August 27, 2012

Dwight Residents Await Prison's Uncertain Fate

Lawsuits by prison employees have prompted the state of Illinois to hold off on the closure of any such facilities, at least through August.

But there’s no telling what could happen later in cities like Dwight, home to the state’s only all-female prison.   

The battle between the employees’ union and Gov. Pat Quinn leaves the lives of many on hold – including prison guards, businesses backed by the prison, and the community itself.  The 4,000 residents of Dwight wonder what the future holds for their town, and their livelihood.

Jim and Betty Donovan volunteer each week at the Dwight Information Center.  The former gas station on Old Route 66 is a tourist attraction, complete with the old Texaco pumps, a model-T Ford fire truck, and a guestbook to sign.

Jim says many of those who come through know the famed highway from old movies and the famous song.  That includes a couple from Italy that came through on this Friday morning. 

Donovan remembers a day when the highway was a main artery for traffic, and the site was a 24-hour gas station.

“My dad was on third shift when he started here in about 1947," he said.  "And then when they built the other road they cut the third shift off, because traffic wasn’t as heavy.  And they just went down to two shifts after that.  He worked the second shift up until he passed away in ’57.”

Donovan is a native of Dwight, and a retired meat cutter.  His son works for R.R. Donnelley and Sons.  Besides the prison, the phone book publisher is the other major employer in town.  

But in a time of cell phones and few phone booths, Jim says there have been gradual layoffs at Donnelley, and speculates things could get worse.

“The whole place, if it shuts down – is really going to devastate the town," he said.  "Both the prison and Donnelley’s – both would really be bad.”

Many of the 343 prison guards and other staff from the Dwight Correctional Center live in town, or nearby.  AFSCME Local 1133 president and correctional officer Dan Dunlap says Governor Pat Quinn’s February announcement that he would shutter the prison was the first time the facility had even been threatened with seeing its doors close.  

"That’s one of those things that I don’t think anybody could ever really be prepared for," he said.  "It’s surreal, the amount of stuff you have to do to get everybody motivated, get everybody on the same page.”

Dunlap is happy the union’s legal efforts have extended the hold on prisoner transfers – and holds out hope Quinn’s efforts are reversed.  Some workers have job transfers to other prisons in place, but Dunlap says he’ll stay in town, and fight for the prison’s survival.

“I did not take an open position," he said.  "I didn’t want to take a spot away from a younger guy who has a family, and didn’t want to push him out.”

Lance Leeds is a Methodist pastor in Dwight.  He’s new to the community,  though he has counseled prison workers before - near two facilities in Southern Illinois.  Leeds understands the stress such employees go through.

“There’s a daily fear of, ‘I might not come home," he said.  "And I think there’s a certain amount of uncertainty as far as what they’ll be getting into at the new assignments.”

Livingston County is heavily Republican, and it certainly doesn’t help that Democratic Governor Pat Quinn sought to close Dwight Correctional Center even after lawmakers set aside funding for it, and members of a legislative panel voted against the move.  But the prison isn’t the only state-run facility in town.

“If you walk into Fox Center, you will see a home atmosphere, it’s not an institution,' said Paula Holsten, who's nearing retirement from Fox Developmental Center, a state facility that serves more than 100 residents with developmental disabilities who have severe medical or behavioral needs.

Holsten and husband Roger are part of a steady lunch crowd at the Old Route 66 Family Restaurant in Dwight.  There have never been specific plans for closing Fox, but Paula says there are always rumors. 

And having cared for their residents for years, she thinks not only of what correctional workers are going through, but what inmates and nearby family members are thinking.

“It’s supposed to be a correctional center," Holsten said.  "And how would corrections deal with families who are really upset that their loved one is that far away?”

Alex McWilliams’ family has been in Dwight for four generations, running a farm management company.  He notes the town was already facing difficult fiscal challenges.

“We’ve lost some stores downtown – which has not helped our economy at all," he said.  "People seem to want to go out of town to buy, when they do that, the sales tax dollars go out of town with them.”

McWilliams is involved with Dwight Main Street, which uses state expertise to revitalize downtown.  But he says it seems that for every step forward, the program becomes mired in Illinois’ political red tape.

If the prison does close, the city’s newest downtown business owners could be dealt a bad break, but they still hope to become a catalyst for that sagging local economy.

“I think this town, with Route 47, and Interstate 55 coming here, that’s huge.  It’s  a destination point," said Pete Meister, co-owner of Station 343, a new steakhouse and pasta restaurant in downtown Dwight.

Meister still looks at the location as a plus.  He and wife Joy, both area natives, just opened the restaurant in refurbished 130-year old building.  Pete will only say they spent ‘a lot’ to fulfill a lifelong dream.

“I mean there’s already people coming from Chicago that’s been here, Peoria, St. Louis, and they’ve talked highly about it," he said. "And I think they’ll come back.”

A local realtor says the looming threat of a prison closure hasn’t caused any panic selling of homes, and the market isn’t any worse than it is elsewhere.

Dwight Chamber of Commerce President Bob Ohlendorf says there’s a resiliency in town – one that shone through when a 2010 tornado caused significant damage. 

“People stepped up to the plate and got that fixed rather fast," he said.  "I think there will still be – people will work harder about bringing in other businesses and things like that.  But it’s going to be hard to cover that income level.  Most people don’t start out at a level that state employees do.”

And one of those state employees, AFSCME Local 1133 president and corrections officer Dan Dunlap isn’t about to give in, even if the correctional center does close.

“My current plan is if this does happen, that I’ll remain here, and lobby to get the prison reopened until it’s reopened, and I’ll go back to work," he said.

That willfulness might be just what Dwight needs as the village faces up to an uncertain future.


August 27, 2012

Prison Officials Drop August 31 as Shutdown Date

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has officially abandoned his hope of shutting down prisons by Friday.

A letter from the Corrections Department instructs employees at targeted prisons to keep reporting to work. In it, Director S.A. "Tony'' Godinez announces a "temporary delay for the layoffs and closures'' that were scheduled for Aug. 31.

The letter was obtained today by The Associated Press.

Quinn wanted to empty the Tamms supermax prison and the women's prison at Dwight to save money.

Despite being granted another extension, State Senator Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) says the damage has already been done.

"Workers and residents of Dwight and Livingston County still face an uncertain future," said Cultra in a statement.  "We will continue to work throughout the fall and into the Veto Session for a desirable solution that will hopefully keep Dwight Correctional Center open.”

But the prison workers' union filed a lawsuit. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees claims Corrections must negotiate conditions, particularly on handling the Tamms population.

Union spokesman Anders Lindall said arbitration hearings will take place daily this week.

August 21, 2012

Chief Judge: Cook Co. Readying for Court Cameras

Cook County's chief judge says his court system should be ready to introduce cameras in courtrooms by the end of the year, although Illinois Supreme Court officials say there's no specific timetable for putting them in place.

Judge Timothy Evans spoke to Chicago-area media Tuesday about a Supreme Court pilot project that's allowing cameras in Illinois courts for the first time.

Evans says the high court has deferred Cook County's application while officials watch how the experiment plays out in 13 other counties. He says Cook County can learn from the smaller counties' experiences.

Supreme Court spokesman Joseph Tybor says the court will review DuPage County's application for cameras next and that Kane County has also indicated it will apply.

August 21, 2012

Champaign Man Gets 50 Years in Prison

A judge in east-central Illinois has sentenced a 22-year-old Champaign man to 50 years in prison for his attack on a neighbor.

Judge Tom Difanis called Dominique Alexander-Smith's actions ``a brutal and senseless attack'' before sentencing him to 20 years for home invasion and 30 years for aggravated criminal sexual assault. The sentences will be served consecutively.

<a href="">The (Champaign) News-Gazette eports</a> that Alexander-Smith spoke in court to the victim and to his family before being sentenced. He acknowledged making ``some bad decisions in life'' and apologized.

Authorities say Alexander-Smith attacked a 26-year-old pregnant woman in her apartment while armed with a knife, robbing her of a debit card and assaulting her repeatedly.

He pleaded guilty to the two felony counts in June.

August 15, 2012

Man Charged in Logan County Deaths Claims Self-Defense

One of the two men charged with murder in the 2009 deaths of a central Illinois family now claims he killed one of the victims in self-defense. 

The Pantagraph newspaper in Bloomington reports ( ) that lawyers for Chris Harris of Armington filed documents Wednesday in Logan County Circuit Court claiming Harris was justified in using force against 14-year-old Dillen Constant. Harris attorney Daniel Fultz declined to comment on the reasons behind the claim.

Constant and two of his siblings were found bludgeoned to death in their home in Beason along with their parents, Rick and Ruth Gee. Beason is about 35 miles northeast of Springfield.

Harris and his brother, Jason Harris, are both charged with murder in the killings. Chris Harris is a former in-law of the Gees.

August 10, 2012

Former Inmates Not Surprised Quinn Keeping Reporters Out of Prisons

Inmates recently released from prisons in Illinois say they're not surprised that Gov. Pat Quinn won't let reporters in to see conditions.

Chris Clingingsmith just completed seven years behind bars for driving drunk. He lost his wife, his house, his cars and his motorbike, but he’s glad he got caught when he did because he would have been in a much worse situation than he’s in now if he had stayed on the streets and hurt someone.

He said prison isn't supposed to be fun, but the Vandalia prison doesn’t meet even basic standards. He said he wouldn't even house a dog in the kind of conditions men are enduring in basements at the minimum security institution.

Chicago Public Radio has been asking to visit the prison for several months, but Gov. Pat Quinn has said no.

“They don't want you to see firsthand what we're telling you,” Clingingsmith said. “I have no reason to lie.  I'm not in there anymore so they can't do anything to me.  If you walked in there, I'm not going to exaggerate, you would probably just go wow, they actually house people in these areas.  You would be amazed.  You would think that's above and beyond punishment.”

Clingingsmith said a lot of the men housed at Vandalia are getting very mad. Clingingsmith said the lawmakers who oversee the prisons need to get to Vandalia so they know what’s going on.

Gov. Quinn said he wants to look into the conditions at some of Illinois' minimum-security prisons. A watchdog group and former inmates have reported deplorable conditions at the prisons in Vienna and Vandalia.

Those reports indicate some areas were overrun with rats and roaches, and men slept in rooms that flooded every time it rained. But despite repeated requests, Quinn says he won’t let reporters in to see the conditions firsthand.

"Yeah, well I don't believe in that. I think that it's important that -- when it comes to our security of our prisons, I go with the correctional office -- the director that I have at the Department of Corrections. Security comes first and it isn't a country club," Quinn said.

Quinn said he will look into the conditions, and would only say if reforms are needed. He wants to be sure they're done "properly."

Quinn is currently working on closing some prisons, but the union representing workers opposes those closures, saying overcrowding will get worse.

Illinois spends more than a billion dollars a year on prisons.

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