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Sitting unused, Southern Illinois youth prison also on Quinn’s chopping block

The Illinois Youth Center Murphysboro.  |  AP

The Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro. | AP

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Updated: January 14, 2013 7:33AM

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 the age of 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 work day 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 at the moment. 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 centers: the Southern Illinois Adult Transition Center, in Carbondale, and IYC Murphysboro — on Aug. 31. Quinn also has vowed to close the Illinois Youth Center/Joliet and several other facilities as part of the cost-cutting.

“The state can 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 remaining 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 which encourage judges to direct teenage criminals into cheaper and more effective community-based programs.

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