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Government Continues Prison Expansion Despite Opposition

By Eric Johnson
Los Angeles Times

PEKIN, Ill.

The prison walls rising this autumn in Pekin symbolize both economic hope for a struggling factory region of central Illinois and a deep social rift created when officials with the Federal Bureau of Prisons came to town four years ago.

Hundreds of workers are now building the prison, and hundreds more will be hired to run it next year, offsetting layoffs at nearby Caterpillar and other manufacturers hit by the recession.

But in the years since Pekin officials overruled a citizens referendum that called for barring the facility, the town's 30,000 residents have grappled with questions about government priorities.

Similar concerns are emerging in communities across the United States as the Bureau of Prisons expands its incarceration capacity at a record pace. A common question in towns touched by the expansion program: Are jobs more important than a community's harmony?

Pekin residents voted out of office the pro-prison mayor last year, even though the 1,100-inmate prison already was a done deal. In other communities this summer, opponents of new federal prisons have organized petition drives or carved the words "No Prison" in cornfields.

The Bureau of Prisons "is going to economically depressed areas where people will take almost anything," said Jody Love, a Pekin prison opponent who now advises opposition groups in other towns. "They're causing calamity. After they come into a community, it's never the same."

But Bureau of Prisons spokesman Dan Dunne said that his agency listens carefully to all sides in a community and makes decisions based on majority opinion as well as site location, utilities and a region's demand for prison beds. He noted that in recent years prison opposition has slackened nationwide due to a faltering economy.

"There are always people with concerns" about safety or a prison town's image, Dunne said. "We have to take steps to educate the communities."

The federal government plans to open about 34 new prisons by 1995 -- 50 percent more than the Bureau of Prisons operates now -- to contain a surging inmate population that in June topped 70,000 for the first time and could exceed 100,000 in three years.

Besides Pekin, federal correctional facilities are currently under construction in Colorado, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, Florida, New York and Puerto Rico. More are planned for Ohio, Texas, Mississippi and other states.

Business and political leaders generally back the prisons. Sometimes they invite federal officials to visit a town and offer free land or other incentives.

"They're coming to us because they want jobs in their communities," Dunne said. "It's worked out very well for us. Our options have increased."

The town of Yankton, S.D., for example, bought a defunct college campus and sold it to the Bureau of Prisons for a minimum-security facility. Now only a wrought-iron fence separates well-behaved inmates, such as bankers convicted of fraud, from an upscale residential area.

"It's almost a collegiate kind of atmosphere," said Yankton City Manager William Ross. "Our experience has been positive."

Opponents of prisons are often small, loosely organized groups of homeowners and farmers. One of the hottest prison battles lately has been in Columbiana County, Ohio, a rural area between Akron and Pittsburgh where a four-prison complex has been proposed. The prison jobs could replace hundreds that disappeared when a rubber plant closed last fall.

"We realize that the manufacturing jobs are leaving us," said Chip Highley, economic development director for Columbiana County. "A prison with a $21 million-a-year payroll is going to be a real boost to the economy."

Highley and the state of Ohio are now battling housewives like Sandy Silvestri and other members of Columbiana Countians Against the Prison, who do not want the government to buy or seize land for the prison from several small farmers.

Silvestri said that her group has collected 4,000 signatures from prison opponents. Highley said: "We got the media, community leaders, the union leaders and the government behind us."

Unlike Pekin and Columbiana County, no one has publicly opposed plans for a 1,000-employee prison near Yazoo City, Miss., an agricultural town of 12,000 with a 10 percent jobless rate.

"I have not heard any negative comments whatsoever," said Robert D. Daily of the Yazoo County Chamber of Commerce.

But a controversy is bubbling in Waseca, Minn., where a campus of the University of Minnesota might be converted into a minimum-security prison.

About 700 university jobs would be lost. Despite a citizen group's opposition, the campus-to-prison conversion idea "has been fairly well received in the context that if we can't have an educational facility, then we need something else," said Waseca City Manager Michael McCauley. "The prison payroll would be $8 to $10 million -- higher than the university."