SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Security is being undermined at Illinois’ prisons because of overcrowding and the need for space, a prison watchdog group said Thursday after state officials confirmed that six medium-security prisons would be using gymnasiums to temporarily house extra inmates.

Extra beds are being set up in the facilities in preparation for the closing of the women’s prison in Dwight, according to the main prison-employees’ union. A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said officials are preparing a half-dozen prisons but declined to say whether they’re linked to the Dwight shutdown or how many low-level offenders would be housed in the interim space.

The temporary housing poses safety concerns for a prison system that has 49,000 inmates in space designed for 33,000, combined with too few employees to watch them, said John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a not-for-profit group that tracks the state’s prison system.

“What I think you’re seeing is bed space trumping security and operations,” Maki said. “All the facilities on this list are already extremely overcrowded. We shouldn’t be looking to pack more people into these facilities.”

Gyms will become communal inmate space at lockups in Centralia, Danville, Vandalia, the Graham prison in Hillsboro, Illinois River in Canton, and Shawnee in Vienna.

The Corrections Department disclosed the setup in a letter to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as part of a contractual requirement to notify and discuss such changes with its workers’ union. The letter, signed by Edward Jackson of the department’s labor relations office, didn’t say when inmates would move in but suggested talks with AFSCME late next week.

The announcement came a day after an AFSCME official wrote a letter to Corrections Director S.A. “Tony” Godinez protesting the transfer of up to 15 maximum-security inmates implicated in a brawl last week to segregation units at medium-security lockups.

The union claims those alleged troublemakers would have been exiled at the super-security Tamms prison before Gov. Pat Quinn closed it last month because of the budget crisis. The melee at the Menard prison in Chester injured two guards and a chaplain. It happened just days after a Menard inmate died in his segregation cell, which officials are investigating as a murder by another inmate.

Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano wouldn’t say how many inmates might be sent to the gyms. She said there are about 100 inmates in provisional setups elsewhere.

“Only minimum-security inmates will be housed in these six temporary dorm settings,” Solano said. “Inmates in these facilities will continue to have access to dayrooms and yards for recreation. The department routinely utilizes temporary dormitory-style settings to address housing needs.”

She did not say whether Dwight’s impending closure — another Quinn initiative to save money — is involved. However, the only male inmates who would be displaced by that shutdown are medium-security convicts at Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, not the low-level prisoners scheduled for temporary beds.

Closing Dwight will set in motion transfers among several prisons, notably two located in Lincoln. Women at the Lincoln Correctional Center will join Dwight inmates and move into the larger Logan Correctional Center, which is nearby in the same city. Men currently at Logan will swap space and take up residence at Lincoln Correctional Center.

AFSCME said the change nonetheless allows the Department of Corrections to “make room at Logan for inmates from Dwight,” and decried Quinn’s closures of halfway houses in Carbondale, Chicago and Decatur, which eliminated several hundreds of beds, as well as Tamms.

“It’s the perfect example,” the AFSCME statement said, “of how one closure has a dangerous domino effect statewide.”

(TM and © Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)