Reeder: Feds rescue Illinois from its prison fiasco
By Scott Reeder firstname.lastname@example.org October 10, 2012 9:54PM
Updated: November 12, 2012 11:57AM
The empty Thomson Correctional Center, which has been the bane of three governors, now stands as a silent and costly monument to failed planning, failed motives and failed politics.
The maximum-security prison in northwest Illinois, near the Iowa state line, cost Illinois taxpayers $145 million to build and remains one of the most expensive construction projects ever undertaken by the state.
It’s a debacle I helped uncover 11 years ago. Back then, I noticed that people hadn’t been hired to work in the new prison.
I thought that was weird. After all, it was the crown jewel of an ambitious plan to rapidly expand the state’s prison system.
The main problem with that plan was that nobody had bothered to determine whether the state had the money to actually hire people to work in it.
That turned out to be a minor concern back when Gov. George Ryan was building penitentiaries. Each time the construction of a prison was announced, Ryan was hailed as an economic savior by construction unions and local chambers of commerce alike.
Prisons were no longer about criminal justice. They were about economic development.
In depressed rural communities such as Thomson, folks waited for the creation of a large stable employer in their midst. But the jobs didn’t come.
In 2001, when I began asking why guards hadn’t been hired or prisoners transferred to the prison, officials at the Illinois Department of Corrections became defensive. I received an anxious phone call from Donald Snyder, then the department director.
“Scott, the prison isn’t done yet. That’s why there aren’t any inmates there,” he said.
Sensing a bit of skepticism on my part, he invited me fly to the prison with him. We toured the prison, and everything not only looked completed but appeared to be state-of-the-art.
A rather frustrated Snyder could see that the facts weren’t lining up with his excuse. So he took me into the gymnasium and pointed to a roll of carpeting that had not been glued down yet.
“See, the prison isn’t done yet,” he said.
That was his excuse for why the $145 million prison hadn’t opened — carpet that hadn’t been glued own.
The real reason was that the state didn’t have the money to hire guards and other workers.
For the next decade, the empty prison became a political hot potato and a growing controversy.
Rod Blagojevich vowed, if elected, he would open the prison. But it stayed empty.
When Blagojevich was up for re-election, he briefly transferred a few minimum-security prisoners to Thomson to “fulfill” his campaign promise of “opening” the prison. That didn’t last for long.
Lawmakers buckled under pressure from the union representing prison workers and made sure that closing aging, obsolete prisons elsewhere in Illinois and moving jobs and inmates to Thomson wasn’t even considered.
So the Thomson prison continued to sit empty. And the taxpayers kept paying interest on the money that was borrowed to build it.
It would seem an irony that three of the key players in this drama — Ryan, Snyder and Blagojevich — ended up imprisoned themselves.
What does a state do when it has planned poorly, borrowed excessively and refused to make tough decisions so an impressive modern prison remains unused? It looks for a federal bailout.
After being stymied for about three years by varying degrees of congressional opposition, the Obama administration this month ran an end-around against a congressman who was blocking the federal government from acquiring the prison. The feds cut a check for $165 million, making the Thomson penitentiary part of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
There are important lessons to be learned from the 11-year saga of the Thomson Correctional Center.
“It was a boondoggle from the start,” state Rep. Rich Morthland (R-Cordova) said. “Why didn’t anyone ask if we had the money to staff it when it was built? That would seem to me to be a pretty obvious question to be asking.”
But it is a question rarely asked these days when politicians call for building more state projects.
That leaves one to wonder: How many Thomsons are in our future?
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.