Unions notified: Pontiac prison will be closed by end of the year

Adriana Colindres

The Illinois Department of Corrections told two prison workers’ unions Friday that it intends to shutter Pontiac Correctional Center by Dec. 31.

The news prompted Pontiac Mayor Scott McCoy, who opposes the closure, to say that while he isn’t giving up the fight, he won’t blame prison employees if they start making plans to leave town so they can keep working.

“We might as well get ready and prepare now,” he said.

Corrections Director Roger Walker Jr. sent letters Friday afternoon to officials with Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Local 2002 of the Illinois State Employees Association. AFSCME is the union that represents most Pontiac prison workers, and a smaller number of employees are members of ISEA.

About 570 employees work at the prison, which is the second-largest employer in Pontiac and in Livingston County behind only Caterpillar Inc. Labor contracts required the Department of Corrections to give the unions an official notification about the pending prison closure.

The announcement wasn’t entirely unexpected.

Gov. Rod Blagoevich has said for months he wants to close the 137-year-old Pontiac facility and more fully utilize a newer prison in the northwestern Illinois community of Thomson. The Democratic governor believes the state would save money.

But AFSCME executive director Henry Bayer said closing the prison wouldn’t save money and would present a public safety threat.

“The governor’s plan will destroy hundreds of jobs, devastate the Pontiac community and make the prison system less safe,” he said.

A lawsuit that AFSCME and others recently filed to try to stop the prison closure is still pending in the court system.

In recent weeks, the Department of Corrections has transferred about 90 Pontiac inmates to other Illinois prisons — moves AFSCME interpreted as a prelude to closing the Pontiac facility.

“I think it’s one of those things that we always kind of figured was coming,” McCoy said of Friday’s announcement. “We were still hoping (Blagojevich) would change his mind.”

“I’ve never been this angry,” he said, adding that state government is broken and that the governor’s desire to close the Pontiac prison is illogical.

The Dec. 31 closure date means a stressful holiday season for prison employees and their families, who will be struggling with decisions about whether to move away from the Pontiac area, McCoy said. Previously, he said, there had been talk of closing the prison in January or February.

Stephanie DeLong, who is married to a prison employee, called the decision “sickening” and “wrong.”

“So many people’s lives are being affected,” said DeLong, who used to work at the prison and now runs DeLongs’ Casual Dining and Spirits. “There’s no rhyme or reason behind it, and therefore it’s even harder to stomach because it’s politically based.”

She noted that Blagojevich originally called for closing part of the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, then changed his mind and decided to close the Pontiac prison instead.

The switch was announced shortly after the Illinois Senate rejected a plan to ask voters if they wanted the power to recall elected officials before their terms expire — an idea inspired by dissatisfaction with Blagojevich. Supporters of the recall plan included state Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, whose district includes the Pontiac prison.

Rutherford, another opponent of the prison closure, called Friday’s development “very concerning for public safety throughout the entire (prison) system, and it makes no logical sense from an economic standpoint.”

A bipartisan legislative commission in September issued a recommendation that the governor should keep the prison open, but Blagojevich wasn’t required to follow the advice.

Members of the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability said they were concerned closing the prison would worsen overcrowding in the state’s correctional system. They also said it wouldn’t provide an overall economic benefit to Illinois and would devastate the Pontiac community.

Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or