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Lawmakers concerned over Pontiac prison downsizing plan

Guards leave at shift change at the Pontiac Correctional Center.
Charles Rex Arbogast
Guards leave at shift change at the Pontiac Correctional Center.

The state agency that runs Illinois prisons says it wants to cut the inmate capacity at the Pontiac Correctional Center by more than half. That comes as the aging facility in Livingston County has infrastructure needs and as the overall state prisoner population is falling.

Under the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) draft plan obtained by Capitol News Illinois, the prison in Pontiac would close the medium security unit and go from 1,740 beds to 642 beds. Pontiac currently houses a little more than 1,100 inmates, including medium-security, maximum-security and mentally ill inmate units.

“The department insists that there's not going to be a change in personnel. They've had some difficulty with overtime. And they think this might help alleviate that. They also think that some of the closure is a result of the deferred maintenance expenses that exist there,” said State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington.

There is concern about the lack of communication with the community and to lawmakers thus far, said Barickman, who also wants to know whether protocols were followed on how the department classified medium and maximum-security inmates and whether those decisions have affected the plan for the 151-year-old correctional center.

“It sounds like the department has been changing those classifications. I'd like to make sure that they've followed the rules and the guidance on that,” Barickman told WGLT's Sound Ideas.

There is a law that sets out certain requirements for the state in closing a facility. Barickman said this appears to be a partial closure.

“The law is not clear on what type of notifications and public involvement needs to occur in events like these,” he said, adding the claim of high maintenance costs also points up a systemic issue with the corrections department.

“The state needs a plan for its correctional facilities. And while there have been shifts in public policy about who goes where and what type of people we're arresting and placing in these state facilities, you need to have an infrastructure plan that aligns with that. I'm not aware of that such plan,” said Barickman.

There have been several attempts to close the prison over a period of decades, the most recent during the Blagojevich administration. The prison opened in 1871. Past arguments in favor of closure asserted it was past its useful life.

Barickman said he had hoped the state commitment to the center was stronger than it apparently is.

“Moving on would suggest that there's another place to go. Instead, I hope the state will continue to demonstrate that a maximum security prison is part of the state's facility plan for housing inmates,” said Barickman.

He said he is concerned the state has shirked some of its maintenance responsibilities to spend money elsewhere, making the maintenance argument a convenient excuse.

“By lacking a long-term facilities plan, we subject ourselves to kind of the whim of the moment about what decision might be made,” said Barickman.

He acknowledged such a plan, if it contained closure and relocation goals, would become a target of lawmakers who fear losing the economic and employment engine that a state prison provides smaller, often rural communities.

“I totally agree there will be those who simply advocate for the economic impact in their communities. But that's a fair argument that should be part of the mix, right? You don't want to destroy a community and move the facility elsewhere, without considering some of those more macro impacts,” said Barickman.

In response to a letter sent last month by Barickman, State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, and other lawmakers, the Corrections Department offered some detail.

The Medium Security Unit at Pontiac and the East/West Cellhouse, Dorms A, B, D, E,F, G, H, I, Restrictive Housing, and R, will be closed permanently, it said.

The plan has been characterized as a draft. But IDOC told lawmakers the estimated timeline for transfers and closure of the affected units is March-April.

Though the department does not plan layoffs, the draft acquired by Capital News Illinois indicated transfers of workers away from Pontiac to other facilities are possible.

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