Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Joliet, Ill." losing its rep as a prison town

There once was a time when the placement of a “Joliet, Ill.” dateline atop a news story was a sure-fire guarantee of prison violence or some other news related to the activity of a violent criminal.

The small city located at the far southwestern-most corner of what could be considered the Chicago area became internationally known for the facilities located in or near its borders that housed dangerous and violent criminals.

THE NAMES “STATEVILLE” and “Joliet” brought to mind the same dank, depressing images of criminal justice and retribution as do names like “Leavenworth” and “Alcatraz.”

Those days are receding into the past, and Joliet municipal officials are glad. While they enjoyed the tax benefits and jobs provided by having two maximum-security prisons nearby, the fact that their town was known more for its dangerous visiting residents than anything that happened in town had to be depressing.

Joliet’s days as a prison town are declining because the Joliet Correctional Center and the Stateville Correctional Center in neighboring Crest Hill (which many people mistake for the low-income section of Joliet) are old. The Joliet prison dates to the 19th Century, while Stateville is a modern (only by Illinois prison standards) facility that opened in 1925.

Age is the element that brought the Joliet Correctional Center to its demise as a viable maximum-security prison, and its sister Stateville Correctional Center could soon share the same fate. Photograph provided by Library of Congress collection.

Trying to turn those old prisons that were meant to resemble imposing castles that would scare passersby into never wanting to have to spend any time there (while also intimidating the inmates who were there) into modern corrections facilities would be way too expensive.

IT IS EASIER to just build new facilities, which can be constructed up to modern standards of criminal incarceration – which, for those who fear inmates are being “coddled” are still extremely restrictive. No one in their right mind would volunteer to live under such conditions.

The old Joliet Correctional Center already has been shuttered, as far as housing maximum-security inmates. The facility is now a center for people convicted of a crime in northern Illinois. They start their prison term there, spend a few days while being evaluated by state corrections officials, then they are assigned to the prison where they will spend the bulk of their hard time.

That fate is to be shared by Stateville, if Gov. Rod Blagojevich gets his way.

When Blagojevich presented his state budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, it called for closing the oldest parts of Stateville (the ones that are most in violation of modern standards for housing inmates) and using other parts to perform the same functions now carried out on the other side of town at the former Joliet Correctional Center.

STATEVILLE CURRENTLY HAS about 3,500 inmates, and it is estimated that the move would cause about 1,500 of them to be relocated to prisons across the state. That sounds like an ambitious project – trying to shift that many potentially dangerous people around the state.

There’s a very good chance that the bulk of them would wind up in Thomson, Ill., where a modern facility has been sitting empty in the rural northwest Illinois county for nearly a decade. Officials would like to have transfers complete by 2011.

Corrections officials also say that some less-violent inmates could be placed at new prisons in Lawrenceville and Sheridan, although critics of the proposed shift say the three new prisons were meant to supplement existing facilities – not replace them.

The Thomson prison is actually one of the laughable tales of state government ineptitude. The problem is that Illinois Department of Corrections officials were never given adequate funding to maintain the new prison.

THE FACILITY BUILT back in the 1990s was meant to give Illinois a modern maximum-security prison. Its construction was completed in time to theoretically open the facility in 2001.

But the state built itself a new toy that it can’t afford to play with. Large portions of the modern prison have sat empty for six years now, and a recent report by the Illinois auditor general’s office said some parts of the prison are deteriorating due to non-use.

I’ll credit Blagojevich for realizing that it is past due for the state to start using its new prison. I also realize that Stateville is a place whose best days are in the past. I have been inside Stateville on a few occasions (as a reporter, not an inmate), and what always amazed me was seeing the same spots that were used in the late 1948 film “Call Northside 777.” What was once fresh and new had become rather decrepit by the time I saw it 50 years later.

A shift from Stateville is a move that should have taken place some time ago.

THAT, OF COURSE, will not stop political people from trying to get involved. State Sen. Debbie D. Halvorson, D-Crete, says she will oppose any shift of inmates away from Stateville because that also means Corrections Department jobs moving from Will County to Carroll County.

State officials concede that about 400 jobs will be shifted from the Joliet-area if the move takes place.

In the big picture (that of the entire state), the jobs factor is irrelevant – the actual payroll will remain the same. Some might even argue that in the small picture, it is not that important because another Illinois area would suddenly gain a batch of jobs. It all balances out.

But Halvorson is running a campaign to move up to the House of Representatives, and Stateville is in the territory encompassed by the congressional district she wants to represent in Washington.

SHE WANTS TO appear as though she will fight for local jobs, and figures Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., whose Quad Cities-area congressional district would gain from the Illinois Corrections Department change, can fight his own battle to support the shift.

This issue is not an easy one for most Chicagoans to understand because most of us are living here in part because we would never want to live in the kind of isolated community that usually attracts prison facilities.

About the only place in Chicago that has anything resembling a prison atmosphere is the Little Village neighborhood, which abuts the Cook County Jail complex. But that neighborhood’s historic character is one where newly arrived immigrants live for a bit before moving up in life. Even the current Mexican population that lives in “La Villita” will some day move on to better places. Nobody in Chicago stays long-term in a jail atmosphere.

In fact, the reason Joliet got to be the unofficial prison capital of Illinois is because it used to be fairly isolated. Officials a century ago never envisioned the suburban sprawl that would spread itself out from Chicago in all directions and turn Joliet and its surrounding communities into just more suburbs of the Second City.

BUT THERE ARE people who will vehemently fight on both sides of this issue. Joliet area officials, while they would enjoy cleansing their public image of the prison ties, also enjoy the economic benefits of a steady employer like Illinois government.

Most of the people who work at the prisons are not the kind of people who would be able, or willing, to make a sudden move across the state just to keep a job.

Likewise, Carroll County, Ill., is an isolated place. While on the Mississippi River, Carroll County is the rural space that falls between the Quad Cities and Galena, Ill. Getting this prison to finally hire people and open itself is likely the biggest economic opportunity the county of just over 16,000 people (by comparison, the typical ward in Chicago has about three times that many people) will ever see.

For Thomson itself, the prison will put the town of 559 people (it’s the self-proclaimed “Melon Capital of the World”) on the map, just like no one ever paid attention to Tamms, Ill., until they got to be the location of the state’s only “super maximum” security prison.

IN THE BIG picture, Carroll County will gain more than Will County will lose. After all, Joliet still has two of the biggest moneymaking riverboat casinos in Illinois, a racetrack that hosts major auto racing events and an independent league professional baseball team. A lot of Illinois communities (many across the Midwest, to be honest) would love to be in Joliet’s position.

Honestly, the most negative aspect I can think of for Joliet is that officials will have to figure out a way to explain to future generations who watch reruns of “The Blues Brothers” film just why the blues singer character portrayed by John Belushi was nicknamed “Joliet Jake.” After all, the day will come when the nickname no longer makes sense.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Illinois corrections officials have used the Joliet area as the site of two ( of its most intense-security facilities for more than eight decades.

We’ll see how pleased Thomson ( is to have a maximum-security prison after the first incident that takes place within its walls.

Inmates who have spent their time within Stateville’s walls all had their own ways of coping (,9171,951815,00.html) with the mental anguish of being locked up.

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