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Thomson prison an example of state’s poor fiscal planning

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 that people hadn’t been hired to work in the new prison. I thought that was weird.

After all, it was the crown jewel of an ambitious plan to rapidly expand the state’s prison system.

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

That turned out to be a minor concern back when Gov. George Ryan was building these penitentiaries. Each time the construction of a new prison was announced, the governor was hailed as an economic savior by construction unions and local chambers of commerce alike.

Prisons were no longer about criminal justice. They were about economic development.

In depressed rural communities like 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. That’s why there aren’t any inmates there,” he said.

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 rather 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 hadn’t been glued down yet.

“See, the prison isn’t done yet,” he said. That was his excuse for why the $145 million prison hadn’t opened – carpet that hadn’t been glued down.

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.

It would seem an irony that three of the key players in this drama – Ryan, Snyder and Blagojevich – each ended up in prisons themselves.

Lawmakers kowtowed to pressure from the union representing prison workers and made sure that closing aging, obsolete penitentiaries and moving jobs and inmates to Thomson wasn’t even considered.

So the prison sat empty. And the taxpayers kept paying on the money borrowed to build it.

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 are still lessons to be learned from the 11-year saga.

“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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