Model Prisoners | Essay | Chicago Reader

Model Prisoners 

These Parts--Jobs, low taxes, state money: where would Sheridan, Illinois, be without convicts?

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The village of Sheridan, about a 70-mile drive west of the Loop, is a picturesque small town in a mostly rural area that prides itself on being a summer recreation destination, the gateway to the Fox River Dells. Freight trains still rumble through the village a block north of the main street, and from the main crossing you can spot the library, the school, the grocery store, three taverns, and two flashing stoplights--one for each gas station. But you can't see the Sheridan Correctional Center. And if you don't see the prison you don't really see Sheridan.

In January 2002 Governor George Ryan closed the prison to save nearly $19 million a year. In April of this year, Governor Rod Blagojevich said he planned to spend nearly $24 million reopening it and turning it into a model prison and drug-treatment center for men. The news has the town abuzz with hope.

The squat cluster of buildings wrapped in security fencing and barbed wire just a mile south of Sheridan has long been the community's economic engine. Built in 1941 as a juvenile facility, it operated as the Illinois State Reformatory at Sheridan until the mid-50s, when it became the Illinois Industrial School for Boys. In 1973 the Illinois Department of Corrections converted it to a medium-security facility for men, which is what it was when it closed last year.

Until the late 80s the prison was outside the village limits, but just before the 1990 census the village annexed it and a swath of the land in between. This boosted tax revenues from the state, which are allocated based on the every-ten-years head count. The 1980 census listed the village's population at 719. The 1990 census listed it at 1,288, the 2000 census at 2,411, of whom some 1,500 were prisoners.

The state pays Sheridan its annual share of the motor-fuel tax and state income tax based on its population. Al Rucker, the mayor in 1990 and now a village trustee, says that each resident is currently good for about $97 a year, though he adds that the rate has been as much as $120 per "man, woman, child, or prisoner" in years past. This makes the approximate value of the prison population to Sheridan $145,500, or 38 percent of the total village budget.

Of course none of the prisoners who were counted in the 2000 census is locked up in Sheridan anymore. But they'll all be part of the state's calculations until the next census, in 2010.

The state revenues allow Sheridan to keep its property taxes low. Only one other incorporated area within LaSalle County has a lower property tax rate than Sheridan, whose rate was 0.2292 in 2001--about a quarter of the county average. (By comparison, Chicago's current rate is 1.4780.) Total annual property tax receipts in Sheridan amounted to just $19,500 in 2001, funding only about 5 percent of the village's budget.

Sheridan's police chief came up with the idea of annexing the prison, following the example set by Pontiac, Illinois. Rucker, who moved to Sheridan in 1960 and worked most of his life at a nearby International Harvester facility, got the ball rolling. "We had to get a couple farmers to agree," he says. Their land lay between the village border and the prison, and they were worried that their property taxes would go up. Rucker persuaded the assessor to lower the value of the farm property so there wouldn't be any increase. Now the Methodist church's "welcome" sign, which seems to mark the village limit, is technically in the middle of town.

"It's a really small town," says Rucker. "We don't have traffic. We don't have crime at the rates other people do. People don't have the hectic life that people do in the city. You know everybody in town." Except, of course, the prisoners.

The census states that 37.2 percent of the village's residents are African-American, though driving through Sheridan at 3 PM on a school day you'd be hard-pressed to spot any black kids--97 percent of the children who stream out of Sheridan Elementary School are white. Only three of the students are black. Obviously, most of the village's black population was in the prison. The latest count by the Department of Corrections shows that its inmate population is 62 percent black (the state's population is only 15 percent black).

The locals were stunned when Ryan said he wanted to shut down the prison. "When this whole thing started, it was like, 'C'mon, you're going to close the prison?'" says the current village mayor, John Martin, a 32-year-old union electrician who commutes to Joliet. "I've went through one of the most trying times. The whole town was up in arms."

But soon the prisoners were sent elsewhere, along with most of the corrections officers, about 35 of them Sheridan residents. Some of the 35 couldn't find a new job, some chose early retirement, others chose the 80-mile commute to the Dixon Correctional Center.

The prison was the village's largest business, and the loss of regular sales to more than 400 corrections employees and innumerable visitors has hurt. Rucker guesses the village government has lost about $10,000 in sales-tax revenue, a drop of about 13 percent.

"It's hurt us because a lot of the people would shop here," says Bob Yuhas, the 64-year-old owner of the Sheridan Food Mart, which also employs his two daughters, a son, and a daughter-in-law. Yuhas used to bid on contracts at the prison commissary, supplying things such as ramen, rice, and soups.

When Blagojevich pledged in April to reopen the prison next year, Yuhas was wary. He still looks scared. "I didn't think they'd ever close that thing down," he says. "It seemed like it's been there forever. But when you see United, American..." His voice trails off, and he shakes his head.

Martin is more upbeat. He points out that Sheridan is relatively close to Chicago, the source of 69 percent of IDOC's inmates, and that the prison had a drug-treatment program when it closed--two reasons, he contends, that it would be perfect as a model prison. "I'd like to see 500 people a day coming back through Sheridan," he says. "I wish it would reopen tomorrow."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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