MURPHYSBORO — Saying the state of Illinois needed to do something better for its newly-released prisoners while keeping the community safer, Gov. Bruce Rauner announced that he is closing a controversial part of the Stateville Correctional Facility and reopening and repurposing the Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro.

The governor, along with Illinois Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville; Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro; Illinois Department of Corrections Director John Baldwin; Murphysboro Mayor Will Stephens; former Mayor Chris Grissom and other IDOC representatives, toured the facility, walking through its kitchen area, gym, classrooms, meeting rooms, workshop and out to its greenhouse area and through some of the pods — the facility's dorm space — where about a dozen white sinks line the wall.

The new center, a minimum security facility, will prepare offenders for a successful transition out of the corrections system through educational, vocational and life skills training, Rauner said.

Baldwin said the state has a 47.1 percent rate of recidivism, people who re-offend within three years of leaving incarceration.

“Illinois’ recidivism rate is appalling,” he said. “Almost half the people who serve time in Illinois’ Department of Corrections comes back to us. That’s fundamentally wrong. We are almost the last state in America to try to improve our recidivism rate. We are going to do more than try — we are going to decrease that dramatically. Why? We need fewer victims, we need fewer victims in this state.

“Secondly, the people who leave here deserve a second chance,” Baldwin said. “They have served their time, they have served their sentence. They need a viable second chance. It’s the state’s responsibility to give them that second chance.”

He said it as was the state’s “duty” to rehabilitate the state’s prisoners.

Rauner agreed, saying something needed to be done to give much-needed skills to those offenders returning to the community.

“We can keep our communities safe ... if we can give them skills,” Rauner said. “We’ve got to stop the revolving door.”

This facility — expected to open in six months — will house about 300 prisoners on the verge of re-entering the community and employ about 120 people, Rauner said. It will be managed under the Pinckneyville facility, which is managed by Warden Jacqueline Lashbrook, who was also at Friday’s news conference.

It was built in 1997 and closed in 2011.

“This facility should never have been closed,” Rauner said, to a spattering of applause from some of those assembled. “We’ve got budget trouble, but we have to make sure our facilities are run well.”

He said this site was chosen over the Hardin County Work Camp, which Democratic Sen. Gary Forby and Rep. Brandon Phelps called for reopening a few months ago, because this one was much better maintained.  The Hardin County site, he said, would cost too much money to repurpose.

At the news conference, the governor did not specifically say where the money would come from to finance the project. Rauner’s press secretary said later that it would cost $800,000 to reopen and repurpose the facility.

The news was big to some Murphysboro residents, like Mayor Will Stephens and City Alderwoman Gloria Campos and a former mayor, Chris Grissom.

While Murphysboro won’t gain any revenue from property taxes on the facility, because it is government entity, it can stand to gain from a possible influx of people.

Stephens said the facility’s opening would mean new home sales for those employees who decide to live in Murphysboro. He also said the city could benefit from new residents taking their families out to eat, and from more people coming into the city to visit relatives in the facility and staying in the hotel that is planned to be built at the intersection of Illinois 13 and Illinois 127.

“It’s just extremely positive for the community,” Stephens said.

'Questionable' timing of news

Weeks shy of the election, some reacted with hedged support.

In a statement released after Rauner's news conference, Marsha Griffin, a Democrat running for the 115th District seat held by Bryant, said she would be mindful that this announcement did not become another broken promise from the government. She said she also found the announcement, made 25 days before the election, “questionable.”

“While I am hopeful that the reopening of IYC Murphysboro will bring back jobs to the area, I am concerned that this will be another broken promise made during election season from politicians in Springfield,” Griffin said in the statement. “With no funds currently appropriated for this facility and the state having gone two full years without a full budget, I am skeptical of a long-term commitment from the politicians in Springfield.

“The timing of the announcement of the opening of the facility, just 25 days from the election, is questionable. While I wholeheartedly support the reopening of the facility, I wonder why it wasn’t repurposed months ago. Our communities and families are hurting here in Southern Illinois. We need jobs now and can’t afford to be caught up in the political games and posturing of the Springfield politicians who will do anything to get reelected. I am fearful that this will be another election year promise made by Springfield politicians that is announced with much fanfare and immediately forgotten after Nov. 8.”

This past November, Bryant held her own news conference outside the Illinois Youth Camp, calling for it to be reopened and repurposed as an adult work camp. After Friday's news conference, she said plans were in the works even before then to reopen the facility.

Rauner announced his decision publicly in an Op-Ed that ran in Friday's Chicago Sun-Times. In that, he also announced the closing of the Stateville Correctional Center’s F House, which he said was one of the state’s oldest and most costly prison housing units. IDOC spokeswoman Nicole Wilson said offenders housed in the F House will be reassigned to open beds at Stateville and other IDOC facilities.

"We must reform our broken criminal justice system to balance punishment with rehabilitation to reduce crime overall, safely reduce our prison population, reduce recidivism, and help those who have paid for their crime find a positive path in life after serving their time," Rauner wrote in the Op-Ed.

"A critical piece to our reform efforts is to help offenders gain valuable skills that will enable them to re-enter society as productive citizens," he wrote. "With that goal in mind, the Department of Corrections will reopen Murphysboro as a Life Skills and Re-Entry Facility, which is a minimum security facility with a focus on preparing offenders for a successful transition back into society through educational, vocational, and life skills training.

"By closing F House and repurposing Murphysboro, Illinois is taking another important step to reform our criminal justice system," he wrote.

stephanie.esters@thesouthern.com

618-351-5805

On Twitter: @scribeest

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Stephanie Esters is a reporter covering Jackson and Union counties.

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