Gov. Quinn Keeps Public in Dark on Prison Conditions
Over the past several months, repeated attempts to visit the Vandalia and Vienna Correctional Centers in Illinois have been denied by the state. Illinois' prison system is in crisis. It was built to house 34,000 people, but it is now crowded with 48,000 inmates.
The overcrowded prison crisis has been brewing for a long time, invisible behind cement walls and wire fences. Gov. Pat Quinn seems determined to keep it from public view.
Chicago Public Radio has requested visits to the two minimum security facilities in Vandalia and Vienna to see what taxpayers are getting for the billion dollars they spend each year on prisons. Gov. Quinn said no.
When Jerome Suggs was sentenced for driving on a revoked license he was sent to Vienna, located near the southernmost point in Illinois, about 350 miles from Chicago. Suggs was assigned to live on the third floor of a building but there was absolutely no view.
"When I moved up there (in Building 19), there was boards up on the windows and I was just looking like, 'Wow! What is this?" Suggs said.
Suggs said there was not a single window letting in light and that he was put in a large room with several hundred other men. All of the men were crowded onto bunks with nothing to do. There are 600 inmates in the building and only seven showers and seven toilets, and the toilets often broke and overflowed, resulting in a strong sewage smell.
"The smell that came from the showers and it came into the living quarters and yeah, I used to go to sleep with my pillow over my face, the smell was horrible, man," Suggs said.
When the weather turned hot the boards came off the windows, but then bugs could easily get in through the broken windows. Suggs, who got out just last month, said the place was also overrun with cockroaches.
"Yes! On my bed! Oh yeah. Used to have to swat them off the bed," he said.
"Okay, my name is Mayo and I was incarcerated for 29 and a half continuous years." said Mayo, who asked that his last name not be used, was convicted in the early '80s for committing armed robbery. For the last three years of his sentence he was in Vienna and spent some of that time in the now notorious Building 19.
Mayo said, "I thought to myself this is supposed to be a minimum security institution, but this was more like a maximum security institution in that I couldn't believe that they would actually expect people to live under those type of conditions. The place is infested with rats and the rats were so aggressive that we used to call them kangaroo rats 'cause while I was there quite a few guys had rats actually jump up in bed with them."
Mayo said living in a room with a hundred men, there was constant noise and chaos, and he said there was always tension.
Mayo said he knows prisoners aren't supposed to be coddled but they are not supposed to be abused either.
"Your punishment is the time you're doing and you shouldn't be subjected to further punishment by being mistreated while you're there," Mayo said.
Okay, one last, and disturbing, example of life in Building 19. It comes from attorney Alan Mills at the Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago. Mills said a cockroach burrowed into the ear of an inmate while he slept and it had to be surgically removed.
"The wax in [the] ear is one of the things that roaches will eat," Mills said. Mills has talked to inmates at Vienna, but he hasn't actually been allowed to see the conditions for himself.
John Maki has experienced those conditions.
"Building 19 was one of the most depressing things I've seen in my life," Maki said. "I just thought this is a human tragedy on a lot of levels. Part of me thought what a terrible way to spend taxpayer dollars."
Maki is executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group.
"There were just scores and scores of men just kind of walking around, almost like zombies and when they saw us they kinda ran towards us," Maki said. "They didn't know who we were but they knew we weren't prison officials and they started saying, 'Why are you here? Are you here to help us? Do you see this?' They were pointing to broken windows. Bird nests that were built because birds come in through the broken windows, rodent droppings, cockroaches, exposed pipes with leaking fluid coming out of them, people who were sick because they couldn't get shelter from the cold and it's something that will always stay with me."
After reading Maki's report on Vienna last winter, Chicago Public Radio submitted a request to the department of corrections to spend two days there and two days in another minimum security prison, Vandalia. The reports out of the two prisons raise serious questions. I figured people in Illinois who pay for these places should know firsthand what goes on, so they can be part of a smart public debate on what to do.
Gov, Quinn has refused Chicago Public Radio's request.
The initial efforts to get inside were denied with one-line emails. In a follow-up phone conversation, spokeswoman Brooke Anderson explained that touring the prison wasn't allowed because of safety and security concerns, and the strain on the department's resources. Anderson said if one media outlet was given permission to visit the prison, then many other reporters would be allowed, too.
"As the state's only non-partisan prison watchdog we believe that it's important that prison policy is made by informed decision makers and it's really hard to have informed decision makers when there's no information so I think it's critical for media to have access to prisons," said John Maki, who actually does get into the prisons.
Maki said he is proud of his group but he's realistic about the fact that their reports reach a relatively small readership. He said they only have one staff member trying to oversee a couple dozen prison facilities spread over a large state, so he said more people, like reporters, should be inside.
Maki has tremendous respect for the people running the prisons in Illinois. He said they have an impossible job. They do not control who is sent to them, but the courts do. They also don't control how much money they have, but rather the governor and the legislature do. He also said Gov. Quinn is trying to do some good things with prisons, closing Tamms supermax and reinstating an early release program that will bring down the number of inmates in the system. But as a prison advocate, Maki said he cannot agree with Gov. Quinn's decision to keep reporters out of facilities.
"Prisons are very closed places and most of Illinois' prisons are very far from say the Chicago area and it's easy to make decisions and it's easy to not think about how our laws actually affect people who are subject to them when we don't see them and that's essentially what our prison system is," Maki said. "But again, as long as we're not able to see that we can go on passing laws that have led us to where we are today, which is to a system built for about 34,000 but houses more than 48,000."
Maki said what happens inside prison is really important because most of the people are coming back out. Inmates are released every year in massive numbers. And Maki points out that as a treatment option, prison is not cheap, about $20,000 a year per inmate.
"You know we all want to save money in Illinois right now," Maki said. "We have to. We're broke. But at the end of the day there's a cost to housing more than 48,000 people. You can't cheat on that after a while. There comes a point where you can't cut costs anymore."
Maki said the state has limited resources to run prisons, so choices have to be made. In order for the state to make smart choices, Maki said Quinn cannot keep the public in the dark about what really happens inside.