As one door closes, new ones open for former IYC-Joliet workers
By Tina Akouris firstname.lastname@example.org February 23, 2013 7:50AM
Jessica Buhs packs dishes at her home in Morris, Illinois, Monday, February 18, 2013. Jessica is a former IYC Joliet facility worker who now has to move after being in her home for only a year. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 25, 2013 6:11AM
Some days are better than others.
The good days are when 4-year-old Kennedy Buhs is just a typical little kid talking about her best friend from preschool.
Then there are the days when Kennedy cries to her mother, Jessica, about how she will miss her pink bedroom, her house and her friends in the Morris neighborhood where she’s lived for the past year.
But the reality is that Jessica Buhs and her husband, Brian, need to move their family to the St. Louis area so Jessica can work at Illinois Youth Center-Pere Marquette as a juvenile justice specialist.
Buhs is one of the nearly 200 IYC-Joliet employees who face a new future after the facility closed Friday. Technically, Thursday was the last day for the youth prison, but the official closing date set by the state was Friday.
After a year-long fight between the AFSCME union and the state, the Illinois Supreme Court in December upheld Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision to close the prison. Quinn’s rationale was that the facility was too expensive to maintain.
Two people out of 195 union employees found jobs at other state agencies and two employees are taking layoffs. Many of those union employees will start work in their new positions on Monday.
The last 38 youths left Joliet on Feb. 12 for Kewanee. Starting in December, 104 inmates were transported to Kewanee, four to Harrisburg and four to St. Charles. There were 255 incarcerated youth in Joliet when plans for the closure were originally announced a year ago.
“When I didn’t see any youth walking around, that’s when it hit me,” said Buhs, who also has a 4-month old son. “It was very eerie.
“The day I made my choice, it hit me then, too,” Buhs said. “I just got an overwhelmed feeling.”
Buhs worked at Joliet for three years. When she goes to Pere Marquette, located about a half-hour drive from St. Louis, she will only know one other person at the facility.
Heading downstate was the only real option for the Buhs family. Buhs never considered taking a layoff for financial reasons. Working in St. Charles would be a 90-minute commute and Kewanee is at least two hours.
“We have no family in that area, but we lived there for five years after I was in graduate school,” Buhs said. “We moved back up here to be closer to family, but now my husband agreed to go back to where we were at, because we at least know a few people.”
The family hasn’t sold the house yet and is looking to rent it out if a sale doesn’t come through soon.
Pere Marquette is a minimum-security juvenile prison. It’s not the maximum kind that Joliet was, housing the worst of the state’s young criminals.
“Some days were tougher than others,” Buhs said. “I’m going to miss everyone. We all looked out for each other.”
Sharon Konopka tried to put her foot down: her husband, Mark, was not going to work at IYC-St. Charles.
“We’ve never been given a clear answer to the problems that exist there,” Konopka said. “We call it the money pit.”
Konopka said she was worried about possible health hazards at the St. Charles facility.
The 126-acre campus, which was built in the 1800s, is in need of numerous repairs, according to a 2012 report from the John Howard Association of Illinois. The St. Charles campus is “littered with crumbling and condemned buildings,” among other things, according to the report.
Konopka is in an odd position. She’s president of AFSCME Local 1763 and worked at IYC-Joliet as a youth and family specialist alongside her husband. She’s headed to the medium-security Sheridan Correctional Center. Mark Konopka is going to St. Charles — despite his wife’s misgivings — and will be a supervisor.
“I’m furious that he’s going there and we talked about it till we were blue in the face, but he has been working toward his own goals,” Konopka said. “I just wish it would have been anywhere but St. Charles.”
The Konopkas, one of five married couples from IYC-Joliet, have seen the worst of the worst, but for Sharon the nerves are still there as she embarks on a new job.
“I’m nervous because it is an adult facility,” Konopka said. “I’m nervous because I think the (state) is making these facilities a lot more dangerous than they ever were. And it’s dangerous when you have a position that requires one-on-one inmate contact.”
The couple agreed that they don’t want to work in the same facility anymore.
“I had other choices,” Mark Konopka said. “I could have gone to an adult (facility), but we don’t want to be at the same facility in case this happens again.”
It all worked out
Matthew Petty’s wife is a worrier. So it was difficult for Petty to go through the reassignment process and withhold information from her — significant stuff like where he would be working.
After spending the past 15 years at IYC-Joliet — Petty started there when he was only 20 years old and is 35 now — Petty will begin his new job as a sergeant at Sheridan, about 40 minutes west of Joliet. The prison population there is mainly adult drug offenders.
But getting to this point wasn’t easy.
Petty was willing to take a maintenance job. He originally applied at Sheridan and then was approved for the St. Charles facility. Considering the problems at St. Charles, Petty was now experiencing sleepless nights at the prospect of going to work more than an hour away at a building where he was unsure about potential health hazards.
“I was getting only three hours of sleep when I was approved for St. Charles,” Petty said. “But a friend said to apply instead as a sergeant, so I talked to Sharon and there were three spots left.”
Petty applied for the switch and got approved for Sheridan.
And things at home got better.
“When I told my wife about St. Charles, things started to get real,” Petty said. “It was pretty stressful, but after the Sheridan (approval) things changed and we could breathe and not feel like we were underwater anymore.”
The Sheridan move isn’t just good for Petty because he is still employed, but because he will save on travel costs. The Seneca resident won’t have to drive more than an hour to get to work had Petty taken the St. Charles assignment. The Sheridan Correctional Center also is an easier drive for Petty than going to Joliet.
“There are spots for people who don’t want to get their hands dirty, but me and my buddies are crime fighters and we deal with the worst of the worst,” Petty said.
“(Sheridan) is still a prison and I’m always going to have that Joliet mentality. I’ve seen things there that will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.”
A new chapter
Almas Hussain is a 32-year-old Lincolnwood resident. Making the nearly 110-mile round-trip from her north suburban home got to be draining both mentally and physically.
So Hussain is taking a layoff.
“I know it’s a risky move, because people have told me that I’m (giving up) a stable income,” Hussain said.
Originally, Hussain wanted to use IYC-Joliet as a stepping stone after receiving her master’s degree in criminal justice. She has been at the prison for two years and has prepared herself for the institution’s closure since early last year.
She never really entertained the idea of relocating away from her Lincolnwood home, thereby limiting her options but maybe paving the way for her to take a different step in life.
“Most of the prisons are far away and I don’t have enough seniority (in the system) to go to Chicago,” Hussain said. “I’m burned out with driving. Maybe this is my push to move (to another career).”
Hussain is at peace with her decision. Although she hasn’t begun her new job search yet, she wants to stay in the criminal justice field. She may not have had the strongest of bonds to the place, as did some who spent most of their adult lives there, but in the short time that Hussain was there she understood the pull of working at Joliet.
“I did make a lot of good friends there,” she said. “I worked the 2 (p.m.) to 10 shift and I was there for a big chunk of my day. These people are protecting you at the end of the day. They are watching your back.”
Good fight ends
Mark Konopka saw the toll this fight took on his wife and the impact it had on his co-workers.
“She’s done everything that she can do to try and save this facility,” Mark Konopka said. “Every week she was (in Springfield). It was hard because she was gone all the time, but the staff really appreciated all she did.”
Petty and his co-workers in Joliet spent countless hours worrying and travelling to Springfield to protest Quinn’s decision to close the prison. Last summer, Petty even brought his 9-year-old son to a rally at the state capital.
“I feel in my heart that I did everything I could,” Petty said. “It got super stressful and everything came to a head. But I’m OK with where I’m going now.”