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Plenty of guards, but no inmates at Downstate juvenile prison

The Illinois Youth Center Murphysboro.  |  AP

The Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro. | AP

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Updated: January 14, 2013 6:08AM

MURPHYSBORO, Ill. — Every weekday morning, three dozen guards, teachers, supervisors and counselors — the preferred term is “juvenile justice specialists” — gather here at the blandly named Illinois Youth Center/Murphysboro, the second newest of eight prisons the state runs for criminals under 18.

When IYC Murphysboro was constructed in 1997, it had a capacity of 100 teens, later expanded to 156. Its population today, like every day since mid-July, is zero. The steel bunk beds are unoccupied, the pool table and gymnasium unused. Only those paid to tend the non-existent prisoners come here anymore.

Not that they stay long.

At 8 a.m., there is a roll call of the staffers in blue polos and beige khakis. Then their workday begins by their leaving, together, in six white state vans, traveling in a convoy to the equally blandly named Illinois Youth Center/Harrisburg, 46 miles away, where there are young offenders to be overseen.

Two and half hours — one-third of their 7½-hour shift — will be spent in transit, at full pay. The state spends $30,000 a month in transportation alone, not only for the vans, but mileage for 30 other employees who transport themselves to Harrisburg and get 55 cents a mile, the state rate.

Which makes this sleek, brick facility — fully staffed with trained juvenile justice professionals but devoid of actual juveniles — a perfect symbol of the financial free-for-all going on in Illinois as the state tries to figure out how to stop spending billions of dollars it doesn’t have and how to rein in billions more it has committed to spend but won’t get in pensions, salaries and upkeep of hundreds of programs, including juvenile justice facilities it may or may not need.

Meanwhile labor unions, such as the two representing workers at IYC Murphysboro, battle through the courts, the media and the Legislature in a desperate attempt to keep from losing what they’ve spent years to gain.

In March 2011, the budget for Murphysboro was cut in half. Then in June, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice announced it would be closing two adult prisons, Tamms and Dwight, and two juvenile correctional facilities, the Illinois Youth Centers in Joliet and Murphysboro — on Aug. 31.

“The state can no longer afford these facilities,” Kelly Kraft, a spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget office, said in an email.

The governor said it would save $88 million. Local politicians took the closings — and the prospect of hundreds of jobs lost — hard.

“It is stunning and sad the lengths this governor will go to punish Southern Illinois,” state Sen. Gary Forby (D-Benton) said when the closings were announced.

The state has been trying to close the four facilities ever since. But as yet, all four remain open. The Illinois Senate voted earlier this month to override the closings, but the House of Representatives last week refused to act, meaning they will close, maybe, unless the courts decide otherwise.

“It’s this weird bureaucratic thing,” explained Ashley Cross, chief of staff at the Department of Juvenile Justice.

When the closings were announced, only 11 Murphysboro staffers accepted transfers to other facilities, while the rest insist on being based here. At first, the juvenile justice specialists were put to work mothballing the facility — inventorying hardware, moving boxes, waxing the floors, or trying to. But that didn’t work well, and there was much complaining. So the specialists have been shipped to Harrisburg to help out there.

Should Murphysboro be closed? Unlike an adult prison population that bursts at the seams as the failed drug war jams the courts and jails, over the past decade, young offenders have been diverted away from incarceration, not by a drop in crime, though crime is dropping, but by new laws and policies that encourage judges to direct teenage criminals into cheaper and more effective community-based programs.

When Murphysboro opened 15 years ago as a 100-bed boot camp, a spike in teenage crime had nearly doubled the juvenile prison population in Illinois in the previous four years.

“We were busting at the seams,” said deputy director Ron Smith.

Conditions in Illinois, which created the idea of a separate juvenile justice system in 1899, were among the worst in the country. That’s all changed. In the state of Illinois now, there are 939 youths — they don’t like the term “prisoners” — between the ages of 13 and 20 now held in six juvenile facilities, one-third of the number in 1997.

“We are at an all-time low in our juvenile population,” said Smith. “The lowest since 1985.”

For the past few years, Murphysboro has housed half the number of kids it was designed to hold. A declining population was not met by a similar decline in staffing, which sent cost-per-inmate soaring — $142,342 per youth at Murphysboro, according to the state, which is what put the facility on the block.

“We didn’t pull kids out of Murphysboro — they attritted out,” said Smith. “We just didn’t need it, and it slowly attritted down to nothing.”

That isn’t how the juvenile justice specialists see it — they would like Murphysboro to reopen and return to a boot camp.

“It was a great program; unique,” said Greg Foreman, president of AFSCME Local 2335, one of the two unions representing the Murphysboro workers. “The things we did for the kids were above and beyond anything that the other institutions provided for them. The staff here actually developed relationships with these kids.

So this is all about the kids?

“Yes sir. It’s all about the kids,” he said.

Murphysboro is minimum security — despite its 12-foot fence topped with razor wire. But Harrisburg is maximum security, and the Murphysboro workers worry that youths being sent there are mixing with hardened criminals.

“Not everybody belongs in a maximum-security prison,” said Gary Cline, a union steward, noting that at Harrisburg, “everybody gets treated as a thug, a murderer, a rapist. Not all incarcerated juveniles are like that. I’ve seen kids who look like they’ve been in car accidents because they’re minimum-level security kids who were housed in a maximum-security prison.”

Murphysboro, meanwhile, had “24 hours a day, seven days a week” supervision and a safer environment, according to its staffers. “It’s a great place to be,” said Don Julian, a clinical services supervisor. “Kids can’t get raped here. There’s almost no opportunity for suicide. It is the safest there is, no doubt.”

That’s why most of the Murphysboro workers say they refused the chance to permanently transfer to Harrisburg or other juvenile facilities. They feel that many youth being sent to Harrisburg don’t belong there.

Murphysboro “is the only facility in the state of Illinois with open bay housing,” said Cline. “There are some who are starting off on the wrong path, they come to a place, a minimum-security place like this where they can get turned around, not only best for juvenile and best for future victims, but it’s financially best for the state, to get these guys turned around and productive at this young age.”

What’s happening next? The prison, 15 years old, has the feel of a new facility, and a quick stroll shows the money spent on it, from the five top-of-the-line Estwing hammers in the wood shop to the $5,000 unbreakable Lexan door in the kitchen — everything that looks like glass in the facility is actually Lexan.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, instructing the lower court to “dissolve the injunction that has blocked us from closing Murphysboro and the other facilities. We’re waiting for an order from a judge allowing us to close the prisons,” said Abdon Pallasch, assistant budget director for the state. “The courts set their own timelines. Once the judge does that, we can make Murphysboro’s closing official.”

Until then, the devotion the specialists have to their place of employment baffles some. “Times are tough now in Southern Illinois,” said Jim Clarke, the engineer left in charge of the building, who calls the staffers “crybabies” for resisting the changes. “They are going to be made. Everybody says, ‘The choices must be made, but don’t cut my facility.’ I don’t mean to insult some very, very good people, talented people. But don’t whine because they’re moving you to another facility. Be thankful you have a job.”

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