People on WSIU Radio
Wed August 8, 2012
Prison Profile: Vienna Correctional Center
Illinois' prison system is in crisis. It was built to house 34,000 people, 48,000 are crowded in now. Conditions are deteriorating and recently released inmates say its not just unpleasant punishment, it's inhumane and abusive. The crisis has been brewing for a long time, invisible behind cement walls and wire fences. Governor Pat Quinn seems determined to keep it from public view. Over the last several months, Illinois Public Radio's WBEZ in Chicago has been requesting visits to two minimum security facilities to see what taxpayers are getting for the Billion dollars they spend each year on prisons. One of the two facilities the Governor refuses to allow the media to visit is the Vienna Correctional Center in southern Illinois. Vienna is a minimum security facility that was built in 1965. According to the Department of Corrections it has a capacity of 1,887 inmates.
When Jerome Suggs was sentenced for driving on a revoked license he was sent to Vienna. Suggs was assigned to live on the third floor of Building 19 but there was absolutely no view. Suggs says when he moved in all the windows were boarded up. Suggs says there was not a single window letting in light. He says he was put in a large room with several hundred other men. All of the men were crowded onto bunks with nothing to do.
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, says the place was also overrun with cockroaches. He says he used to have to swat them off the bed.
Another former inmate, Mayo, who only wants to use his first name was incarcerated for 29.5 years on a robbery conviction. For the last 3 years of his sentence he was in Vienna and spent some of that time in the now notorious Building 19.
Mayo says living in a room with a hundred men, there was constant noise and chaos. He says there was always tension. Mayo says he knows prisoners aren't supposed to be coddled but they're not supposed to be abused either. He says your punishment is the time you're doing and you shouldn't be subjected to further punishment by being mistreated while you're there.
Alan Mills is an attorney at the Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago. Mills says a cockroach burrowed into the ear of an inmate while he slept and it had to be surgically removed. Mills says ear wax is one of the things that roaches will eat. He says he has talked to inmates at Vienna but he hasn't actually been allowed to see the conditions for himself.
But, John Maki has. He is the executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group.
Maki says there were just scores and scores of men just kind of walking around, almost like zombies and when they saw him moved toward him. Maki says 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?' Maki says they were pointing to broken windows. Bird nests that were built because birds came in through the broken windows, rodent droppings, cockroaches, exposed pipes with leaking fluid coming out of them, and people who were sick because they couldn't get shelter from the cold.
After reading Maki's report on Vienna last winter, WBEZ submitted a request to the department of corrections to spend two days there and two days in another minimum security prison in Vandalia. The reports out of the two prisons raise serious questions. Governor Pat Quinn has refused the request. Spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the station couldn't go in the prisons because it was a safety and security concern, and it would strain the department's resources. Anderson refused to be interviewed on tape. Anderson later said she was too busy.
Maki says his group is the state's only non-partisan prison watchdog. He says they 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 it's critical for media to have access to prisons. Maki says he's proud of his group but he's realistic about the fact that their reports reach a relatively small readership. And he says they only have one staff member trying to oversee a couple dozen prison facilities spread over a large state so he says more people, like reporters, should be inside. Maki says he has tremendous respect for the people running the prisons in Illinois. He says they've got an impossible job. They don't control who's sent to them, the courts do.
And they don't control how much money they have, the governor and the legislature do. Maki also says Governor 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 says he can't agree with Quinn's decision to keep WBEZ out of facilities.
Maki says what happens inside prison is really important because most of the people will eventually get 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 thousand dollars a year per inmate. He says there's a cost to housing more than 48-thousand people and you can't cheat on that after a while. He says it comes to a point where you can't cut costs anymore.