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Dixon native becomes new prison warden

DIXON – There’s a new warden at Dixon Correctional Center, and she aims to provide more mental health resources for staff and inmates.

Sonja Nicklaus started work as the new warden Jan. 16, replacing John Varga, who transferred to the East Moline Correctional Center.

The 51-year-old Dixon native started in corrections in 1997 at the Peoria work release center, became business administrator for the Dixon prison in 1999, and was named an assistant warden in 2016.

As business manager, she oversaw a $70 million budget as well as accounting, payroll and human resources.

“It laid a good foundation for me to be in this role,” Nicklaus said. “There were a lot of different aspects, and I got to know a lot of the facility.”

“I enjoy the challenge of it,” she said of working in corrections for the past 2 decades.

The prison has 2,214 inmates, and 1,050 have mental health issues. Of those 1,050, about 750 are seriously mentally ill.

“We have by far the most mentally ill offenders in a prison setting,” she said.

It’s important that inmates have access to programming and develop a skillset to function outside of prison, Nicklaus said.

“I just want to give them the skills necessary to be productive citizens and not return.”

It can be draining on staff dealing with that population, and there’s an emphasis on providing them with resources to take care of their own mental health.

Recently being piloted at the facility are wellness fairs for employees, focusing on different health aspects and stress management.

There’s about 680 state employees, and 529 of them are security personnel. There’s also more than 100 contractual medical staff.

It’s the staff that keep everyone safe and everything flowing at the prison, which sits on 462 acres, she said.

“It takes all of us to make this place tick; one person doesn’t run this facility,” she said. “I have such a good supporting cast.”

Nicklaus also is involved with the Dixon Family YMCA and was on its board for 9 years including serving as president. She’s also a member of St. Anne’s Parish.

In her free time, she likes to play golf and spend time with friends and family.

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