Judge halts Pontiac prison closing

November 18, 2008 (PONTIAC, Ill.) But a lot of people in Pontiac are fighting to keep the prison open. And on Tuesday they got some help. A judge in southern Illinois issued a temporary restraining order, barring the state from transferring any more prisoners out of Pontiac.

Over the last several weeks, more than 200 inmates have been transferred from the state prison at Pontiac to other prisons in preparation for Pontiac's closing.

Tuesday afternoon's ruling by a circuit judge in southern Illinois puts a halt - at least temporarily - to those transfers. And that's welcome news in a community fighting to keep its prison.

Pontiac has had a prison for 137 years. Come December 31, it is to be closed. Pontiac's inmates would be transferred to other prisons, so will its 500-plus correctional officers. Livingston County would lose its second-largest employer.

"I don't know about you sitting here, but every day I ask how are we gonna handle this? Am I gonna have to declare bankruptcy?" said Trina Keller, wife of a correctional officer.

"So many people will have to move that houses will be left unpaid for," said Kristy Evans, wife of a correctional officer.

"We do everything here. These are our schools, our hospitals," said Cherie Kling, wife of a correctional officer.

The families of those who work in the prison are furious. They say their lives, their schools, churches and businesses have been turned upside down. Stephanie DeLong and her correctional officer husband run a restaurant.

"If the economic impact is what they've projected, I'm probably not gonna survive here," DeLong said.

Many of Pontiac's inmates, most of whom are maximum security, would be transferred to other prisons. The bulk would wind up at the state's newest prison in Thomson, which has been sitting largely empty for seven years.

The department of corrections says it'll be safer and operate at far less cost then the state's oldest prison. But critics say with the entire prison system overcrowded, closing anything now is foolhardy.

"The reason we built Thomson was to help relieve the pressure of 137 percent of capacity throughout the system. It was not to move from A to B and then close A," said State Sen. Dan Rutherford, (R) Chenoa.

"The cost in the long run will be more than what they thought they'd save at Pontiac," said Danny Jarrett, AFSCME, correctional officer.

Prison guards say maximum security inmates at Pontiac are being moved to facilities not equipped to handle them, and that presents a clear and present danger. The DOC argues that staff safety is not being sacrificed, and that the closing, however painful, will move forward.

Angry residents say they'll fight but know the clock is ticking.

"Maybe we're starting to run out of hope, run out of time," said Deb Zega, wife of a correctional officer.

The ruling from the judge in Johnson County Tuesday afternoon focuses on the union argument that other prisons are not now equipped to receive Pontiac's inmates and forcing it is a dangerous idea. That issue will be argued the first of December, and at the very least, Tuesday's decision will likely make December 31 an unrealistic date for closing Pontiac.

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