Thursday, September 18, 2008

Rural judge gets chance to revive soon-to-be-shuttered prison in Pontiac

The on-going political brawl over who has control of Illinois’ system of prisons has now worked its way to the courtroom, which means a judge is going to have to decide politically partisan questions in a way that will impact all of the state’s taxpayers.

At stake is the desire of Gov. Rod Blagojevich to close one of the state’s maximum-security prisons. He says such a measure is a necessity to save the state money (about $58 million per year) it does not have.

YET PEOPLE IN the communities that have the prisons have always argued their towns rely on the maximum-security correctional centers as a significant part of their economy. And the labor union that represents prison guards (along with other state government employees) says a governor does not have the right to arbitrarily whack so many jobs.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees went so far Wednesday as to file a lawsuit against Illinois state government, arguing that since the General Assembly specifically set aside money for the maintenance of a prison, it would be an illegal use of funds for Blagojevich to try to take that money and spend it on anything else within state government.

The lawsuit was filed in Pontiac, where a Livingston County judge will issue a first ruling in the case. The locale was chosen because Blagojevich (for now, at least) has targeted the Pontiac Correctional Center as the prison to be closed.

There’s no way a local judge who wants to get re-elected will issue any ruling that will be perceived as costing local voters (yes, prison guards vote) their jobs.

THIS IS A case that is going to be decided in the appeals courts and the Illinois Supreme Court in Springfield, Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it wind up in Washington with the Supreme Court of the United States having final say as to whether a governor can close a prison as a cost-cutting measure.

The problem with viewing this issue as purely a prison closing is that it isn’t.

The Illinois Department of Corrections earlier this decade oversaw construction of a new maximum-security prison in Thomson, Ill., a tiny rural town in northwestern Illinois to whom Galena and Dubuque, Iowa, are the closest “big” cities.

But shortages in state funding have prevented that facility from ever opening.

UNDER THE ONGOING Blagojevich proposal, that modern prison facility with all the security amenities expected of a 21st Century facility would be opened, with inmates being shifted from the to-be shuttered prison.

Technically, the number of prison guards and other prison employees on the state payroll would remain roughly the same, because the new facility in Thomson would have to go on a hiring binge.

But the people of Pontiac don’t feel like they should suffer an economic hit, even if Thomson would gain a boon unlike anything they ever envisioned as possible.

If this were just a matter of a downstate town being upset that they were losing something, I wouldn’t care much.

BUT THE SIMPLE fact is that this issue has always been political.

When Blagojevich originally proposed closing a state prison (combined with the long-overdue opening of Thomson) over a year ago, the prison he chose was the historic Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet.

If anything, that community could have afforded the economic loss from fewer prison guard jobs. Being at the edge of the Chicago area and having something of an economy of its own, it was not as dependent on a prison’s existence in its boundaries as any of the other rural towns that host Illinois prison facilities.

But Joliet-area political officials used their pull in the General Assembly, and eventually pressured Blagojevich to back off of his talk of closing down the century-old prison (which would be prohibitively expensive to renovate into a facility approximating what will someday exist in Thomson).

THAT IS WHEN the Pontiac Correctional Center got put on the political hit list.

With Republican legislators representing the area (and much of central Illinois), it is not like Blagojevich was offending anyone who was ever his political ally (unlike the Democratic organization that has pull in Will County).

And it’s not like Livingston County (which consists of Pontiac and little else along Interstate 55) can put on the kind of pressure Will County could to get the governor to change his mind once again.

So this is a case where Chicago-area political people were able to use their political muscle to force a governor to back off. Blagojevich had better hope that appeals courts do not give Livingston County the same influence – or else he’s going to look foolish.

ONE ARGUMENT MADE in the past by prison monitoring groups is that closing any facility is shortsighted. They cite crowded prison conditions in Illinois, and note the facility in Thomson was designed and built to supplement the existing maximum-security prisons – not replace them.

They say that Blagojevich’s attempt to save a few bucks would make worse a prison-crowding problem that exists in Illinois.

The political observer in me does get one chuckle out of the ongoing mess.

Part of the maneuvering that caused Blagojevich earlier this year to give up on closing Stateville was a promise from Will County legislators to oppose any talk of pushing for changes in state law to allow for recall elections for Illinois governors.

KNOWING THAT BACKING away from closing Stateville would reduce the issue of recall from a serious issue to one talked about only by political cranks was good motivation, and legislators from the Pontiac area actually voted in support of their Will County’s allies.

But in voting for the measure to protect Stateville, they wound up shifting the fight down to their home ground, since there aren’t an endless supply of maximum-security prisons that could be closed. “If not Stateville, then Pontiac,”is the logic running through Blagojevich’s mind.

Will any token Democrats running for office in Livingston County have the nerve to accuse the Republican incumbents for voting in support of a measure that will ultimately cost their hometown one of its major employers?

It is an absurd accusation, but it is no more ridiculous than a lot of the rhetoric that comes out of political campaigns prior to Election Day.

AND WHAT HAPPENS if the people of Livingston County are somehow able to protect their prison, getting some sort of court ruling that forces Blagojevich to back off of closing Pontiac?

Then the people of Chester, Ill., and surrounding towns in Southern Illinois would be well advised to start preparing for the political fight now, for their Menard Correctional Center would be the only maximum-security prison left that Blagojevich could even think of closing.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the Illinois Department of Corrections, along with the state comptroller and treasurer’s office, all were named in the lawsuit (,0,3847338.story) filed Wednesday by the labor union that represents prison guards.

Illinois prisons designed to hold roughly 34,000 inmates are being asked to confine about ( 45,000 people convicted of various crimes.

Some think the Illinois General Assembly should intervene to save the Pontiac Correctional Center ( from being closed. Yet that could wind up interjecting all kinds of regional politics into the issue.

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