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National Editorial & Columnists

Find new uses for shuttered prisons

Buildings are still good; make them productive

Livingston County Sheriff Marty Meredith has a neat idea that could become a model for the rest of the state.

Meredith is currently working with the state to re-purpose part of the recently closed Dwight Correctional Center into a facility to house out-of-county prisoners. Meredith says the idea has the support of leaders at the Illinois Department of Corrections, and the details are being worked out.

The Dwight prison, the state’s only maximum-security lockup for women, was closed earlier this year as part of a budget-cutting plan by Gov. Pat Quinn. Meredith’s plan won’t replace the economic impact of the prison, or the 300 jobs the community lost. But it helps.

Meredith wants to use one building at the prison – known as X-house because of its shape – to house as many as 300 prisoners. Those prisoners would come from the federal prison system, Cook County and other counties that might be interested. The project is expected to create about 40 jobs in the county, and it could generate as much as $1.5 million.

Meredith said he wants to keep the project on the fast track. “If we’re not doing it here in Livingston County … then someone else is going to do it,” he said.

Quinn also closed prisons and other state facilities in Tamms, Murphysboro, Decatur, Carbondale, and Jacksonville. His administration is in the process of closing a developmental center in Centralia. Officials said there are no plans in the works for re-purposing those other facilities.

This illustrates a problem with the state’s facilities plan. While it’s definitely a money saver to close prisons and other facilities, taxpayers still are on the hook for maintenance and upkeep on facilities that are closed. The state should develop a plan to convert those facilities to either public or private use as quickly as possible. Owning empty facilities is not a wise business decision.

That’s why Meredith and Livingston County should be applauded for pushing this plan. Hopefully, the county and state can move quickly with making this a reality.

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