Chicago’s southwest suburbs.

Without a quorum, the 12-member panel was unable to take an official vote on the matter within the timeline specified under law for reviewing facility closures. But COGFA’s Democratic co-chair, state Sen. Dave Koehler of Peoria, had told reporters the previous evening that even if absences were not an issue, the Pritzker administration’s current plans for Stateville and Logan are so vague that “We don’t really know what we’re voting on.”

After the meeting Friday, Koehler told reporters the fact that COGFA failed to vote “doesn’t really change anything” – the governor’s office can move forward with a closure regardless.

The vote from the bipartisan panel would merely have been a recommendation; some governors have still gone ahead with closures even after the panel has voted to reject those plans.

But with the exception of a few instances where closure plans have been withdrawn before COGFA’s scheduled vote, the appointed members of the body have formally registered their positions on nearly three dozen proposed closures since 2005.

Despite not voting, the three members present at Friday’s meeting registered their criticisms anyway.

“This is really a concept and not a plan, in my estimation, because a plan has details,” Koehler said, though he spoke for the panel in saying he was supportive of the idea of “having new state-of-the-art facilities” to replace the crumbling prisons. He added the commission would be willing to work with IDOC and the administration once more details of the plan are available.

Koehler’s Republican co-chair, state Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville, was far blunter in his appraisal of the Pritzker administration’s approach to the closure process.

“I think that we have a thought bubble more so than the written-down plan, right?” he said.

He blamed the governor for not working with COGFA – and accused him of either not having a plan or not being willing to divulge it publicly.

“I think this is coming from the top, and they put their appointees and their Department [of Corrections] in a place to defend their idea,” Davidsmeyer said.

During an unrelated news conference Friday afternoon, Pritzker insisted “the legislature is ultimately going to have a lot to say along the way” even without an advisory vote from COGFA.

Though he said some groups will inevitably be “disappointed with whatever the final outcome ultimately will be,” he reiterated that the closure and rebuild plans are still taking shape.

“And it may be that changes might get made along the way, but no final decisions have been made,” he said.

IDOC officials testified in front of the legislative panel three times in the last several weeks, including at a pair of hearings in the prisons’ current host communities. At those hearings, prison employees and local residents had the opportunity to air their concerns with the closure and rebuild plans.

Before both hearings this week, COGFA members and local state lawmakers were given the opportunity to tour both Stateville and Logan, which a 2023 state-commissioned report identified as among a handful of prisons with unlivable conditions caused by years of deferred maintenance by the state.

Reflecting on the tours during Friday’s meeting, Davidsmeyer said they were “very eye-opening,” but urged the Pritzker administration to keep Stateville, a men’s maximum-security prison, open during the rebuild process. IDOC officials last month said they may close Stateville as early as September but planned to keep Logan running during a rebuild.

“Stateville is beyond disrepair,” Davidsmeyer said. “I agree that we should continue to operate Stateville while we build. We should make Stateville a priority to rebuild right now, immediately. Put a rush on it.”

Logan, a multi-security women’s prison, currently houses more than 1,000 individuals. Formerly incarcerated women testified on Thursday that relocating the prison to the Stateville site would help the 40 percent of residents who are from the several counties that comprise the Chicagoland area.

But Logan employees balked at that idea, even citing an individual in custody with a life sentence and mental health issues who has been worried that a move north would mean she would never again see her mother, who is located downstate. The state’s only other women’s prison in Decatur is currently a minimum-security prison.

At Friday’s hearing, state Sen. Don DeWitte, R-St. Charles, said he cannot support the plans with “so many unanswered questions.”

“To suggest that I’ve been disappointed with how this process has played out would be an understatement,” he said.

IDOC officials contend the rebuilds are necessary considering an ongoing class action lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Illinois, and other court rulings the department says forced it to build new, safer facilities.

Pritzker and his administration also echoed that sentiment – and included a $900 million line item for capital improvements at Stateville and Logan, which house about 1,500 individuals, in the upcoming fiscal year budget.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union representing employees at both prisons agrees the prisons need to be rebuilt but disagrees with moving their jobs, along with individuals in custody, to other prisons while rebuilds happen.

Michael Newman, deputy director of AFSCME Council 31, said the union needs more answers.

“We’re not arguing that the state-built facility as it exists now is the right kind of facility for the long-term, what we’re talking about is how you get from here to there,” Newman said at a news conference ahead of Tuesday’s Joliet hearing. “Let’s do it in a rational, smart way to assure safety and the best conditions for both employees and incarcerated individuals.”

AFSCME says about 1,000 workers are directly threatened by potential closures at both facilities.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Hannah Meisel - Capitol News Illinois

Hannah Meisel is a state government reporter for Capitol News Illinois