Pontiac Correctional Center History
After the end of the American Civil War, social reformers began to object to the practice of placing convicted juvenile offenders in the same penal institutions as adult criminals. They based their objections on the belief that young men would be further corrupted by being in close proximity to dangerous felons, and if sent to an adult facility, the young men might be victimized inside of prison by older sexual predators.
In Illinois, this progressive spirit led the state's legislators to decide that the time had come to modernize its dealings with juvenile criminals. When the State of Illinois announced its decision to build a Reform School for young lawbreakers, the city and township of Pontiac were very interested in securing its location within the city limits. The Illinois legislature had passed an act in 1869 allowing certain towns possessing specified natural and already acquired advantages to compete for the establishment of the school in their community.
After due examinations by the commission appointed for that purpose and hearing the propositions from each locality, they settled on Pontiac. The Board of Trustees sought to provide "a place for the thorough reformation and elevation of the erring young people of our State." The first buildings at the Reform School were completed, water and heating systems installed, and the grounds made ready. In June of 1871, the first six young men, convicted of stealing horses in Peoria, arrived at the Illinois Boys Reformatory School in Pontiac. Over the years, they would be followed by thousands.
In just a few months, the pattern of life at Illinois Boys Reformatory School was set. There was belonging to the institution in land, 280 acres, which was worked by the inmates. The buildings which made up the institution were, in 1872, valued at $110,000. Over 6,000 shade and fruit trees were planted, and a large field for sports, including an excellent baseball diamond was created. There were dormitories, a greenhouse, factory and school classroom areas, cooking and dining facilities, a farm, and other spaces. Five teachers were employed to provide instruction, also a farmer, engineer, baker, overseers of shops and others added to the number of eighteen employees.
The school could house up to 400 boys ages 8 to 16, but it took several years to approach capacity. Each of the young men assigned to the Pontiac Reformatory was expected not only to attend conventional educational classes, but also to learn a trade that would help them to become law-abiding and productive citizens in the future. The boys attended school for 4 hours each day (except Sunday). All of the common branches of knowledge were taught: reading, arithmetic, writing, history, geography, and other subjects. Several of the boys requested and received special lessons in Latin and Greek. The course of instruction was very thorough and competent teachers were employed. The prison began with a library of 1,500 volumes (which expanded to over 12,000 volumes by 1907), and reading evolved into one of the favorite ways to use any free time the boys had. Over twenty magazines and papers were subscribed to for the inmates, and all were reported to have been “read eagerly.” A large number of the boys committed to the Pontiac Reformatory could neither read nor write on entering the institution. However, when discharged, many of them were described by their teachers to be “fair scholars.”
Among the career choices the boys had to choose from were: printing and book-binding, black-smithing, mechanical and electrical engineering, various branches of wood working, brick-laying and masonry of different kinds, painting and glazing, tin smithing, plumbing, tailoring, steam fitting, and shoe making.
In the shoe factory, between seventy and eighty boys were employed. Nearly 300 pairs of shoes or boots were produced each day. The shoes made were then sold by a footwear dealer. The shoe firm of Tead & Son paid the Reformatory School eighteen cents per day (made up of six hours of work) for each young worker. Later, the task of marketing and selling the shoes made by the boys was taken over by the Pontiac shoe firm of Lyon and Legg. They were, in turn, replaced by the Chicago-based, R.P. Smith Sons & Company.
About sixty of the smaller boys were engaged in caning chairs for the Bloomington Furniture Manufacturing Company. This branch was not as profitable as the shoe factory, but it was continued as it was thought that it not only kept the boys busy, it also taught them the "proper habits of industry." The boys not involved in learning a specific trade were employed on the farm, in the laundry, bakery and garden, and at miscellaneous labor. Nine hours were allowed for sleep, and after school and work, the rest of the twenty-four was spent in play and at meals.
In 1893 the institution was changed from a boys’ reformatory into a more conventional penal institution with the acceptance of inmates as old as 21, and later 30 years of age. The name was altered to reflect this evolution, the Illinois State Reformatory. Two new cell houses were constructed, adding nearly 800 beds to the facility. By the turn of the century, more than 1200 prisoners could be housed there. Rehabilitation was still favored, and training options continued to be offered. After 1904, many of the State's youngest juvenile offenders were no longer sent to Pontiac, but were placed in a new facility built in St. Charles, The Illinois School for Boys.
In the 1907 report from the Reformatory’s Board of Managers, the state of the institution is fully discussed. According to the report, there were just over 1,100 inmates at the facility. Of that group 894 were white and 218 men of color. There were just 52 boys between the ages of 8 and 12 years, 163 young men between 13 and 16 years of age, 625 adult men who were considered redeemable, and 272 men viewed as habitual criminals and not likely to change.
In 1931 another cell house was added to the institution. All maximum age restrictions were removed in 1933 and the facility was renamed the Illinois State Penitentiary. Prison population soon topped 2,500. As the number of inmates grew, the educational opportunities began to shrink. The manual training programs that were created to reform the youngest offenders were phased out. Educational classes continued, and there were opportunities for some prisoners to work inside the walls. Starting in the late 1970s the institution was promoted to Maximum Security and prisoners were on 24-hour lock down, only being allowed out of their cell for weekly exercise in the yard.
While the history of the Pontiac correctional facility has been generally good, there have been a few instances of escape, some periods marked by prison violence, and only rare situations that devolved into prisoner riots. The state's worst prison riot and fire occurred at Pontiac on July 22, 1978. The result of the incident were scores of prisoners and guards injured, buildings damaged or destroyed to the amount of more than four million dollars, and three Correctional Officers killed.
The Pontiac Correctional Center is now classed as a Maximum Security prison, but does have a separate Medium Security facility on the grounds. The Center was threatened with shut down in 2008, but that threat has been reduced, and the institution continues in operation.