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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2005 11:25 am

And the band plays on

Patronage in state government? It’s business as usual.

Federal investigators are examining hiring practices at the Department of Corrections under Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Julie Wilkerson doesn’t like to toot her own horn. Less than two years ago, Wilkerson was earning slightly less than $40,000 a year as a band director and associate music professor at Rend Lake College, a two-year school near Carbondale. Today, she earns $65,000 a year as an assistant warden at Big Muddy River Correctional Center in Ina. Not bad, considering that Wilkerson had apparently never drawn a prison paycheck before the Department of Corrections hired her in the summer of 2004. Wilkerson isn’t eager to talk about her meteoric rise in the field of corrections. “It would be best to direct your inquiry to the office of communications,” Wilkerson answers when asked several times to comment on her hiring. If she got clearance to speak with a reporter from the central office, would she comment? “It would be best to direct your inquiry to the office of communications,” she repeats. After checking, Dede Short, corrections spokeswoman, says she found no evidence that Wilkerson had ever held a prison job before she became an assistant warden. What other experience or education does Wilkerson have that qualified her to become a top administrator in a prison filled with murderers, rapists, and other dangerous felons? “She worked with students at the college,” Short answers. “And she’s overseeing programs with inmates — she’s assistant warden of programs. She helps prepare them for eventual release.” According to the written job description for Wilkerson’s position, the assistant warden for programs is a supervisor who also “maintains and enforces disciplinary, safety, security and custodial measures.” Corrections in Illinois used to be a work-your-way-up profession. Not anymore. Wilkerson is one of several top prison administrators whose qualifications appear questionable and who were hired under Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Federal investigators have subpoenaed hiring records in corrections and two other state departments, transportation and child welfare. Several Democratic Party contributors and operatives, including a former auto-parts store manager and a farmer who also sold irrigation equipment, have been hired as assistant wardens since Blagojevich took office. At least eight prison wardens have contributed to Democratic campaigns. Two were hired by corrections after Blagojevich took office, and seven of the eight were named wardens under his administration. In Wilkerson’s case, she gave $1,500 to Secretary of State Jesse White, a Democrat, three months before she was hired by corrections. In 2002, she contributed $500 to White. Short says there is no quid pro quo at play with Wilkerson or any other prison administrator. “We hire people for their ability to do the job, not for their political affiliations,” Short says. She adds that assistant wardens are at-will employees who can be hired and fired without regard for seniority. Even with experienced administrators, prisons can be dangerous places where mistakes carry brutal consequences. Rank-and-file prison employees are concerned about who’s getting hired for top administrative posts. “We’ve recently witnessed the meltdown at FEMA when political hires replaced career professionals in that federal agency and the tragedy that occurred in New Orleans as a result of the inexperience of people who had been put in positions of power,” says Buddy Maupin, regional director for Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents corrections employees. “Without commenting on any one particular person’s qualifications, it’s our concern that we’re witnessing a similar set of issues arising in the Illinois Department of Corrections.”
Making matters worse, Maupin says, is a steep decline in the number of front-line correctional officers since 1998. At some prisons, the ratio of guards to inmates has dropped by as much as 45 percent, he says. The decline began under former Gov. George Ryan and has continued under Blagojevich, who, citing fiscal restraint, has refused to fill thousands of state jobs. “Without question, prisons are more dangerous today,” Maupin says.
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