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Security fences surround the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill. The prison in central Illinois is slated to be torn down and replaced by a facility near Joliet.

Seth Perlman

Illinois lawmakers call for more details on plan to replace prisons

An advisory commission was supposed to vote on the plan Friday, but couldn’t because not enough lawmakers showed up to the meeting.

The head of an advisory commission tasked with reviewing Ill. Gov. JB Pritzker’s plan to tear down and replace two long-neglected prisons on Friday blasted the proposal as half-baked, capping off a week of contentious public hearings about the $900-million project.

“A plan has details,” said state Senator Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, who chairs the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. “What we’ve been presented with is the concept of replacing and building new facilities. But, nothing has been worked out in terms of what, when and where.”

Pritzker meanwhile defended the plan and the lack of details, saying “this is just the beginning.”

The Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, or COGFA, was scheduled to take an advisory vote on the plan Friday, but not enough lawmakers showed up for the meeting to reach a quorum.

Koehler said the Illinois Department of Corrections is, however, able to move forward with tearing down Stateville men’s and Logan women’s Correctional Facilities without the commission’s input.

The lawmakers who did show up to Friday’s meeting agreed the two aging prisons need to be replaced, but Koehler said he hopes the department takes seriously some of the concerns raised at two public hearings this past week held near the prisons slated for demolition.

“But really, it’s up to them,” Koehler said. “I offered that anytime they wanted to engage again with COGFA that are ready and willing.”

Toxic and inoperable prisons

Pritzker announced plans to overhaul the two crumbling prisons in March, citing years of aging infrastructure and deferred maintenance that his administration estimates have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

The plan is to demolish Stateville and rebuild a new prison on the same site near Joliet. Logan women’s prison would also be torn down, and replaced by a new facility near Stateville, more than 100 miles from Logan’s current site.

Pritzker’s announcement drew cheers from prison reform advocates and attorneys who work with people incarcerated in Illinois prisons. In a report commissioned by the state last year consultants rated three of the department’s 27 facilities as approaching “inoperable” and estimated the prison system has at least $2.5 billion of “deferred maintenance.” People locked up in Logan prison described to WBEZ a “toxic” environment with brown, slimy water, moldy walls and a raccoon infestation.

But the plan drew criticism at public hearings held this past week.

The Department of Corrections says the prison could close as early as September, with groundbreaking on a new facility starting in approximately one year – a timeline that critics say is rushed. The department is proposing transferring Stateville’s nearly 430 incarcerated individuals to other facilities throughout the state during construction, based on the person’s medical needs, what educational and vocational programs they are enrolled in, and their security level.

Several employees who run Stateville’s programs said they are skeptical people will be able to continue their courses in other facilities. And Labor unions like AFSCME, which represents state prison workers, said there will be a loss in staff members as well. Current employees would have the option to be transferred to facilities up to 65 miles away. IDOC Acting Director Latoya Hughes said during Tuesday’s public hearing in Joliet that there are approximately 1,000 jobs available within the 65 mile radius.

But AFSCME members are leary of that. Charles Mathis has been working at Stateville for nine years, and commutes to work from the South Side of Chicago which, he said, can take up to 45 minutes. He said that while some of his colleagues would be transferred to the nearby Joliet Treatment Center, other facilities further away like the Sheridan and Pontiac correctional centers could amount to a four-hour round trip commute.

“That kind of commute round trip would take an enormous toll on my mind and body,” Mathis said. “I think I speak for all of my coworkers when I say a commute like that would be nearly impossible to justify.”

Fears about the local economy

Two days later, AFSCME members, wearing bright green T-shirts and carrying signs that read, “Keep Logan CC in Logan” packed the Lincoln Junior High School gym in Lincoln, five miles away from the Logan women’s prison, located in Logan County. There were yard signs littered throughout the Central Illinois town of 13,000 people, in addition to a billboard, all urging the state to rebuild the prison in Lincoln.

At Thursday’s meeting, Hughes said moving the women’s prison to northern Illinois would “enhance women’s access to families, support services, vocational opportunities, and community resources, which… thus reduc[es] recidivism.”

But state Senator Don DeWitte (R-St. Charles) said incarcerated people from Central and Southern Illinois would be moved further away from their families, a comment that elicited a standing ovation from the crowd.

“I’ve struggled since Tuesday night with how do you take someone who lives downstate, move them to a facility outside of Chicago,” DeWitte said.

Don DeWitte

State Senator Don DeWitte speaks at a candidate forum when he was mayor of St. Charles, Ill. At a public hearing Thursday, DeWitte raised questions about plans to move a women’s prison from central Illinois.

Tyler Stoffel/For the Beacon News

Most people incarcerated in Illinois state prisons come from the Chicago area, while almost all prisons are downstate. According to Hughes, the majority of people in Logan who are from Cook County are serving longer sentences on more serious offenses. She said it makes more sense to move Logan closer to where people in need of more rehabilitation are coming from. Though, she added, this new location is not final.

At Thursday night’s hearing, Several Logan County residents expressed concern about what closing their prison could mean for their local economy. Dale Nelson, Vice-Chair of the Logan County Board, said he can’t fathom getting behind a project that will “financially decimate these families in this community.” Nelson grew up in the area, which has seen two colleges and a Kroger shutter within the last 6 years. He said his county could lose millions of dollars in revenue.

“We would have no choice but to start looking at raising taxes so we can continue to operate the county, the school districts and the police departments,” Nelson said. “This will impact families and business owners for years to come, which some may never recover.”

Despite skepticism from COGFA and fierce opposition from residents, employees and labor union members, Pritzker said he remains optimistic.

“Nobody has put out a final plan yet,” Pritzker said. “This is just the beginning. But, it’s an important beginning.”

Mawa Iqbal is a statehouse reporter for WBEZ. Follow @mawa_iqbal.

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