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Maybe This Time: Prison Activity Fuels Thomson Hopes

Jenna Dooley

There’s activity at a long-dormant prison in northwest Illinois. Residents in Thomson have lived more than a decade in limbo waiting for it to open. Now, it’s time.

Credit Jenna Dooley
Thomson resident Arlene Eslinger attends a prayer service at York Community Congregational Church in Thomson, Illinois

Ready for Change

At a recent prayer service in Thomson, longtime resident Arlene Eslinger says she has a lot on her heart these days. She says residents are getting older. People want change, but Eslinger fears Thomson isn’t prepared for an influx of prison workers and their families.

“We have a big problem because there’s no grocery store here in this town and there’s no school. People with children aren’t going to want to be here,” Eslinger said.

Ready or not, here they come.

Thomson is home to a massive maximum-security prison. It has been since 2001. State officials and residents saw the facility as an answer to significant job losses in the area. But it has been a dangling carrot for the people of northwest Illinois. Under state control, it sat empty for years, save for some minimum-security prisoners. Then the federal government became interested in using the space to house Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

The idea was controversial. Congress opposed housing Guantanamo prisoners within the United States, and the Obama administration eventually backed off that plan, but continued to look for ways to house other inmates.

Fast forward to this month. There are cars in the parking lot, mowers on the grass.

Chicken or Egg?

Village President Vicky Trager feels the “If you build it, they will come” mentality doesn’t work when you are dealing with the government.

“Never in the history of the Bureau of Prisons has a prison of this type -- maximum-security prison -- been activated in a town this small. Not only is there not enough housing for the people coming to work here, they are having a little bit of a culture shock,” Trager said.

Years ago, restaurants opened, expecting more residents, then closed when they didn’t come. A school sits empty, without the extra students promised years ago. She says she’s having trouble wooing new developments because the workers are only now trickling in and the prison population still isn’t here yet.

“I was at a seminar one time. It was a workshop for government contracting. Someone said, 'You know, Thomson is apathetic about the prison opening.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute. Thomson is far from apathetic.' We do have strong feelings about the prison opening, but we have had to harden our hearts. Our hopes and expectations have been dashed so many times. We have a wait-and-see attitude about that, and we cannot be faulted for that.”

Signs of Opening

West Carroll School District Supt. Craig Mathers has seen an influx of about 25 new students, not all attributed to the prison, but some are.

“It started being a factor in my world, as far as I am concerned, around November. At that time, I actually sold my house to the assistant warden,” Mathers said.

According to Michelle Gonyea, with the Bureau of Prisons, more than 150 are now working at the site.

Officials are mum on details about when inmates will arrive, but there’s potential for more jobs and more young families in the coming year.

It’s the change residents have been anticipating for more than a decade.

“You have areas of people here, a whole generation of people that have been waiting for this thing to open. It might be open for three years before anyone believes it,” Mathers said.

The largest growth has been in the elementary school. Mathers says there is plenty of building space in the district in case more students come next fall. And he says the new students from around the country are fitting in well.

Small Town, Big Story

Credit Jenna Dooley
Jon Whitney has owned the Carroll County Review in Thomson since 1967. He demonstrates the Linotype machine, once used to create newspapers

Jon Whitney is publisher of the Carroll County Review in downtown Thomson.

He bought the newspaper in 1967, and his byline still appears each week. He says the prison has helped him fill copy for years, but it also connected him with journalists around the world who have used his office while they cover the big prison story in a small town.

When Thomson is activated, will it matter that it took so long? Whitney has witnessed the long-term effects of uncertainty.

“It will always matter to those people who believed in the state and lost their livelihood,” Whitney said. “That will matter. There were people here who went to school to become state prison guards, only it never happened. They were promised a job here, and they wanted to stay here. The jobs didn’t materialize here. We lost some talented, local people. Good-caliber people.”

Looking Ahead

The local school superintendent is hopeful that job pipeline will be re-established, with a better outcome this time.

While Village President Trager acknowledges some wounds go deep when it comes to how the prison has changed the community, she is optimistic this time is different.

“It’s like we’ve been asleep for 14 years. Nothing’s happened. Now, all of the sudden, the curtains are thrown open and it’s time to wake up! We’ve got the sesquicentennial this year. It’s our 150th anniversary this year. What perfect timing is there to start a new era of Thomson? Not only looking to our past, but looking to our future.”

Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.
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