Saturday, May 3, 2008

Stateville "fight" helps Will, hurts state

If it turns out to be true, politics got put ahead of public policy in the likely deal that would keep a maximum-security state prison – and roughly 400 jobs – in the Joliet area.

The Herald News of Joliet reported that state officials will announce a deal Monday that will keep the Stateville Correctional Center open in full, even though state officials earlier this year expressed interest in closing the oldest parts of the prison and shifting inmates to the newly-built maximum-security prison in Thomson, Ill.

THAT PRISON HAS its own unique political story. It is new – built in the first few years of the 21st Century and intended to supplement the existing maximum-security prisons located across the state, including Stateville near Joliet.

But it has never opened, because state budgetary constraints prevent the Department of Corrections from having enough money in its budget to hire sufficient guards and other staff for the facility.

As a result, the state has a modern maximum-security prison sitting empty. Meanwhile, Stateville dates back eight decades – and has portions that are old and decrepit. The cost of bringing the facility up to modern corrections industry standards would be excessive. This model of the Stateville "penitentiary" is from the days when the facility near Joliet was a modern prison using the ultimate in technology. Now, it is old and nearing the end of its life as a corrections facility, even if some state officials don't seem to realize that fact. Note Joe Ragen, the long-time warden of Stateville who was known nationally for implementing prison reforms intended toward rehabilitation - rather than punishment - of inmates.

So the idea that the old maximum-security prison should be shuttered and replaced by the new prison is one that makes all too much sense. While the name “Stateville” has a historic connotation (among prisons, it is as legendary a name as “Alcatraz” or “Leavenworth”), this would be a case of a building reaching the end of its useful life.

OF COURSE, THAT logic is way too logical for many political people, who were determined to put their local concerns ahead of those of the state. While the Illinois Department of Corrections viewed the move as a transfer of jobs (the payroll would have remained the same), political people would only view the move as a loss of about 400 jobs for the Joliet-area, many of whom come from Crest Hill – the town that borders up against Joliet and is the actual mailing address of the prison.

“To suggest we could lose 400 jobs out of our area was not something I would want to see,” state Rep. Brent Hassert, R-Romeoville, told the Herald News newspaper.

Of course, the fact that the town of Thomson (population 559) and the nearby “big city” of Mount Carroll (population 1,832) would have gained a windfall of economic benefits from having the state facility located in their region of the state was considered irrelevant to the local politicos.

This is the reality of politics at the state or federal level, as opposed to the world of Chicago City Hall or any other municipal government.

COMPETING REGIONS OFTEN fight it out for the perks that will benefit the state or Midwestern U.S. as a whole. In the big picture, it doesn’t matter where a facility is located, since a region will receive benefits. Getting involved in the actual location of a facility is considered a parochial matter.

It almost compares to the fight that has taken place for nearly three decades now over where to put a new Chicago-area airport. The Federal Aviation Administration has always taken the perspective that Chicago needs a third airport, but doesn’t care where it is put.

The need for a new airport hasn’t lessened throughout the years, but political people who want to be able to control “the jobs” can’t reach agreement amongst themselves. So the aviation needs of the nation are put on hold.

It is the same situation for corrections, where the needs of the state prison system are now made to suffer a bit longer because the political people are more concerned about the site and the jobs.

I FULLY REALIZE that prison guard jobs are not the types that people would move to a new community for (particularly not one as isolated as Thomson). Will County would have taken something of a loss.

But in the big picture, keeping inmates in the aging roundhouses for which Stateville is known (the structures which at one time were considered an innovation in corrections practices are considered “historic” in nature) is ridiculous.

The structures have become old (on a couple of occasions when I was a reporter for United Press International, I got a chance to get a “very structured” tour of the prison by state officials), and portions are downright disgusting.

The time has come for a new maximum-security prison to go along with the Menard Correctional Center near the Southern Illinois town of Chester.

WHILE SOME PEOPLE will argue that one of the prisons should be near the Chicago area, the simple fact is that land acquisition costs are significantly less in the rural communities that have become the home of most of the state’s prisons.

So Thomson makes as much sense as any other northern Illinois location for a new high-security level prison for the state’s most dangerous inmates.

To me, it also is a bad idea to further delay the opening of the Thomson prison because no one was ever talking about completely shuttering Stateville. Only the oldest portions would have been closed, and the prison itself would have continued to house inmates.

THERE STILL WOULD have been some corrections department jobs for Crest Hill and the Greater Joliet area, which also has a lot of other things going for it. Joliet’s image should not be totally reliant on a prison being located nearby.

So come Monday, state legislators from Will County are expected to be joined by Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, to announce the political deal that will keep Stateville fully open for the upcoming state fiscal year.

Will County may have won a “short-term” economic victory (because the prison’s age means its demise is not long in the future). But the “better interests” of the Corrections Department, and the state as a whole, will have taken a hit.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Joliet could keep its status as Illinois’ preeminent prison town (,JO02_STATEVILLE_WEB.article) once a deal to keep the Stateville Correctional Center is announced.

The 83-year-old state prison designed for 1,506 inmates currently houses 2,773 people who ( are considered among the most dangerous in the Illinois prison system.

Will County officials took seriously the notion that inmates (and jobs for prison guards) would be moved ( to a prison located near the northwestern Illinois town.

For those of you who were curious, there are restrictions on the ability to get married ( to an inmate at the Stateville Correctional Center.

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