There are many ways to consider inmates housed at Pontiac Correctional Center. They are the number they are known by, as in A64349.
There are many ways to consider inmates housed at Pontiac Correctional Center.
They are the number they are known by, as in A64349.
They are men, 1,606 of them as of Aug. 31, 2008.
Their average age is 36.9 years old.
Their average prison sentence is 27.1 years.
Almost three-fourths of them have been in prison at least five years. Most of them have a lot longer to go.
Guards and the ad hoc committees trying desperately to keep the governor from closing Pontiac and moving most inmates to a newer, more modern, practically empty prison in northwestern Illinois say they are the "worst of the worst." But mostly, Pontiac inmates are dollar signs.
It is debatable that each and every Pontiac inmate is the worst of the worst. A 64-year-old sentenced to natural life for a $200 armed robbery under the state's old three-strikes law is probably much tamer now than when he went in some 30 years ago.
Whatever Pontiac inmates are, they are not worthless. In a state trying to cut a budget, they are one more expense. To be exact, each of them is a $32,744-a-year expense, or about $10,000 more than the state's average per-prisoner cost because it costs more to keep an inmate in maximum security. In a city like Pontiac, where the prison is the second-largest employer, they are a valuable product.
Since May, when the Blagojevich administration announced plans to close Pontiac, the city has been bargaining with the devil. And I don't mean the governor.
Lawmakers, local leaders and townspeople have waged a ferocious campaign to keep their prison. They have banged their fists and cried about the jobs that would be lost, the businesses that would be hurt, the city revenues that would dive. They have embraced a lawsuit to stop the shutdown and cheered when a state commission agreed the prison should remain open.
And Blagojevich has been roundly criticized for broaching a plan that smells of political retaliation to a group of lawmakers who did not vote his way. In this go-round, Pontiac became the target after the governor suddenly reversed a plan to close Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet. The prisons that end up in the governor's crosshairs do tend to follow a pattern. Vote his way and a prison stays, vote against him and watch out.
But the rallies, letter-writing campaigns and huge turnouts at public meetings are political maneuvers as well, designed to pressure the governor into changing his mind. But much of this ignores what should be a central theme in a debate about closing prisons. Joseph Hallinan put it best in his book "Going Up River, Travels in a Prison Nation."
"Having failed to make prisons effective," he wrote, "we have learned to make them profitable."
What incarceration has come to mean in the 21st century is rooted in the political calculations of the past three decades. Decisions on where to build new prisons, who to put in them and which crimes merit lengthy sentences have helped produce the complicated consequences playing out in Pontiac. No matter who is governor or which prisons close, the state is obligated to come up with cost-effective means to house all the prisoners the politicians promise to incarcerate.
Eventually, this will not bode well for cities like Pontiac with ancient, outdated facilities. If nothing else, reports on the economic impact of closing the prison make it clear Pontiac has to get serious about diversifying its economy.
Men who could barely get a job in Cook County, where almost 60 percent of them are from, are worth almost 600 jobs in the Pontiac area. Men rarely referred to as anything remotely resembling contributing members of society account for more than $45 million in revenues in the four counties surrounding the prison.
As of Aug. 31, just two of Pontiac's 1,606 inmates were from Livingston County, where Pontiac is located. The rest of them may be more valuable to Pontiac than they were to their home counties.
Pam Adams can be reached at email@example.com.