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'Everything is so secretive:' Pontiac residents ask state for answers on prison changes

Charlie Schlenker

Pontiac residents and community leaders are worried. The Illinois Department of Corrections moved 171 medium-security inmates from the Pontiac Correctional Center to other prisons early this year, and the fear is the rest of the prison built in the 1870s will shut down, too.

Residents attended a town hall meeting at Pontiac High School Tuesday evening to ask for help.

This is not the first time the state has tried to close the prison. The last attempt in 2008 was by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Pontiac Mayor Bill Alvey said that was widely viewed as a targeted effort to discourage former state treasurer Dan Rutherford, who is from Livingston County, from reaching the governor's office.

“I think this time, it's just everything is so secretive. There's nobody that's coming in and saying to us, 'Well, this is because JB Pritzker has a bad feeling about this or that'” said Alvey.

The corrections department has said the transfers early this year were because of maintenance issues in one area of the facility. A leaked draft document casts doubt on that. And so does Eddy Coumiant. He's a regional director for the union representing guards and other prison workers (AFSMCE).

“There is absolutely a plot here, promulgated by the department,” said Coumiant, who claimed the state clearly arranged the inmate transfer secretly.

“They paid overtime, those of you who work in the system know how crazy that is — paid overtime to counselors on a Saturday in order to make the files for these 171 individuals. That was about two weeks before they made this move. The buses that showed up were actually on paper supposed to be going somewhere else and they were diverted while they were on the road,” said Coumiant.

What bothered about 100 people at Tuesday's meeting most is that the state has said almost nothing since then. IDOC also has not responded to WGLT inquiries. Republican lawmakers Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington and Rep. Tom Bennett of Gibson City sponsored the meeting at Pontiac High School. Barickman said the corrections department director at first said he would be there, but backed out.

Alvey said the state keeps saying it won't reduce prison staff. The existing medium-security staff was placed in the maximum-security portions of the prison when the prisoner transfer happened. But Alvey said that doesn't make sense long term.

“We've all have a lot to worry about because we're not getting facts. Now, we're getting a plan, they say this is just ‘preliminary.’ Of course, the word we keep coming back to is when Dwight went down, that was ‘preliminary,’ too,” said Alvey, referring to the state women's prison in that nearby town that was closed in 2013.

Correctional workers at Pontiac said there's circumstantial evidence, too.

David Meredith said mandatory overtime demands have risen because of staff shortages. People have transferred out and not been replaced. A department-wide buyout program has further thinned staff. Meredith said the state is not placing many new corrections staff graduating from the academy at Pontiac. And the promotion schedule also is taking people out of guard rotation as they become sergeants or higher.

“When you add all that together, it just seems like the state's goal is to just shut up Pontiac due to lack of staffing. That's one of the big things we've been seeing there. And it is getting dangerous in the facility,” said Meredith.

But there also are questions about Pontiac and its 1870-era main building. Not everyone is convinced it's viable. A man who would only give his name as Greg said the age of the prison and its physical design are factors.

“That, in and of itself, is what contributes to the amount of staff it needs to, as they say, operate a prison safely,” he said, telling the crowd the cost per inmate at Pontiac is a lot higher than at the Danville Correctional Center.

“I want to know why it costs three times as much here, and what's the plan to reduce that difference in numbers,” he said.

There were murmurs of disagreement in the crowd at the meeting when Greg made that comment, and several people offered rebuttals. Retired prison Major Jim Blackard is now a Livingston County Board member and a Caterpillar security employee. He said Danville is a medium-security prison. Pontiac is mostly maximum security.

“They have the worst of the worst, even some of the ones that are still left over from the protective custody unit, or ex- death row inmates, said Blackard.

Staffing levels are entirely different between medium- and maximum-security facilities, added Jenny Kissair, who works in the prison medical unit.

“Danville is a medium-security facility. They go in lines with groups of 50 to 60 to chow. At Pontiac, they walk with officers, and if they are a threat, and have spit hoods on, or are in a chair, they're going to hurt somebody. And then they walk with more than one officer,” said Kissair.

The comparison to Danville also doesn't count a specialty unit at the Pontiac prison. Meredith said a federal order followed a lawsuit a few years ago that affected Pontiac Correctional Center.

“The state was forced by federal court to provide mental health care to these individuals. Pontiac was chosen basically as the dumping ground for the worst levels of mentally ill people. Much of the cost comes due that federal mandate and the costs to hire mental health professionals, nurses and doctors, to treat them. Most of the problems at Pontiac are from mental health. It's also one of the few things that's keeping us open,” said Meredith.

Other speakers said even the idea of a ‘medium’-security prisoner needs a closer look. Some may be more medium than others. Kissair said the state's claim that the transferred inmates were from the medium-security portion of the prison doesn't ring entirely true.

“Pontiac is needed. We're sending them to places they shouldn't go. Counselors did not want to reclassify them because they are a threat,” said Kissair.

Despite the age of the Pontiac prison, Blackard said the staff has managed inmates well, particularly some who have been convicted of crimes that cause judges to issue sentences of hundreds of years.

“The last actual escape from Pontiac Correctional Center proper happened in 1983. Find another max that has that record,” he said, adding if the state does end up closing Pontiac via transfers, those prisoners would disrupt other state institutions and cost more there.

“If you ask any other prison across the state, they're glad Pontiac is there because they don't want to deal with some of the inmates that these guys deal with every single day,” said Blackard.

Livingston County residents said if the prison does close, it would hit Pontiac and the region hard. Kevin Halsey of Fairbury said it’s more than Pontiac proper.

“You're going to lose all these jobs and not only this town, but this county. You might as well fold up Livingston County, you might as well bring in the sidewalks,” he said.

The correctional center is one of the top four employers in Pontiac. Alvey said about a quarter of the community has employment, economic and emotional ties to the prison. His father was an assistant warden there. He said a closure also would put Pontiac in a financial bind on a $43 million sewer expansion.

“The prison is 50% of that. And as they decrease their participation and inmates, that's going to put the onus on the rest of the community to service that debt, which we'll have to do,” said Alvey.

There's also a potential hit to the housing market, the drop in sales, tax activities, and a loss of a sense of community.

“We've seen what happened in Dwight when they closed the women’s prison there. We don't want that here,” said Alvey.

In the absence of clarity from the state, residents said they'll work on a public campaign to get answers. Livingston County Board chair Kathy Arbogast said that includes writing letters and emails, using social media, and taking every opportunity to ask state officials, including the governor, the question about what's happening and why, until there's an answer

“The state's going to do what they're going to do, no matter what anybody says. But I hope that enough of us, as the county, as a city as a community as a whole, I hope we can put a stop to whatever he's trying to do here,” said Arbogast.

Blackard said the prison hasn't lasted more than 150 years without being able to adjust to a new mission. He said the workers there have changed, and could again.

“Pontiac has risen to the challenge every single time. And they've done it better than anybody else in the country has done it,” he said.

And since there are prisoners that should be kept in maximum security, Blackard said the state needs Pontiac as much as Pontiac needs the prison.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.