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Guest Column: Rockford—the Penal City?

July 1, 1993

Guest Column: Rockford—the Penal City?

By Shawn L. Oehlke

Rockford, Illinois! Arguably, it is the second-largest city in the state. Yet any stature that may come from being the second largest city in Illinois is perceived only on the local level. Once you journey out of Rockford, and mention the city to those who do not reside there, a common question is uttered: “Where in the heck is Rockford?”

There is an isolationist mindset that pervades the political, civic and business leaders of Rockford. Rockford community leaders decided long ago that they have an aversion to and/or are incapable of being “business friendly.” When a community decides to become “business friendly,” it opens the door to powers outside of the community leaders’ control. The downside of not being “business friendly” is that it becomes very difficult to maintain a positive cash flow into community coffers.

There is fiscal redemption, however, for these failed community leaders. It is easy money for their coffers if they are able to build a penal complex on their turf! The money that will flow in from state (and maybe federal) sources is plentiful! Most decent Americans across this great nation have refused entrance to these institutions, so when a community offers itself up, the money rolls in!

I think the community leaders ought to take their present proposal a step further. Why not put a wall around the entire city and create the first United States Penal city! I believe there would be enough room to populate this new city with every convict from every federal penitentiary! The rest of the United States would finally recognize Rockford, Ill. and be forever grateful as all the federal penitentiaries in their communities could be razed and the property put to other uses.

I am not sure how much federal money is brought in for each convict, but my guess is somewhere around $20,000 to $30,000 per year. If Rockford populated itself with every convict (about 2 million), the city coffers would be overflowing!!

The citizens who live there presently would have to be asked to vacate the city. If they chose not to leave, they would simply become part of the prison population. This would not be a new precedent. Many valley cities in this great country were vacated by government order when the federal government started the great dam projects. During that era, if people refused to move, they drowned.

Am I mean, heartless, or maybe even evil? Unfortunately, it is the citizens of Rockford who have displayed these traits to their own community for generations by allowing these leaders to carry through on failed initiatives and proposals. It is time for you to speak up, and speak up loudly!

You have allowed Rockford leaders to isolate this town long enough for their own personal gain. If you do not speak up, I guarantee you that when an insane proposal such as the one I just made gains a national ear, U.S. citizens outside of Rockford will say, “That’s a great idea! Who cares about Rockford! Where in the heck is Rockford, anyway?”

Shawn L. Oehlke is the son of columnist Judy J. Howard. He is an electrical engineer in Albuquerque, N.M.

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