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Opposition is growing against the proposal to move the state prison from Lincoln

As public outcry mounts against a proposal to rebuild the women’s prison in Lincoln and move it to a Chicago suburb, details about when and if the plan will move forward remain largely unclear.

Logan Correctional Center and Stateville Correctional Center would both be on the chopping block under the plan first proposed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in March. What has sparked controversy, especially among Lincoln residents, is the state corrections department’s more recent proposal to build a new Logan in Will County — more than 140 miles away from the current location.

Lacking enough members to vote on the Pritzker administration’s plans to demolish and rebuild the two state prisons, a state government committee was unable to issue a nonbinding recommendation Friday. It is also not known at this time when that vote could take place, and whether lawmakers will not return to the Capitol for a veto session until November.

Three members of the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, a 12-member bipartisan, bicameral body, were in Springfield Friday morning. Attendees expressed concern about the lack of detail and urged further discussions between government officials and communities. To enable voting actions, seven members must be present.

State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, a co-chairman of the committee, saw the need for the demolition but offered an alternative proposal that would still allow Logan and Will counties to have facilities. Keeping Stateville open as long as possible would also mitigate the impact on inmates and jail staff in Logan if rebuilding actually takes place in Will County, he added.

More: Capital funding for the demolition of the Logan Correctional Center included in the budget plan

The budget Pritzker signed, which takes effect July 1, includes $900 million for prison demolition and reconstruction, expected to be accomplished over the next three to five years. However, state Rep. CD Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville, argued that the scant details in the proposal would likely push back that timeline and put employees in a precarious position as they consider moving to the new prison.

“This is far from done,” Davidsmeyer, co-chairman of the House of Representatives, said during the 30-minute meeting in the Stratton Building. “If the department thinks they’re going to start construction in a year… I bet they don’t even have plans in a year.”

LaToya Hughes, acting director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, confirmed that the location and design of the facility still needed to be finalized during a public meeting in Lincoln the night before. She and the department are confident that Logan employees will be able to keep their jobs, stating that there will be 850 open positions within a 90-mile radius, including the neighboring men’s facility, Lincoln Correctional Center and Decatur Correctional Center.

Moving the prison closer to Chicago would also better serve the roughly 40% of Logan’s population from Cook and surrounding counties, she argued. Hughes said these women also generally serve longer sentences than fellow out-of-state prisoners.

“A newly built Logan facility closer to the area where these women with longer sentences lived will improve rehabilitation services and allow families, including children, to visit the women in custody in the community and prepare for the return of these women,” she told COGFA. on Thursday.

That doesn’t include the remaining 60% of the 1,081 inmates from outside the Chicago area, replied Mary Sexton, a mental health counselor at Wexford Health Services who works at the prison. Inmates receiving care have told her their families would not be able to travel to visit them in Will County, which she said could be devastating to their mental well-being.

“People come to me and say, ‘Mrs. Sexton, what do I do if I can’t see my family? They can’t travel seven hours to visit me,'” she said. “It’s hard as a mental health professional to work with that person and give them hope when you know it’s not there.”

Economic stability, not economic development

With Hughes and Sexton during the hour-long meeting at the Lincoln Jr. High School, hundreds of residents, prison staff and union members were present in the school gym. The message, which appeared on their green shirts as well as on signs throughout the city 30 miles northeast of Springfield, boiled down to: “Keep Logan CC in Logan County.”

Both those for and against the measure saw the need for the demolition of the prison that first opened in the 1870s, with former inmates describing an unsanitary facility in disrepair. In total, the prison has an estimated $130 million in deferred maintenance, according to Jared Brunk, a corrections officer, and that number is growing due to its aging infrastructure.

“This is a place no one should have to experience,” said Trina Whiteside, who was imprisoned in Logan for nine months in 2014, at the meeting. “The conditions in the facilities continually caused my trauma and feelings of hopelessness and despair.”

While some have argued that moving the new facility to Crest Hill next to Stateville would give inmates better access to higher education and mental health care, the overarching story is the economic hit Lincoln would take as a result. The city has already seen the closure of two private colleges and the loss of the prison, which employed more than 445, many said would only worsen conditions Thursday.

Pritzker has previously said it would be unwise to tie community economic development to the prison. And as he saw that vision, Sen. Don DeWitte, R-St. Charles, said the state needs to invest in this area, as it did in Rivian Automotive in Normal.

The prison represents economic stability for the community rather than economic development, he said.

“It’s people’s ability to keep their homes, raise their families and send their children to college,” DeWitte said.

Prison staff also indicated they want to stay in Lincoln rather than uproot their families and move to Will County. Such a move is out of the question for Marissa Hayes and her husband, who both work as corrections officers at the prison.

The couple has a daughter with a rare form of cancer receiving treatment in Peoria, while the husband is the primary caregiver for his grandfather who has brain cancer. Moving or deciding to travel up to 300 kilometers each way for work every day is unreasonable, Hughes said.

“For me, Logan is home,” she said. “My wife and I will be forced to choose between leaving family and friends behind and our financial well-being. That is a devastating choice to have to make.”

Contact Patrick M. Keck: [email protected], twitter.com/@pkeckreporter.