The Power of the People: Private Detention Center Turned Down by Crete, Ill. Officials

Opposing the Crete Illinois Detention Center

Representing JCUA, Alyse Sheilds (center, carrying sign), marches with Crete residents in opposition to construction of a federal detention center.

Organizers often say that there are two kinds of power: money power and people power. If you don’t have one, you better get the other. The story of the attempt to build a private detention center in Crete, Ill. is a classic case of the struggle between the two, namely, the power of money against the power of the people.

Yesterday (June 11) the people won.

A private detention center, lobbied for by the abundantly wealthy Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), will not be built in Crete. How did this happen?

In spring of 2011, through JCUA’s central role in the Illinois Committee on Detained Immigrants, Emily Zucker Burns (JCUA’s director of organizing) learned that there are plans to build Illinois’s first private detention center in Crete. At the time there was no organized effort to oppose this move, the opposition was scattered, and many facts were unknown and concealed.

In response, and in partnership with our community allies, JCUA decided to invest significant staff time in researching the issue, and, most importantly, spending time in Crete – talking to residents and empowering their leadership, reaching out to elected officials, and building bridges between Crete residents and immigrant communities that would potentially be most affected if the prison were built. This groundwork is tedious; it does not present immediate reward. Initially there were no victories to tout, only numerous meetings, phone calls, and time spent listening and planning.

With time, and as volunteers and allies gained knowledge, skills and leadership, the campaign to stop CCA gained steam. In December 2011 there was a press conference. This was followed by protest at the Crete Village Board meetings in early and late January, along powerful town hall meetings.  The issue was getting the attention of the media. Back-room dealings began seeing the light of day (all told there have been more than 200 news stories about this issue to date).

A rally in Crete marked a new level of unity among the diverse groups opposing the detention center, a result of tireless work over a period of months. Then we set our sights on Springfield. The legislature was going to vote on a bill that would ban any private prison or detention center from being built in Illinois (SB 1064). On May 2, 2012 the bill passed the House Executive Committee in an 8-3 vote. JCUA and our partners urged our members to contact our representatives, since the bill needed the full House approval. Meanwhile CCA was pouring millions of dollars in efforts to stop this legislation.

On May 31, CCA seemed to have prevailed, as the legislation was defeated by a 55-61 vote. They had money power. But after months of on-the-ground organizing, we had people power. Yesterday, June 11, 2012, the Crete Village Board voted to withdraw itself from contention for the contract with CCA.

What have we learned? That the will of the people can prevail. But it takes dedicated staff and volunteers, willing to donate time and money to sustain such efforts. Justice is achieved through sustained and unwavering efforts. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr:

“One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”[1]

Join us down our shared Jericho road as we work to restructure it. Support this work.


[1] Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City.

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