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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Pensions, Prisons, and the Fiscal Cliff -- January 4, 2013

The prison was placed on lockdown twice this week due to a lack of staff. On New Year's Eve, many guards did not show up for work because of the holiday and wanting to party. Today, many took the day off to drive to the state capital and protest pension reform. The State of Illinois is drowning in debt largely due to accumulating pension liabilities. This has caused government to make minor cuts around the edges of many budgets including the IDOC. However, these cuts are absurdly small and not nearly enough to solve the fiscal crisis. The governor along with a few congressmen are attempting to pass a bill to address pension costs which are the greatest burden on government during the lame duck session. The idea is some politicians who have not been reelected will not be swayed by special interests and vote for legislation without fear of political backlash. It was also in part the impetus for the U.S. Congress to make a deal with the president before large automatic tax increases and government cuts were made on January 1st. Although a tax deal was reached, it did nothing to resolve the enormous debt and entitlement liabilities of the government. Democrats in Illinois I predict will also refuse to address the growing and unsustainable debt levels until the government is on the verge of insolvency. Americans have for months been warned about the looming "fiscal cliff". However, this is a misnomer. Government and economies do not collapse over night from financial dereliction. There is a long downward spiral before collapse.

Illinois has an $9 billion debt, but this does not take into consideration exponentially growing pension liabilities. These are closing in fast on a staggering figure of $100 billion and yet even this sum is actually an accounting fraud. The state's bean counters come up with this number by predicting various factors including growth in their investments. The state government does not simply keep employee's pension contributions in a huge bank vault for when they retire. This money is invested and according to Illinois accountants, these investments will purportedly earn more than any other state pension fund in the U.S. Their outlook is not filtered through rose colored glasses but in my opinion hallucinogens. The true pension liabilities of Illinois are probably double the official forecast at around $200 billion. Furthermore, every day the pension crisis is not resolved, another $17 million is added and compounded.

In the last lame duck session of 2010, the Democratic controlled congress and executive doubled taxes to fill the void between expenditures and revenue. This was not surprising to me because the Democrats knee jerk solution to nearly everything is more taxes and spending. State revenue increased to approximately $34 billion a year, however, as sidelined Republicans warned, the state does not have a revenue problem but a spending problem. The money collected in the last two years was not nearly sufficient to cover the costs of debt and continued reckless spending. Indeed, the state's credit rating was downgraded and will probably be again so it will be the worst in the nation including the dysfunctional State of California. The increase in revenue due to higher taxes, furthermore, is receding as businesses and individuals decrease investment and spending or flee the state. The government worried about losing their largest corporations and employers granted several of them special tax exemptions. Despite the corporate favoritism, they are still shifting business out of the state and some may leave altogether. Even my parents are considering moving to the South and it is not just because of the weather.

How did the pension system become such a problem in the first place? Legislators are more than happy to please constituents by giving them gifts regardless if it is fiscally prudent. They only care about being reelected in the next election cycle and therefore are unconcerned about the long term consequences of their actions. The most powerful constituent groups have the most influence to gain favoritism at the expense of others. In Illinois, the unions have the most sway and they extracted from legislators the most lavish benefits. The grandiose pension contracts they were able to secure, lawmakers probably realized could never be paid. However what do they care about the distant future as long as campaign cash and votes continue to roll in?

The Republicans in states such as Indiana and Wisconsin have been able to reign in the reckless spending of past legislators to solve budgetary problems. However, in Illinois, the state is moving in the opposite direction. On January 10th, Democrats who already dominate both legislative chambers will have a super majority. With this control, Republicans will have no influence in state government and will be completely impotent. In the last few days of the lame duck session, however, unions are worried a bipartisan agreement can be worked out to diminish their lavish pensions. This is why many guards spent today in Springfield pressuring Democrats not to acquiesce to any deal. Ideas in the senate and house are being floated about to trim pensions including freezing cost of living increases and requiring public employees to contribute more of their salaries. Democratic Governor Pat Quinn has been courageously supporting efforts for a bill to be passed. He has even proposed a bipartisan commission to draft legislation which would automatically become law unless both congressional chambers vote it down. Despite this, congress did not even convene today and chances of anything getting done on Tuesday or Wednesday are infinitely minute. However to illustrate how ridiculous state representatives are, a gay marriage law will be passed easily.

The succeeding legislative body to take over is even less likely to pass a bill overhauling pensions. Most Democrats will never risk the wrath of the union and it is remarkable the governor has jeopardized his political future. Even if by some fluke a law was passed, the union has already threatened to challenge its constitutionality under article I section 16 which forbids the government from "impairing the obligations of contracts". I tend to believe the union is correct in their interpretation of the Illinois' Constitution, but other lawsuits by the union have failed in the past including opposition to the closure of Tamms Supermax and other IDOC facilities. This week, the last remaining inmates in Tamms were transferred to Pontiac and the female maximum-security prison in Dwight should be closed by the end of February.

Tamms was Illinois' most costly prison per capita and its operation was the least productive. Tamms spent roughly $60,000 per inmate while in comparison Stateville which is the second least efficient penitentiary spends almost half: $35,000. Amazingly, the supermax prison had 17 kitchen supervisors, the same as other prisons with ten times the population such as Pontiac. With so many employees working in the kitchen, I would imagine it had food as good as served in 5* restaurants, however, inmates tell me that although it was better than Stateville, it was by no means delicious. The capacity of Tamms was 800, but it never exceeded half this amount. In fact, IDOC had to think of creative ways to use the prison as a means to punish and isolate men. Regularly, prisoners were sent there on unsubstantiated disciplinary tickets or suspected gang activity and conspiracy. In 2012, the supermax had a little over 100 inmates, although security and other expenditures were kept excessively high. Personally, I liked the idea of isolation at Tamms, but from an administrative perspective it was expensive and redundant. Furthermore, it encouraged guards to write petty or dubious disciplinary tickets. With Tamms closed and segregation space limited, Seg will be used far more sparingly and reasonably.

Men at Logan Correctional Center are currently being transferred throughout the IDOC to make room for women from Dwight. Logan is adjacent to Lincoln C.C. which already is a female penitentiary. The joining of the two prisons is probably a good consolidation which will save money and resources. Decades ago, the two prisons shared programs and school and many men as well as women liked to be there so they had some opportunity to interact with the opposite sex. However, these coed programs were eliminated years ago. Now I am told male and female prisoners can only see each other from a distance between cyclone fences topped with razor wire.

The union workers who have seniority will have first dibs on job openings at other facilities and those who were recently hired will face possible layoffs. I asked a guard if Stateville may get an influx of new staff from Dwight. She opined few from Tamms or Dwight will want to work here. Tamms is located at the southern tip of Illinois and there is a large distinction in demographics and culture. Furthermore, not many guards will want to relocate 300 miles away. Dwight is only an hour's drive from Stateville, however, the female penitentiary is radically different. Both are maximum security, but women incarcerated are treated much better. Females prisons are much less oppressive and even Dwight has a full complement of rehabilitation programs as well as recreational activities. A guard who works at Dwight will have to make a huge transition to the hostile, retributive or warehousing environment which exists in men's maximum security facilities.

Many men at Stateville who have served their time in maximum security prisons are angry about the double standard in the Illinois Department of Corrections. They believe women and men should be treated the same in the system and there is some envy regarding their more favorable environment. I do not share this view because I do not believe the sexes are equal. What does bother me, however, is the inequality of sentencing between violent and nonviolent offenders. While violent offenders must serve 85% or 100% of their sentences, those with nonviolent convictions only have to serve half. Furthermore, to address overcrowding and the expenses of incarceration, the governor has permitted these convicts to earn good time credits as well as gratuitous early release. In addition to this, there is wide disparity in the judicial system which permits extremely harsh sentences on defendants whose culpability was determined to be marginal. Judges have huge latitude in sentencing which can lead to unjust punishments. Criminal statutes should be more specific and sentencing ranges should be narrowed to be more appropriate. The time all defendants serve after conviction should also be under the same code or policy.

Governor Quinn to his credit has been more politically bold recently in his attempts to save the State of Illinois from bankruptcy. He has used his executive power to cut spending peripherally without the action of the legislature. Democrats who control both congressional chambers are too fearful of the union and prefer to let the governor take on publicly unpopular, although necessary, spending cuts. For this he is often left blowing in the wind and has the lowest gubernatorial approval rating in the U.S.  He is caught between a rock and a hard place with state conservatives never going to like him and his liberal base wanting him to continue reckless spending regardless of the cost. The union in particular despises him and I sometimes listen to the guards complain about how he is not their pawn, although, of course, this is not how they describe it. If they were wise they would have paid attention to events which caused Hostess to declare bankruptcy and then simply liquidate rather than be extorted and bled dry by the bakers and Teamsters unions. Possibly, they and the Democratic base believe Illinois should spend itself into oblivion and have the federal government bail it out. However, the federal government has its own crisis on its hands.

The U.S. government has a debt problem far greater than Illinois'. The debt is over $16 trillion and more than 15 times its current yearly revenue. It is actually over the entire gross domestic product which is a tally of all sales across the country. Government accountants will sometimes say the ratio of debt to GDP is only 80%, but this is misleading. The lower ratio does not include money the country owes itself. The Federal Reserve  has printed a few trillion dollars to buy bonds from the Treasury Department. Currently $85 billion of bonds and mortgage securities are being bought every month and the printing presses will continue until unemployment drops to 6% or inflation goes beyond 2-1/2%. The bond purchases are designed to drop interest rates and increase growth. However while there has been an increase in mortgage activity and the stock market as well as food and energy prices have been inflated, the country's economy is flat lining.

On New Year's Day, the so called "fiscal cliff" was averted in part or at least for the time being. Congress passed a bill addressing taxation, but like in Illinois, they ducked the issue of debt for another time. Corporate taxes which were among the highest in the world were wisely reduced although only by 5% and without reform of international loopholes. Payroll taxes will return to their regular rate before the 2010 hiatus and tax brackets will remain the same except for the upper 2% of income earners. Barack Obama won his war on the wealthy and they will now pay nearly half their income in taxes. Deductions will also be reduced for anyone making over $200,000 a year and while tax write-offs and loopholes should be eliminated across the board, in my opinion, this should have come with lower tax rates. Instead, successful professionals and entrepreneurs will be hit with a double whammy. The socialist president largely got what he wanted while Republicans capitulated to escape higher tax rates on everyone which would dampen growth even further. The next battle will be on spending and, like in Illinois, the outlook does not look good.

President Obama has inferred the debts and liabilities of the U.S. can be paid on the backs of the rich. However, this is a great deception. The additional revenue created by increasing taxes on the wealthy will only amount to $600 billion over 10 years. During this time, the debt will rise by $6 trillion, the Medicare trust fund will be gone, and Social Security will be near insolvency as well. The rising costs of entitlements must be curbed because they will consume the budget and bankrupt the nation. Yet Democrats refuse to address the debt crisis and more than likely will force Republicans to accept sequestration, which is across the board spending cuts of $4 trillion over the next decade. These cuts are not the best way of curbing deficits and will do nothing to reform entitlements.

The downward spiral of state and federal government will be ugly, but there may be some positive outcomes in the end. With government crippled in debt, discretionary spending will be first to be reduced. Budgets will be squeezed to some degree reducing the roll and size of government. Even the prison industrial complex will have to be dismantled and already I see cracks in the walls of Stateville. The nanny state eventually will succumb and people will be forced to become more self sufficient. The more excessive government attempts to sustain itself, the harder and more painful will be its fall. We could see conditions like in Greece or an implosion such as occurred in the Soviet Union. Sometimes things must get worse before they get better.


  1. I hope your parents do not decide to "move south." Although you enjoy a lot of solitude I think you would find you really miss their visits. You have written that they come often. I hope they will not leave until you are free to go with them.

  2. Always in my thoughts and prayers, Paul. I believe justice will be served and you will walk out a free man.


  3. You got one right, and one wrong, Paul. Joliet CC was remodeled, for a ton of money...then closed down hahahahha. Contractors made money, those who signed the contracts on State's side made money under table I'm sure, then place gets shut you're right, government sucks but only if idiots run it. And the thing you got wrong...Soviet Union did not collapse because of their economy being state-centers but because too many smart guys decided to leave...and it was there like it is in Illinois Corrections where smart people do not again, idiots collapsing everything they rule over. Detroit, Soviet Union, doesn't matter what it is but the lack of a free press. As soon as the press does its job...things get better so things will Never get better :) I wouldn't worry about a thing, it's not worth my time and neither should you. Let it all burn.

  4. "Many men at Stateville who have served their time in maximum security prisons are angry about the double standard in the Illinois Department of Corrections. They believe women and men should be treated the same in the system and there is some envy regarding their more favorable environment. I do not share this view because I do not believe the sexes are equal."

    What the heck? You don't believe the sexes are equal? Please explain what you mean by this.

    Also...are you saying you are happier that women prisoners have it easier than men?

    1. Equal in human dignity.

    2. What is there to explain? Men and women are different physiologically in a myriad of ways and because of this they are unequal. I do not expect them to act or be treated the same and this includes in the penitentiary. Yes, I hope they do not live under the same austere and violent conditions I have.

  5. Didn't they move all the women out of Lincoln too?

    1. No, Lincoln is still being used to incarcerate women. The only female facility to be closed was Dwight.

    2. There might still be some women at Lincoln. But I know someone at who was at Lincoln and they did a massive move of women from Lincoln to Logan. Same town, though.

    3. Lincoln no longer incarcerates women. All the women were moved to Logan or Decatur.


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