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Ill. governor cites jobs in keeping prison open

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[March 13, 2009]  CHAMPAIGN (AP) -- When then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich slated the Pontiac Correctional Center for closure last May, some Pontiac lawmakers saw it as punishment for crossing him.

Townspeople did everything did everything they could think of to save the source of more than 500 jobs. They rallied at the state Capitol, wrote letters to any official they thought could help and stuck signs in just about every yard in town.

HardwareAll that paid off Thursday, when Gov. Pat Quinn announced that he plans to keep the 137-year-old prison open.

"Keeping Pontiac Correctional Center open will ensure nearly 600 people in the region keep their jobs, prevent hundreds of families from being uprooted and allow Pontiac to maintain one of its largest sources of revenue," Quinn said in a statement.

"I'm going to go out in the middle of Main Street and do my happy dance," said Pontiac Mayor Scott McCoy, who had joined area lawmakers in a monthslong push to save the prison, one of the area's biggest employers.

The Department of Corrections says 505 people work at Pontiac, down from 570 last May through retirements, transfers and other forms of attrition. Agency spokesman Derek Schnapp says the department has a hiring freeze in place.

Blagojevich had planned to close Pontiac and move many of its inmates to another prison, the much newer and virtually empty Thomson Correctional Center in western Illinois. He said at the time the move would save the state $4 million a year as it wrestles with a budget deficit that now is at least $9 billion.

Lawmakers, McCoy and others from the Pontiac area, though, believed Blagojevich, a Democrat, used the decision to punish them for opposing his policies.

Blagojevich first targeted Stateville prison in Joliet for closure. He changed his mind after a Democratic state senator from Joliet voted "present" on a move to put a recall measure aimed at the governor on a 2007 ballot. GOP lawmakers that represent Pontiac supported the measure.

Blagojevich's arrest on corruption charges, followed by his January removal from office and Quinn's swearing in, changed the course of events.

Quinn talked almost immediately about reviewing Blagojevich's plan. His decision to keep the prison in Pontiac open leaves other loose ends.

The state recently hired 208 guards to staff the Thomson prison. They are still on the payroll, working at prisons elsewhere in the state while the government spends up to $9,000 a week to house them, Schnapp said.

The Department of Corrections also transferred several hundred inmates out of Pontiac that the union representing prison workers said were placed in lower-security facilities not designed to accommodate them.

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"We'd like to see the governor move immediately to ... reclassify and transfer inmates back to Pontiac, where they're most safely incarcerated," said American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees spokesman Anders Lindall.

In Thomson, a prison built in 2001 with 1,600 maximum security cells sits with only 139 minimum security inmates, Schnapp said.

State Sen. Dan Rutherford, a Republican from Chenoa, just outside Pontiac, said he will push to open both prisons, given that the state's lockups are at about 130 percent of their designed capacity.

The state can't realistically afford to open both, countered state Rep. Mike Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat whose district includes the Thomson prison. Closing either the Pontiac prison or the prison in Joliet makes far more sense than keeping Thomson all but idle, he said.

"Somebody has to make some tough decisions in Illinois, and unfortunately Gov. Quinn doesn't appear to be able to make those decisions," he said.

[Associated Press; By DAVID MERCER]

Associated Press writer Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report from Springfield, Ill.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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