Dwight concerned prison closure will kill town

February 23, 2012 5:19:26 PM PST
If the governor has his way, Dwight's 82-year-old maximum security prison would be closed to save money, most of its 1,080 female inmates transferred to other institutions and nearly 400 state workers - most of them correctional officers - would be laid off.

Some people living in the community about 65 miles southwest of Chicago say the closure would be bad news for the economy.

Matt Pickham moved to Dwight 17 months ago to begin work as a prison guard. It's his first job since graduating from Eastern Illinois University.

"I think they're going to kill the town," said Pickham. "There isn't a lot of other jobs opportunities out here that we can go to. If there's no other place in the state for me to go, you know I'm on all this debt and I have an apartment in town I have to pay for."

Correctional officers - most paid between 50 and $75,000 a year - hold some of the steadiest jobs in Livingston County.

Tracy Craig manages the Casey General Store near the prison. "Our business will really go downhill without the prison guards stopping in here for breakfast and lunch," said Craig.

But some lawmakers complain too many downstate towns are overly dependent on prisons filled mostly with Chicago-area convicts.

"Many towns have looked at prisons as the economic development of their geographic area," said Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago).

The final decision on whether or not to close the prison is up the General Assembly. But elected officials say just talking about it can be devastating to a town like Dwight. They fear struggling real estate sales in a town of fewer than 5,000 people will stop cold.

"People that are going to buy a house are saying, let's hold off, you know, maybe we better see what happens," said Sen. Shane Cultra (R-Livingston County).

In recent years, Livingston County's mostly Republican elected officials successfully fought state attempts to the close the maximum security prison for men at Pontiac. Mayor Bill Wilkey suspects politics are involved in the Democratic governor's targeting of Dwight.

"I think it was last time when they tried to close Pontiac twice," said Wilkey. "And I think it is this time ? I think it's all politics."

A spokeswoman for the Governor Quinn denied politics were involved in the recommendation to close Dwight. She said the closures and consolidations proposed by the governor were spread across Illinois.