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Wednesday, April 19, 2006 11:55 am

IDOC’s white elephant

An Illinois town is held captive by a still-empty prison

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THOMSON, Ill. — The new signs at the north and south ends of Thomson give the town’s population as 600, but nobody remembers 50 people moving in since the last census. In this small Mississippi River community in northwest Illinois, they surely would have noticed. Dubbed by locals the “Melon Capital of the World,” Thomson is the quintessential small town, where everybody seems to know everybody else’s business. But there is one thing in Thomson no one knows or can explain: Why, after nearly five years, the state of Illinois hasn’t opened the nearby $143 million maximum-security prison. A few residents say they’ve heard that the prison is sinking into the soft, sandy soil on which it was built, but those rumors have no foundation, state officials say. The reason this new prison sits empty is simpler: Thanks to the state’s budget woes, the Illinois Department of Corrections hasn’t had the money to operate the Thomson Correctional Center. So the town of Thomson waits. Merrie Jo Enloe’s family moved to Thomson when she was a child, in the early 1950s, and she’s been the village president since 1983. Enloe says she stayed in Thomson because it’s a “quiet, peaceful community,” but the town has seen better days, and good jobs are hard to find. “Carroll County has had the third-largest unemployment rate of all the counties in the state of Illinois,” she says. “It’s been running that way now for the last five years.” Unless you’re a farmer, teacher, or otherwise self-employed, the best opportunities involve second-shift factory work grinding metal or packaging dog food in neighboring towns. These are considered good-paying jobs in Thomson, where the average household income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is $36,667. The prison was supposed to change all that, with more than 750 jobs. As Jack Hartwig, former warden of the empty prison, says, “Anytime you can bring that kind of an industry to a town that needs jobs, open arms is what you get as a welcome sign.” Former Gov. Jim Edgar put plans for the maximum-security prison in motion in the late 1990s. At the time he left office, a site hadn’t been selected, and several communities were in the hunt. “When they offered to put it here, it was something that I personally felt would be good for the area,” Enloe says. Not everyone was thrilled, despite the fact that the town would earn approximately a quarter-million dollars a year by hosting the prison — an amount that Enloe says is more than three times the town’s current operating budget. But when any major change is about to take place, there’s bound to be opposition. A few residents even sold their homes and left, Enloe says. These people didn’t like the looks of a prison, she says, and a few were “concerned about the criminal element that might follow the inmates themselves — that there might be more crime.”
The prison sits on property donated to the state by Galena, Ill.-based Alliant Energy. Donna French, former owner of the popular Watermelon Café, says her family used to own that land when she was growing up. At the time Alliant donated it, one of her brothers was renting it to grow watermelons. The power company purchased the land from her parents with the intention of putting a power plant there but found that the ground, which was riverbed before the Mississippi River shifted course, wasn’t stable enough, she says. If the ground could not hold a power company, many began to wonder, what made anyone think it would hold a prison? Mark Gerardot, project manager for the Illinois Capital Development Board, says that the sand was actually “a blessing” during construction. “The sand helped because there’s usually times when you get so much rain that it will stop work and everybody goes home for the day,” Gerardot says. “Up there, if it rained, they’d wait a half hour after it quit and they’d continue work. . . . The rain would just drain away.” Gerardot’s agency completed construction and turned over the prison to the Department of Corrections in May 2001. It remains the newest and most modern maximum-security facility in the state and one of the most expensive public works projects in state history, says Sergio Molina, IDOC spokesman. It’s easy to see why. The 146-acre complex comprises 15 buildings, including eight cell houses with 1,600 maximum-security cells. There’s also a 200-bed minimum-security unit that Gov. Rod Blagojevich wants to open this fall, contingent on funding from the General Assembly. A visit shows that the facility’s ready for inmates. The concrete floors are shiny, as though they’ve just been poured; the only sound is trickling water, left running to protect the expensive plumbing system. The control room looks like something from the Sci-Fi Channel, ready to take off at any given moment. Touch screens control lights, cell doors, and cameras. Even toilets can be shut down — that’ll stop prisoners from trying to flush away contraband during a shakedown. Of course, with 350 cameras on the premises, it’d be hard for them to hide anything in the first place. The kitchen is full of shining stainless-steel equipment, most still wrapped in the manufacturer’s packing; the offices are complete with new swivel chairs that reek of new plastic. Taxpayers pay nearly $2 million a year just to keep the lights and phones on at Thomson, according to a report released late last month by the state auditor general. “What most people don’t realize is that we’re ready to go,” says assistant chief engineer Dan Sutzmore, head of operations and facilities. “People think it’s just sitting out here completely empty, but everything’s ready to go — office supplies, kitchen equipment, and mattresses. All we need is food and people.” Because there’s little to look after, Sutzmore and assistant warden Vickie Wright are the only two state employees who work at the prison. A private company has a security guard stationed there to deal with trespassers. Every now and then, discarded beer cases are collected from the prison grounds. Hartwig, warden of the empty prison for its first three years until he took early retirement, says that his stint there was like “getting a large city ready to run — getting everything you need to manage that city without the people, because tomorrow they may be there.” Area residents who have waited for the prison to open have his sympathy, Hartwig says. “Having it built is like waving the candy in front of a kid for four years and saying, ‘You can’t eat it yet,’ ” Hartwig says. “Pretty soon, they’re gonna lose interest or they’re gonna get mad or they’re just gonna take it.”
As soon as ground was broken for the prison, residents began preparing to cash in. New businesses were built and old ones remodeled; homes were renovated, built, and put on the market. Thomson no longer was just a place where people lived because they liked to stare at the stars, listen to the corn rustle, or catch fish. Because of the prison, lawyer and longtime resident Lawrence Bruckner got into the hotel business. He opened the Thomson House Café and Lodge at a cost of $750,000, but business has been horrible, he says. “If I didn’t have it paid for, I would have gone bankrupt three years ago,” Bruckner says. “I mean, we do well in the summer because of the fishermen and people going to Galena, but six months out of the year it’s an utter disaster.” The Thomson House has been for sale since the day it opened — and that’s how Bruckner planned it. “Once they got the bond authorization, I said, ‘It’s a done deal’ — never thinking that they would build it and then not open it,” he says. Bruckner was so angry, he ran for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, making opening the prison the focus of his campaign. He came in fourth in a field of four in last month’s primary election. Other residents share Bruckner’s frustrations and disappointment. French, who sank nearly $70,000 into the relocation of her Watermelon Café to larger quarters, struggled for three years before recently selling her business. “At first, business was absolutely excellent,” she says, “but it just died down — just like everything else in our town.” Wayne James may have the saddest story. When James, longtime owner of a local auto-repair shop, heard that the prison was coming, he invested his entire life savings in a new gas station. After four years and a staggering $850,000 in debt, James had to seek bankruptcy protection. Today he works the second shift at a factory near Thomson. “It’s such a shame,” French says of James’ loss. “He did everything he possibly could to keep it going.”
Since 2001, Thomson residents have made numerous trips to Springfield, hoping to get state government to open their prison. They’ve managed to secure grants to pay for their new water tower. This year, there’s a glimmer of hope: The Blagojevich administration wants to open the minimum-security portion of the prison, but that’s only a small part of the facility. If lawmakers move quickly on the governor’s request, the minimum-security portion could be operating by September, says Derek Schnapp, an IDOC spokesman. The department needs about $1.2 million to begin hiring and training staff and another $6.5 million for operations in fiscal year 2007, he says. What about the maximum-security part? “That’s not even been discussed,” Schnapp says. Hartwig, the former warden, says that the town shouldn’t give up hope. “They certainly have no intention of building a $140 million capital asset and letting it sit empty forever. It will work. It will be safe. It will be a good neighbor.”
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