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Reeder: Thomson prison a classic political boondoggle

Published: Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – The empty Thomson Correctional Center, which has been the bane of three governors, now stands as a silent and costly monument to failed planning, failed motives and failed politics.

The sprawling maximum-security prison cost Illinois taxpayers $145 million to build and remains one of the most expensive construction projects ever undertaken by the state. It’s a debacle I helped uncover 11 years ago. Back then, I noticed people hadn’t been hired to work in the new prison, which I thought was weird. After all, it was the crown jewel of a plan to expand the state’s prison system.

The main problem with that plan was nobody stopped to see if the state had the money to actually hire people to work in it.

In depressed rural communities such as Thomson, folks waited for the creation of a large stable employer in their midst. But the jobs didn’t come.

In 2001, when I began asking why guards hadn’t been hired or prisoners transferred to the facility, officials at the Illinois Department of Corrections became defensive.

I received an anxious phone call from then-DOC director Donald Snyder.

“Scott, the prison isn’t done yet,” he said. “That’s why there aren’t any inmates there.”

Sensing a bit of skepticism on my part, he invited me to fly to the prison with him. Upon arriving at the prison, we toured the complex. Everything not only looked completed but appeared to be state-of-the-art.

A frustrated Snyder could see the facts weren’t lining up with his narrative. So he took me into the gymnasium and pointed to a roll of carpet that wasn’t glued down yet.

“See, the prison isn’t done yet,” he said.

The real reason was the state didn’t have the money to hire guards and other workers. For the next decade, the empty prison became a political hot potato.

Rod Blagojevich vowed, if elected, he would open the prison. But the prison stood empty year after year. When he was up for re-election, he briefly transferred a handful of minimum security prisoners to Thomson to “fulfill” his campaign promise of “opening” the prison. That didn’t last for long.

So what does a state do when it has planned poorly, borrowed excessively and refused to make tough decisions? It looks for a federal bailout.

This month, the Feds cut a check for $165 million, making the Thomson penitentiary part of the federal bureau of prisons. But there still are lessons to be learned.

“It was a boondoggle from the start,” said state Rep. Rich Morthland, R-Cordova. “Why didn’t anyone ask if we had the money to staff it when it was built? That would seem to me to be a pretty obvious question to be asking.”

But it is a question rarely asked these days when politicians call for building more state projects. That leaves one to wonder: How many Thomsons are in our future?

• Scott Reeder is a veteran Illinois statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.

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