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Illinois community fights to save prison, jobs

Pontiac prison closure plan draws controversy

By David Mercer
The Associated Press

PONTIAC, Ill. — When folks here heard the governor wanted to close the 137-year-old Pontiac Correctional Center, sucking hundreds of jobs from the area, they mobilized in a way that only small towns can.

They held rallies and a parade. Streets were lined with blue-and-white "Save Our Prison" signs and residents were outfitted in T-shirts to match.

The roughly 12,000 people here find themselves in a struggle for their economic lives as they try to talk Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich out of closing the town's second-largest employer to help fill a $700 million hole in the state budget. And the fight is as political as it is economic: The governor has hinted that if state legislators support his capital-spending plan, the prison might be saved.

It's not just the 570 jobs that would leave this central Illinois town that worries Mayor Scott McCoy. It's also the lost revenues for the city, construction firms, restaurants and other businesses. One study shows the area would lose more than $50 million a year.

The mayor also notes that most prison employees would likely relocate for other jobs in the prison system, taking their spouses who are teachers, nurses and other professionals.

"These are our coaches, these are our PTO members," McCoy said. "Almost every one of them will transfer to somewhere else."

Prison officials say closing Pontiac will save the state $8.5 million dollars over the next two years. The state says it needs that money.

"I hate closing Pontiac," Illinois Department of Corrections Director Roger Walker told more than a thousand people at a public hearing Wednesday on the prison-closure plan. But he left no doubt where he stands: "The best available option for the department at this time is to close Pontiac."

Besides saving money, the state needs to close the prison so it can open another one, 150 miles northwest in Thomson. That prison is new and better-designed, Walker said. It has been virtually empty since it was built in 2001 because Illinois can't afford to open it.

Pontiac's prison, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, would close in January.

The maximum-security facility, a complex of mostly red-brick and stone buildings, is tucked into the edge of a middle-class neighborhood. High fences and layers of razor wire separate it from a park and tennis courts.

Guards say the prison houses the worst of the worst. In 1978, three guards died there during a prison riot. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassin, James Earl Ray, spent time there in the 1950s for armed robbery.

It opened in 1871 as a reform school outside town. Over time, Pontiac grew toward the prison, and became comfortable with it.

"Pontiac and this state have had a wonderful partnership for more than 130 years," said McCoy, who was raised in a house across the street from the prison.

In early May, news filtered through the community that the prison was on the budgetary chopping block.

Stephanie DeLong, whose husband Kevin is a lieutenant and 19-year veteran at the facility, heard the news from a local politician who stopped in her downtown restaurant.

DeLong's Casual Dining employs 20 people and if the prison closes, the DeLongs and their five children are among those likely to leave.

"I look around and see everything that we do have," Stephanie DeLong said. "You know, we've worked hard the last 20 years. How would we ever start over?"

Some Pontiac residents feel closing the prison has more to do with politics than money.

Blagojevich decided to close Pontiac's prison rather than a facility in Joliet only after Joliet Democratic Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi voted "present" on a move to put a recall measure aimed at the governor on the November ballot. GOP lawmakers that represent Pontiac supported it.

And earlier this month, Blagojevich suggested he might not close the prison if legislators back his capital spending plan. The legislation, which would finance construction of roads, buildings and schools, has been stalled for months.

"It's not politics; it's economics," Blagojevich spokesman Brian Williamsen said. "The funding has to be in place."

McCoy doesn't buy it.

"I don't look at what (Blagojevich) says any more, I look at what he does," the mayor said. "The only thing that can save the prison right now is when the guy signs the piece of paper that says it's no longer going to close."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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