Illinois' aging prisons hold nearly double the number of inmates they're designed to house. Yet there's a new state of the art, maximum security prison that sits... empty.
There's room at this inn. Lots of vacancies at the Thomson Correctional Center, 150 miles west of Chicago, near the Mississippi River. Built by Governor Edgar, finished under George Ryan -- yet not a single prisoner has ever been housed there. And get this: it costs more than a million dollars a year to keep the place ready. My Closer Look tonight, at an empty prison we're all paying for.
That sound you hear is a white elephant sleeping.
The sun glistens off the new white paint. Miles of sparkling razor wire catches the eye. Inside, it looks just as ready. Ready for 1,800 inmates. Twice that, if necessary.
Everything state of the art. A kitchen the size of three restaurants, with appliances still wrapped in plastic. An infirmary bigger than most emergency rooms. Visiting areas, designed to stop smugglers.
"This will be where the inmates are sitting when they have their non-contact visits," explains Sergio Molina, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Corrections. "Obviously, they would be secured to the bench."
"That's wild!" says Suppelsa, as he pulls on the restraint.
Rows of $22 flashlights, still in their packages, waiting for correctional officers who were never hired. And there's Dan Sitzmore.
"Have you been called the lonely Maytag repairman?"
"Yeah, I get that a lot," he says.
Sitzmore came to the Thomson maximum-security Correctional Center three years ago.
"Do you wish this prison was up and running?"
"I wish it was open three years ago," he says.
You and I paid to have this maximum-security prison built. And not one prisoner has ever walked through the doors. What's worse, it costs $3,287 a day to keep it running. And nobody's in it!
Except Sitzmore. The lone employee. The only thing he's guarding against is rust and weeds.
"In the maintenance world, I think I'm pretty well-known around the state. Laughed at! But no, no..." he jokes.
"One of things I want to make sure of is that if we ever do intend to open the facility, that it's ready to go. That means exercising the equipment, exercising the security control system."
Which includes pneumatic doors for 1,600 cells, activated by touch screen.
"Say you had to open or close cell door 44. Can you do it for me?"
"That's opening it?"
"That's opening it right now."
This is a far cry from Illinois' other minimum-security prisons. Each of them, more than 90 years old. Everything here reflects "lessons learned." Even the utilities:
"If someone's in here trying to rip a toilet out of a wall, trying to flood the cell, we could turn it off right here," Molina explains.
"Doesn't the state, at least on paper, look silly having a beautiful facility like this not being used and costing more than a million bucks a year to upkeep it?"
"I don't think so. I don't think Illinois is unique in that perspective either," he says.
Molina admits: Thomson sits empty while other state prisons are overcrowded. But closing one prison to open another is a political football no lawmaker wants to tackle.
So in this field of dreams, near the Iowa border, they built it... but no one's come.
"We're going to work on some solution to help their community," Molina says.
"They'd love the jobs."
"They'd love the jobs, they see it as an economic boon to the area and we understand that. We're not going to stop looking for options."
There are all kinds of ideas, including renting it to the federal government. But give Governor Blagojevich some credit. He stopped two other prisons from being built -- selling off metal, concrete and other materials bought by previous administrations for even more new prisons.
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