Dwight Residents Await Prison’s Uncertain Fate
By Jeff Bossert
Lawsuits by prison employees have prompted the state of Illinois to hold off on the closure of any such facilities, at least through August.
But there’s no telling what could happen later in cities like Dwight, home to the state’s only all-female prison.
The battle between the employees’ union and Gov. Pat Quinn leaves the lives of many on hold – including prison guards, businesses backed by the prison, and the community itself. The 4,000 residents of Dwight wonder what the future holds for their town, and their livelihood.
Jim and Betty Donovan volunteer each week at the Dwight Information Center. The former gas station on Old Route 66 is a tourist attraction, complete with the old Texaco pumps, a model-T Ford fire truck, 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," he said. "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 R.R. Donnelley and Sons. Besides the prison, the phone book 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," he said. "Both the prison and Donnelley’s – both would really be bad.”
Many of the 343 prison guards and other staff from the Dwight Correctional Center live in town, or nearby. AFSCME Local 1133 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," he said. "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. Some workers have job transfers to other prisons in place, but Dunlap says he’ll stay in town, and fight for the prison’s survival.
“I did not take an open position," he said. "I didn’t want to take a spot away from a younger guy who has a family, and didn’t want to push him out.”
Lance Leeds is a Methodist pastor in Dwight. He’s new to the community, though he has counseled prison workers before - near two facilities in Southern Illinois. Leeds understands the stress such employees go through.
“There’s a daily fear of, ‘I might not come home," he said. "And I think there’s a certain amount of uncertainty as far as what they’ll be getting into at the new assignments.”
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, and members of a legislative panel voted against the move. 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,' said Paula Holsten, who's nearing retirement from Fox Developmental Center, a state facility that serves more than 100 residents with developmental disabilities who have severe medical or behavioral needs.
Holsten and husband Roger are part of a steady lunch crowd at the Old Route 66 Family Restaurant in Dwight. 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," Holsten said. "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," he said. "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," said Pete Meister, co-owner of Station 343, a new steakhouse and pasta restaurant in downtown Dwight.
Meister still looks at the location as a plus. He and wife Joy, both area natives, just opened the restaurant in refurbished 130-year old building. Pete will 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, and they’ve talked highly about it," he said. "And I think they’ll come back.”
A local realtor says the looming threat of a prison closure hasn’t caused any panic selling of homes, and the market isn’t any worse than it is elsewhere.
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," he said. "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, AFSCME Local 1133 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," he said.
That willfulness might be just what Dwight needs as the village faces up to an uncertain future.