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SPRINGFIELD — An unused state prison in northwestern Illinois could see its first inmates next fall under a plan to be detailed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich Wednesday.

The governor, in his budget speech, is expected to call for the hiring of 75 employees to oversee an estimated 200 minimum-security inmates who will be moved into the now-empty prison in Thomson.

Those prisoners would begin the process of readying the facility for the 1,600 maximum-security prisoners it was intended to house when it was completed in 2001.

It’s a significantly downscaled plan for the prison, which was pitched to local officials in the late 1990s as an economic engine that would create 700 jobs and many spin-off businesses.

"This is just the first step," Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch told Lee News Service on Monday.

The prison was envisioned as a way to ease overcrowding at the state’s existing maximum-security lock-ups. But, the $140 million facility was never opened because of state budget constraints.

Blagojevich’s phased-in opening is estimated to cost $7.7 million over the next year.

Local officials greeted the governor’s latest plan with skepticism Monday.

"Seeing is believing. It’s en election year. A lot of people are out there promising a lot of things," said Carroll County Board Chairwoman Sharon Hook of Thomson. "Excuse us for being a little snide up here, but we’ve heard all of this before."

Hook, however, acknowledged Monday that even getting 10 percent of the original 700 positions would help the region.

"Seriously, we are grateful," said Hook. "Anything is a help up here."

The governor has expressed interest in opening the prison, but he has said the state couldn’t afford to unless it closed an existing prison. He was blocked in 2004 when he announced he would shutter the aging maximum-security lock-up in Pontiac as a way to free up cash for Thomson.

Rausch said Blagojevich has no plan to close any other prisons in Illinois as a way to secure money for Thom-son.

Republican lawmakers have rapped the Chicago Democrat for not getting the state-of-the-art facility open. State Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, who represents the area around Pontiac, said he was pleased to hear Thomson soon might be operating, even if in a limited capacity.

"We have to relieve the overcrowding pressure on the other correctional facilities in Illinois," said Rutherford, who fought the governor’s proposed closing of the Pontiac prison. "I hope the governor’s announcement is just the first part of an overall plan."

The governor will ask lawmakers to approve an additional $1.2 million in spending this fiscal year to begin hir-ing guards and other workers. He will ask the General Assembly to approve the remaining $6.5 million in the next budget year that begins July 1.

Inmates could begin moving into the prison in September.

Because the prison has sat vacant for five years, Rausch said the minimum-security prisoners could be used to prepare it for its original purpose of housing some of the state’s most dangerous criminals.

There is no time frame for when maximum-security inmates would be moved into the prison, Rausch said. State officials have said it will cost about $50 million to operate the facility once it is full.


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