Illinois Governor Bases Prison Closure Decision on Politics
by Derick Limberg
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Illinois spent at least $17 million to transform the 137-year-old Pontiac Correctional Center (PCC) into a specialized facility to house the state’s most violent prisoners.
However, in May 2008, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich announced plans to close PCC in a move supposedly aimed at reducing a budget deficit of roughly $700 million. According to Blagojevich, closing PCC would save about $8 million over the next two years.
Lawmakers and members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union that represents Illinois Dept. of Corrections (DOC) guards, argued that cutting $8 million from a total state budget of $59 billion made little sense.
While the conversion of PCC into a maximum-security facility was in progress, the state had also built a brand new $140 million prison in Thomson. That facility opened in 2001 but has sat nearly empty since then, costing the state around $5.2 million to maintain.
About 570 jobs are at stake with the pending closure of PCC, which would “devastate” the local economy, according to the Illinois Commission of Government Forecasting and Accountability. Lawmakers and AFSCME representatives said the state should not choose between the facilities in Pontiac and Thomson.
Blagojevich decided to close PCC instead of a prison in Joliet after a democratic state senator declined to support a recall measure aimed at the governor. That senator happened to be from Joliet, where the Statesville Prison is located. Blagojevich’s decision as to which facility would close therefore appears to be grounded in politics.
State Senator Dan Rutherford, whose district includes PCC, blamed Blagojevich for putting new spending measures before existing needs, and said the state can afford to keep PCC open. “Since the closure of Pontiac was announced, it was obvious the decision was not made as a planned effort to improve the correctional system,” he said.
AFSCME representative Anders Lindall agreed, stating, “to have the principal policy initiative out of the governor with respect to corrections be the closure of such a facility, or any facility at all, entirely fails to respond to the crisis in our prison system.” Illinois has about 45,000 state prisoners, which is more than 130% of the DOC’s rated capacity.
Despite Blagojevich’s wishes and an originally-scheduled Dec. 31, 2008 closure date, PCC has remained open. AFSCME has filed three lawsuits over the governor’s decision to close the prison; a hearing in one of those suits was postponed indefinitely in January 2009, while an injunction to keep the facility open was entered in another.
Governor Blagojevich, who previously served as a prosecutor, has other worries beyond the closure of PCC. He was indicted on federal charges of trying to benefit personally from appointing a U.S. Senator to fill the position left vacant after former Sen. Barack Obama became president, and was impeached by the Illinois Senate and removed from office on January 29, 2009.
The federal investigation into former Gov. Blagojevich’s misdeeds has reportedly expanded to include his decision to shut down the Pontiac facility, with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office investigating the circumstances of the prison’s closure.
On March 12, 2009, newly-installed Illinois Governor Pat Quinn put an end to the controversy over PCC by announcing the facility would not close. The controversy – and investigations – into Blagojevich’s decision to close the prison, however, remain.
Sources: Chicago Tribune, www.bloomberg.com, www.kwqc.com
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