Pontiac prison supporters to rally Nov. 19 in Springfield

Adriana Colindres

In the hopes that Gov. Rod Blagojevich will change his mind about closing Pontiac Correctional Center, a state workers’ union is organizing a rally and march on Nov. 19 in Springfield.

Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees plans to kick off the event at 2:30 p.m. at the Illinois AFL-CIO building in Springfield, said AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall. It is expected to draw union members who work at the Pontiac facility and elsewhere in the prison system, as well as other people who live in the Pontiac area.

The group then will march a couple of blocks to the Illinois State Capitol. State lawmakers likely will be in the Capitol that day, which is part of the legislative fall veto session.

The rally is “a continuation of the grass-roots activities and lobbying and other strategies we’ve been using to fight the closure of Pontiac,” Lindall said Monday. The idea is to continue to “make a clear case and to convince the governor to drop this closure.”

On Friday, Illinois Department of Corrections Director Roger Walker notified two prison workers’ unions, including AFSCME, that the Pontiac facility would close by Dec. 31.

Blagojevich has said for months he wants to close Pontiac and more fully utilize a newer prison in Thomson in northwestern Illinois, partly as a money-saving move for the state.

In recent weeks, the Department of Corrections has transferred about 90 Pontiac inmates to other Illinois prisons — moves that AFSCME had interpreted as the beginning of the prison-closure process.

The union and other opponents of closing Pontiac say shuttering the facility will worsen prison overcrowding throughout the state and will devastate the Pontiac area’s economy.

Corrections spokeswoman Januari Smith said Monday all Pontiac prison employees would have the opportunity to keep working for the agency if they’re willing to go to other correctional facilities.

It wasn’t clear Monday whether the governor would be in the Capitol when the rally and march take place next month.

But Lindall said that with heightened public attention on the planned prison closure and its negative consequences, “the more likely it is the governor will change his mind.”

Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, wants to keep the Pontiac prison open, and he is one of the plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit aimed at blocking the closure.

“I’m going to keep the fight going until the last prisoner’s shuttled out that door,” he said Monday after a news conference in Pontiac. Even so, he added, the Pontiac community must prepare for “what could be the worst scenario possible.”

That means starting to think about helping Pontiac-area residents with job searches and job training, he said. It also means considering alternative uses for the prison, which at one point in its 137-year history was a reformatory, Rutherford said.

“I am working to make sure as this progresses, the resources and tools that should be available are made available,” he said.

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