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Dwight breathes sigh of relief over prison shutdown delay

Thu, 06 Sep 2012 06:53:40 CDT
By: IPR's Jeff Bossert

Dwight breathes sigh of relief over prison shutdown delay
The state of Illinois has to hold off on prison closures for now, but there's no telling what could happen later in cities like Dwight, home to state's only all-female prison.    The battle between the employees' union and Governor Pat Quinn leaves the lives of many on hold. The 4-thousand residents of Dwight wonder what the future holds for their town, and their livelihood. IPR's Jeff Bossert visited with some of the residents of a community in limbo:

   

Jim and Betty Donovan volunteer each week at the Dwight Information Center.

Located on Old Route 66 it's a tourist attraction complete with the old Texaco gas pumps, a model T Ford, and a guestbook to sign. Jim says many of those who come through know the famed highway from old movies and the famous song, that includes a couple from Italy that came through on this Friday morning.   Donovan remembers a day when the highway was a main artery for traffic, and the site was a 24-hour gas station

"My dad was on third shift when he started here in about 1947. And then when they built the other road they cut the third shift off, because traffic wasn't as heavy. And they just went down to two shifts after that. He worked the second shift up until he passed away in '57."

Donovan is a native of Dwight and a retired meat cutter. His son works for RR Donnelley and Sons. Besides the prison, the phonebook publisher is the other major employer in town.   But in a time of cell phones and few phone booths, Jim says there have been gradual layoffs at Donnelley and speculates things could get worse.

"The whole place, if it shuts down, is really going to devastate the town. Both the prison and Donnelley's, both would really be bad."

Many of the 343 prison guards and other staff from the facility live in town, or nearby. AFSCME Local 11-33 president and correctional officer Dan Dunlap says Governor Pat Quinn's February announcement that he would shutter the prison was the first time the facility had even been threatened with seeing its doors close.   

"That's one of those things that I don't think anybody could ever really be prepared for. It's surreal, the amount of stuff you have to do to get everybody motivated, get everybody on the same page."

Dunlap is happy the union's legal efforts have extended the hold on prisoner transfers and holds out hope Quinn's efforts are reversed.

Livingston County is heavily Republican and it certainly doesn't help that Democratic Governor Pat Quinn sought to close Dwight Correctional Center even after lawmakers set aside funding for it. But the prison isn't the only state run facility in town.

"If you walk into Fox Center, you will see a home atmosphere, it's not an institution."


Paula Holsten and husband Roger are part of a steady lunch crowd at the Old Route 66 Family Restaurant in Dwight. Paula works at Fox Developmental Center, a state facility that serves more than one hundred residents with developmental disabilities, who have severe medical or behavioral needs.   There have never been specific plans for closing Fox, but Paula says there are always rumors. And having cared for their residents for years she thinks not only of what correctional workers are going through, but what inmates and nearby family members are thinking:

"It's supposed to be a correctional center. And how would corrections deal with families who are really upset that their loved one is that far away?"

Alex McWilliams' family has been in Dwight for four generations, running a farm management company. He notes the town was already facing difficult fiscal challenges.

"We've lost some stores downtown, which has not helped our economy at all. People seem to want to go out of town to buy, when they do that, the sales tax dollars go out of town with them."

McWilliams is involved with Dwight Main Street, which uses state expertise to revitalize downtown. But he says it seems that for every step forward, the program becomes mired in Illinois' political red tape.

If the prison does close, the city's newest downtown business owners could be dealt a bad break, but they still hope to become a catalyst for that sagging local economy:

"I think this town, with Route 47, and Interstate 55 coming here, that's huge. It's a destination point."

Pete Meister still looks at the location as a plus. He and wife Joy, both area natives, just opened Station 343, a steak and pasta house in a refurbished 130-year old building. He'll only say they spent 'a lot' to fulfill a lifelong dream:

"I mean there's already people coming from Chicago that's been here, Peoria, St. Louis."

Dwight Chamber of Commerce President Bob Ohlendorf says there's a resiliency in town, one that shone through when a 2010 tornado caused significant damage:

"People stepped up to the plate and got that fixed rather fast. I think there will still be, people will work harder about bringing in other businesses and things like that. But it's going to be hard to cover that income level. Most people don't start out at a level that state employees do."

And one of those state employees, local AFSCME union president and corrections officer Dan Dunlap, isn't about to give in, even if the correctional center does close:

"My current plan is if this does happen, that I'll remain here, and lobby to get the prison reopened until it's reopened, and I'll go back to work."

That willfulness might be just what Dwight needs as the village faces up to an uncertain future.

   

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