Process needed to study prisons

With the announcement early last week that the Blagojevich administration wants to close the maximum-security prison in Pontiac, the disruptive process that gripped Vandalia several years ago has now enveloped Pontiac.

As was the case when the governor released his plan to shutter the Vandalia Correctional Center, the Pontiac area is faced with a daunting economic blow if hundreds of jobs evaporate.

Earlier this year, the governor announced his intention to close the maximum-security unit at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. That plan now has been taken off the books and Pontiac is currently in the crosshairs.

Its a heck of a way to run a railroad, as the saying goes.

But thats nothing new for this governor. On any number of issues, his administration has botched the job of governing. This is merely the latest.

Whatever happened to the Facilities Closure Act the legislation that was enacted after Vandalia suffered through more than six months of uncertainty about the future of our correctional center? That was supposed to add some procedural barriers to prevent unilateral decisions, such as the one the governor is employing, from happening again. Instead, there was supposed to be a process to confirm the need for the closure and to determine the economic impact on the area.

Instead, it appears that politics is driving the decisions. The Joliet area is heavily Democratic. The Pontiac area, on the other hand, is largely Republican. You do the math.

At the very least, we need to embrace a proposal that emerged late last week from a bi-partisan group of legislators, including Sen. Frank Watson (R-Greenville). That plan would first and foremost place a moratorium on all correctional facility closures until a thorough study has been completed. The plan would create a Correctional Facilities Panel, which would be responsible for examining the states correctional facilities and studying the Department of Correctionss procedures.

These prison closure announcements have come out of thin air, said Sen. Dan Rutherford (R-Pontiac). There never have been any formal policies or economic studies that have ever occurred before a closure announcement. We want the current and future governors to have formal plans before any facility closure takes place.

Watson added: We cannot allow these decisions to be made without thoughtful, practical long-term planning.

The proposed House Bill 1235 creates a Correctional Facilities Panel composed of four legislators (one appointed by each caucus leader), two correctional facility employees, the Department of Corrections director and two representatives from organizations that have a thorough understanding of correctional facilities.

The group would review the physical condition of the states facilities, the size and composition of the inmate population and the specific needs of Illinois correctional facilities. It also would assess the location of inmates families, the location of current employees and the economic impact of the correctional facilities. To determine all factors that need to be considered in closure decisions, the group may also hold public hearings. When the study is complete, the panel would be required to present its findings to the General Assembly and draft a long-term plan for the states correctional facilities.

Certainly, theres still room for bias and politics to creep into such a process, but its a heck of a lot better than the situation we have now.

Here in Vandalia, we know first-hand the economic blow that a rumored closing can deliver to a community. We cannot allow such cruel and politically influenced actions to happen again here or anywhere else.

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