Stateville to stay open; Pontiac prison to close

May 5, 2008 3:22:44 PM PDT
One Illinois correctional facility receives a reprieve while another learns it is now slated to be closed. To keep the Stateville Correctional Center in Will County open, the Illinois Department of Corrections wants to close the prison in Pontiac.

However sound its argument may be, whenever the state department of corrections sets out to close a prison, there is always a lot of yelling and screaming. It tried with Stateville, but has backed off, and not unexpectedly, the state will now try to close the prison in Pontiac. There will be more yelling and screaming and it won't be limited to Pontiac.

"I don't think any community wants to find out the day of the budget address, 'By the way, we're closing your prison,'" said Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi, D-Joliet.

When the governor announced in February that the maximum security wing at Stateville prison would be closing and its inmates transferred, it prompted a vigorous bipartisan fight from Joliet-area legislators. It would cost jobs, hurt the local economy and inconvenience inmate families, they argued.

The Blagojevich administration late last week backed down. Stateville stays open. The legislators gathered Monday morning to celebrate and also to call for a comprehensive review of the prison system before any other closings are recommended.

"It would be absolutely criminal if we turned around next week and said we're going to look at Pontiac because that facility is just as important in that community as Stateville is to Crest Hill," said Sen. Christine Radogno, R-Lemont.

In fact, the Department of Corrections has now set its sights on closing the state prison in Pontiac. DOC director Roger Walker - in a letter to Senator Wilhelmi writes, "We believe our goals can best be achieved at this time by keeping the maximum security portion of the Stateville correction center open and by closing the Pontiac Correctional Center."

The state has tried before, unsuccessfully, to close the prison at Pontiac. The argument is, as it was with Stateville, that Pontiac is old, too expensive to fix and there is a 7-year-old, $140 million prison at Thomson, Illinois with almost no inmates in it.

"This is a core public safety function. We need a comprehensive review of all our facilities," said Radogno.

These legislators, Republican and Democrat, want a top-to-bottom review of the state's prison system - a move some outside experts applaud.

"We believe there are people in prison who don't need to be there, and by creating a task force, it'd be a good opportunity to look at that," said Charles Fasano, John Howard Association.

The department of corrections has issued numerous reports on its prison population, its facilities and how they can be run more efficiently. But outside experts and long-time legislators say they can't remember the last time there was a comprehensive review of the whole operation, and that's what some of those legislators say they'll now call for - at least before anything is closed.

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