Pontiac

This 2005 file photo shows the Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac, Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn said Thursday that he has decided to keep the prison open in a move aimed at preserving more than 500 jobs at one of the area's largest employers. If the site was closed, it was expected the operation would move to the Thomson, Ill. facility. Quinn cited jobs as the main motivation behind his decision to reverse ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich's plan to close the 137-year-old prison.

The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

CHAMPAIGN Ill. — When Stephanie DeLong and her neighbors learned last May that then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich wanted to shut the prison in her home city of Pontiac, they did everything they could think of to save the source of more than 500 jobs.

They rallied at the state Capitol, wrote letters to any official they thought could help and stuck signs in just about every yard in town.

DeLong, who owns DeLong’s Casual Dining in Pontiac along with her husband Kevin, was elated at Gov. Pat Quinn’s announcement Thursday that he plans to keep the Pontiac Correctional Center open.

“My cell phone was ringing nonstop, the store phone was ringing nonstop,” she said. “It was a lot of hugs and high-fives and thumbs up.”

But DeLong said none of their efforts would have mattered if Blagojevich hadn’t been led out of his Chicago home last December in handcuffs.

“Honestly, if it wasn’t for the governor’s arrest, I think it wouldn’t have happened,” said DeLong, whose husband was a guard at Pontiac until he transferred to another prison late last year.

The plan to shut down the 137-year-old prison, ship its maximum security inmates to a little-used lockup in western Illinois and do away with 570 jobs in town was Blagojevich’s, a move he said would save the state $4 million a year.

And while there were celebrations Thursday in Pontiac, there was also a nod to the reality that the plan changed lives, some irrevocably.

Some prison workers, like Kevin DeLong, transferred to other lockups, and a few sold houses and moved. Mayor Scott McCoy was happy enough to dance in the street Thursday, but says he isn’t running for re-election because the time-draining push to save the city left his software development company in bad shape.

“It’s killed my business,” he said. “I went from having a very strong business to I’m doing everything I can now to keep my nose above water.”

Quinn said he made his decision in large part to save jobs.

“Keeping Pontiac Correctional Center open will ensure nearly 600 people in the region keep their jobs, prevent hundreds of families from being uprooted and allow Pontiac to maintain one of its largest sources of revenue,” the governor said in a statement.

The Department of Corrections says 505 people work at Pontiac, down from 570 last May through retirements, transfers and other forms of attrition, said spokesman Derek Schnapp. The prison has about 1,100 maximum security inmates, down from about 1,500.

Blagojevich had planned to move many of the prison’s inmates to Thomson to save money as the state wrestles with a state budget deficit that now is at least $9 billion.

Lawmakers, McCoy and others from the Pontiac area, though, believed Blagojevich, a Democrat, used the decision to punish them for opposing his policies.

Blagojevich first targeted Stateville prison in Joliet for closure. He changed his mind after a Democratic state senator from Joliet voted “present” on a move to put a recall measure aimed at the governor on a 2007 ballot. GOP lawmakers that represent Pontiac supported the measure.

Blagojevich’s arrest on corruption charges, followed by his January removal from office and Quinn’s swearing in, changed the course of events.

Quinn talked almost immediately about reviewing Blagojevich’s plan.

The story generated attention around the state and beyond. People like Stephanie DeLong grew accustomed to talking to reporters.

Afraid he was about to lose his job, her husband transferred to another prison late last year. The couple, who have five kids, struggled to adjust to a new life that included night shifts and a commute.

“It’s made it extremely difficult with the five children and the business for him to be gone nights,” Stephanie DeLong said, adding her husband is waiting to hear whether he can go back to the Pontiac prison.

The wait to learn the prison’s fate also weighed on the town, she said. Business at the restaurant dropped off because people stopped spending what they didn’t have to, an effect that the fading national economy only compounded, she said.

Quinn’s decision to keep the prison in Pontiac open leaves other loose ends.

The state recently hired 208 guards to staff the Thomson prison. They are still on the payroll, working at prisons elsewhere in the state while the government spends up to $9,000 a week to house them, Schnapp said.

The Department of Corrections also transferred several hundred inmates out of Pontiac that the union representing prison workers said were placed in lower-security facilities not designed to accommodate them.

“We’d like to see the governor move immediately to ... reclassify and transfer inmates back to Pontiac, where they’re most safely incarcerated,” said American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees spokesman Anders Lindall.

In Thomson, a prison built in 2001 with 1,600 maximum security cells sits with only 139 minimum security inmates, Schnapp said.

Rutherford said he will push to open both prisons, given that the state’s lockups are at about 130 percent of their designed capacity.

The state can’t realistically afford to open both, said state Rep. Mike Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat whose district includes the Thomson prison. Closing either the Pontiac prison or the prison in Joliet makes far more sense than keeping Thomson all but idle, he said.

“Somebody has to make some tough decisions in Illinois, and unfortunately Gov. Quinn doesn’t appear to be able to make those decisions,” he said.