Past reporting by this writer on prison conditions may have been shocking, but so is the Illinois Governor’s efforts to keep the media from reporting on it. Other sources have noted the lack of transparency evident in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). This appears to not just apply to the maximum-security facilities such as Tamms, where inmates with mental illness are transferred due to the difficulty guards have in handling them, and are then denied prescribed medications.
WBEZ has interviewed prisoners coming out of Building 19 at the minimum-security facility in Vienna IL. They tell stories that are difficult to believe. Keep in mind; a minimum-security facility can hold persons who have been convicted of offenses as minor as driving on a suspended license or non-payment of fines. Former inmates and attorneys who have visited building 19 describe boarded-up windows and no access to sunlight, except in the summer, when insects come through the broken windows. Six hundred inmates housed in one room with just 7 toilets and 7 showers. The toilets frequently are broken and overflow, creating a smell that one attorney stated would “stay with him.”
Some might be tempted to think a few bad smells, bugs and lack of light might not be so hellish, although adding in the cockroach infestation and rat population might alter that calculation. The roaches are bad enough that one prisoner had to have one surgically removed from his ear. An inmate described the rats as resembling kangaroo rats, because they frequently jump up into the beds. When inmates spot people who are not guards, they rush to ask for help with their conditions, pointing out birds’ nests, the foul stench and other negative aspects of the environment.
When WBEZ reporters petitioned for access to building 19, Governor Quinn cited safety concerns in denying access. Given the type of information coming out of Illinois prisons, one has to wonder exactly whose safety he is concerned about. Illinois is currently spending a billion dollars a year on IDOC, making it difficult to understand how there are not enough resources to allow a reporter into a minimum-security facility for two days of reporting. On the other hand, a visit in 2011 by the prison-monitoring group “The John Howard Association” found Vienna to be the most overcrowded prison in Illinois. There was one mental health professional for 1,600 inmates in a facility built to house just over 600. Another concern is that 12 percent of Vienna’s inmates are over 55, a population with greater health care needs than the general population. Given these conditions, it is safe to assume that access to the facility would not be good pf for IDOC, Governor Quinn or the state of Illinois.
WBEZ is the public TV station for Chicago, and has been pursuing IDOC to grant access to bring conditions to the general public’s attention. The mainstream media only rarely does stories on these conditions, instead concentrating on prison stories about gang influences within the system (MSNBC’s “Lockup” is a good example). Change for the better is unlikely if this is the main view that the voting public has of the prison system. Change makes sense for many reasons; advocates make the point that most minimum-security inmates will be returning home – soon. It does not make sense to traumatize, physically sicken and radicalize fit young men for minor offenses at a cost to the state of a billion dollars a year. Many would benefit more from outpatient treatment programs at a fraction of the cost currently being incurred by Illinois taxpayers. Talking with people in my area frequently brings up stereotypes of prisoners eating well, having access to exercise equipment and cable TV, and generally living comfortably. When horror stories are mentioned, the most frequent response is “what do they expect – they broke the law?” What do we expect will happen when they move back in next door?
Mike Davis is a local community organizer for groups such as the Coffee Party and Moveon.org and works with Veterans for Peace on a regular basis.