Dissent in Freeport on prison proposal

Dissent in Freeport on prison proposal

By Shellie Berg

By Shellie Berg

Staff Reporter

Similar to the 1999 citizens’ eruption when Winnebago County sought a women’s prison, Freeport appears divided on the city’s quest for a maximum security correctional facility for men.

State Rep. Mike Boland held a press conference Jan. 2 to announce the city’s second bid for the state prison. On Dec. 14, the Freeport City Council voted in favor of the facility.

The city is looking at two undisclosed locations. Several municpalities have applied, and Gov. George Ryan will announce the location near the end of the month. The Illinois Department of Corrections will make a recommendation to Ryan as to what site is the most suitable.

Last year, Winnebago County lost its bid to build a women’s prison on Baxter Road. Ryan rejected the proposal for the prison in Winnebago County, choosing his hometown county, Kankakee, as the site. Winnebago County Board Chairwoman Kris Cohn, State Representative Dave Winters and State Senator Dave Syverson had pushed hard for the facility.

County residents formed the Stop the Prison Committee to try to ward off the facility. The proposed prison on Baxter Road instilled fear into county residents, who thought crime, image problems, infrastructure problems and real estate devalution could occur as a result.

Dean Ekberg, who owns Ekberg Material, Inc. and became involved in the Ditzler land battle last May, said the site posed challenges

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with roads, power lines, wetlands, sinkholes and access restrictions.

Cohn said “absolutely not” as to whether the county submitted an application for the men’s prison. “Those had to be turned in weeks and weeks and weeks ago,” she stated. “We support Freeport’s bid. It’s good for the entire region. I wish them luck.”

Boland of Stephenson County agreed the prison benefits Freeport and the region. “I believe it’s going to bring 750 middle-income jobs to Freeport; $45 million a year annual expenditures; $145 to $150 million to build,” Boland said. “That’s going to be a tremendous number of construction jobs for that area.”

Freeport has an average 6 to7 percent unemployment rate, and the prison will provide plenty of jobs, Boland stated. “It’s not going to go away,” he said, “unlike some industries that might close on you.”

Boland stressed people shouldn’t fear living near a prison. “There’s probably some concern in the community; some questioning. My legislative district has two prisons,” Boland noted, adding one is 125 years old, and he’s not aware of any escapes.

Freeport resident Sam Guffrea, who moved from Chicago to Freeport five years ago to retire, thinks people would escape from the prison. Guffrea also fears many people who visit inmates may consist of gang members and drug dealers, who could pose a danger to the community.

“I just would like to see the communtiy stay the way it is,” he said. “I found this to be a nice, rural community. It’s very picturesque.”

He feels the prison would ruin the image of the town. “It’s going to be a complete eyesore,” Guffrea stated.

He believes that people who want to retire in a rural area won’t pick Freeport if a prison exists. “If they promote a retirement community with nice houses, they can achieve revenue they need with taxes,” he stated.

Guffrea is upset that politicians he’s heard speak fail to converse about the proposal’s pitfalls. “They don’t want to discuss any of this because they’d like to show all of this being positive,” he commented.

One politician who is divided on the issue is Pat Leitzen Fye, Freeport’s fourth ward alderwoman. Leitzen Fye voted in favor of the application Dec. 14 but had reservations.

“Many of the reservations that I have have to do with the perception that there’s so much negativity that comes along with a maximum security prison,” Leitzen Fye said. “I emphasize the word ‘perception’. I felt that if we didn’t vote to make the application, then we cut ourselves off completely from the opportunity. If we do that, we’ll never know.”

She stated half the people who have called her are in favor of the prison, and the other half don’t support the proposal.

The city’s finance director Jim Leitzinger is acquiring input from educators, churches and health and social service agencies. Leitzinger started obtaining information two weeks ago and will continue until the end of this week.

He said the city wanted to learn about community members’ inquiries. One question was whether ex-inmates often go to the agencies after leaving prison. “They said it didn’t have any impact or detailed enough records to show anything attributed to the correctional facility,” he said. “That’s just my initial findings.”

Another avenue Leitzinger looked into was whether people, after being released, head into the community. “What we have found out—once they leave, they will get relocated to the community they were in,” he stated.

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