Illinois Prisons
5:56 am
Mon December 17, 2012

The State of State Prisons

A couple weeks ago reporters got a look at conditions inside the Vienna state prison in Southern Illinois. In preparation for the scrutiny, prison administrators had been busy fixing the place up-- cleaning, painting, and repairing windows.

The cosmetic changes were long overdue, but left untouched were the larger questions about what Illinois is achieving as it spends more than a billion dollars every year on prisons.

In 1988, Marilyn Whitnel had a pain in her chest, and she thought she was having a heart attack.

She called for an ambulance, and it was inmates from the local prison who came and took her to the hospital just across the state line in Paducah, Kentucky.

M. WHITNEL: You didn’t know the difference between white or black, convict or not convict;  as long as they were working on you that was all that was mattered.

At that time the prison in Vienna offered EMT classes, and inmates staffed the ambulance service in Johnson County, Illinois.

That’s just how it was and people can’t recall any problems.

It was just one of the connections the community had with the prison.

Whitnel’s husband Everett remembers when they had Sunday afternoon company from out town he’d often drive them out to Vienna’s number one attraction.

WHITNEL: ...and you’d drive through the prison grounds, say, now here’s their administration building and there’s where the prisoners live, drive on, here’s a lake that you can go fishing in, and once in a great while some prison official would drive and if he didn’t know you he’d say, ‘what are you doing?’ and you’d say, ‘well I got company here and I just brought them out to see the prison.  ‘Oh, okay.’

Whitnel says there would be community cookouts at the prison.

They would make ice cream... at the prison.

Vienna residents have all sorts of [kind of unbelievable] stories like this that certainly challenge, if not shatter, our current ideas about how prisons are run.

We’ll get into more of those tomorrow,  but here’s Whitnel again.

WHITNEL: It was very, very open.  You could drive in and out of the prison.  Of course, that’s almost unheard of today, is unheard of today.

This year, with little explanation or discussion, Governor Pat Quinn has fought to keep reporters out of state prisons, including Vienna.

Reporters were allowed in a couple weeks ago though, but only after WBEZ threatened to sue Quinn and the Department of Corrections.

Tony Godinez is the director of that department.

GODINEZ: I regret we didn’t represent ourselves better than we had in the past but the fact is we’ve never changed policies.  If you present the proposal and what you want to do, we then take a look at it and I weigh in on whether or not its beneficial to all of us.

Director Godinez says having reporters in the prison is an extra strain on the department when budgets are being cut.

Godinez met with reporters for a few minutes before the recent tour at Vienna.

GODINEZ: We are a transparent agency and this is what this is about.  We are now opening up to media tours and we really didn’t do that and again I’ve been with this department on and off for almost 40 years now.

JOHNSON: Well, my name is Michael Johnson, B43211.  I’ve been down here in Vienna Correctional Center 15 months now.

Johnson is doing time for a residential burglary and he’s got the regular complaints we’ve heard from Vienna inmates -- complaints that were detailed in a highly critical report by the prison watchdog John Howard Association.

Johnson talks about mice and cockroaches in the buildings, and bugs in his chili one day.

He also complains about Building 19, a notoriously crowded building at Vienna.

JOHNSON: If you sit up here and put a hundred something men on a dorm, and you don’t let them out all day, for weeks and months on end, incidents are going to occur, constantly, constantly.

I’d heard about the overcrowding in Building 19 and actually knew a fair bit about it, but it didn’t prepare me for seeing it in person: dozens and dozens of men sitting idly lined up on rows and rows of bunks.

I simply can’t describe it.

l’d love to take you inside those rooms so you could see them yourself,  but IDOC has so far refused to allow cameras or recording equipment inside the minimum security facility --citing simply safety and security.

But despite the conditions of Building 19, Inmate Michael Johnson gives the warden credit.

JOHNSON: I can honestly say they are doing improvements.  I don’t know who scared them but somebody put the fear of God up in em, and they trying to do what they supposed to be doing to get the place together.

DAVIS: Do you get ready for visitors at your house?  We do the same thing.  That’s what you do.  You want to look good and put your best foot forward.

Vienna warden Randy Davis hosted the recent tour, walking about 12 reporters and another 8 IDOC staffers around the facility.

He takes us into a living unit and shows us the shower room.

Inmates tell me the shower room was painted the previous morning.

DAVIS: Routine mold you get anytime in the showers when they’re wet.  We clean it constantly.  We paint it constantly.

Warden Davis says they’ve also been working to replace broken windows in Building 19 that birds had been flying through.

Last winter those windows were simply boarded up when the weather turned cold so inmates who had to spend 23 hours a day in the crowded rooms couldn’t even see outside.

Davis says the prison also replaced the vendor that was spraying for bugs after a John Howard Association report found the institution infested.

DAVIS: Considering what kind of budget constraints we’re under, we think we’ve got a pretty good institution.  We’ve got good solid old bones but, need a little cosmetic, but we’re doing pretty good.

While Davis should be commended for addressing long-standing problems, the progress on cosmetic issues is about meeting the most basic, basic standards of sanitation, but that does little to help inmates who want to improve their job prospects for when they’re released.

Reporters on the tour saw a few dozen inmates taking classes, but we saw hundreds and hundreds of inmates just sitting in their cells, or in the dayrooms or milling about.

Michael Johnson, the inmate we heard from earlier, as a young man prison held a certain allure for him but now that he’s a 43-year old grandfather, he can’t stand the thought of coming back.

JOHNSON: It’s called having another bit in you.  This my fifth one.  I ain’t got no more bits in me.  I’m tired.

So Johnson wants a job, but given his long criminal history and his short work history he knows he needs to pick up some skills--so far that’s been  impossible.

At any given time Vienna has about 1,700 inmates.

Last year 97 inmates completed classes like auto body, commercial custodial and cosmetology.

Another 135 completed a month long career class that teaches inmates how to type and put together a resume.

The limited class resources are directed to first-time offenders, leaving out tired, older convicts like Michael Johnson.

JOHNSON: I would love to get a welding certificate.  They have a little place in Danville called Freightcar.  They make trains, you know, welding is a requirement.  I would be able to get down there and get a job.  I just want to get in school and request slip after request slip after request slip and everything is, “you’re on the waiting list, you’re on the waiting list, you’re on the waiting list.”

GODINEZ: We’re running on a budget that we had six years ago with 4,000 more inmates and 3,000 less staff.

IDOC director Tony Godinez says 98 percent of his department’s budget goes to basically keeping the lights on at the institutions.

Only 2 percent of IDOC’s budget goes to programming.

GODINEZ: Given these times, we have done the best that we can with the limited resources that we have.

The problem is …. Michael Johnson is going to get out of prison, likely with no new skills.

He and other inmates say, and I believe them, that they desperately want to work when they get out.

But Johnson like other inmates says if he can’t find work, well, it’s pretty simple.

His children have to eat and he has to eat.

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In his mind Mike Whitehead can still see the play unfolding.

WHITEHEAD: Ground ball was hit to our shortstop and they had a runner on second base and she run over my shortstop.  She didn’t allow my shortstop to field the ball.

Whitehead says the umpire made a bad call.

WHITEHEAD: Well it should have been interference on the runner and the batter should have been out.

It was his daughter’s little league game sometime in the late 90s and Whitehead was the coach.

WHITEHEAD: (laughing) Some things you never forget.

The umpire who made the call was an inmate at the Vienna prison, where Whitehead spent 30 years working in the kitchen.

WHITEHEAD: Everybody in this area is just used to having inmates as umpires.  As I grew up they were umpiring my games as well, so really I mean inmates need something to do besides just sit on their duff and do nothing at all.

SIMMONS: My name is Jon Simmons, mayor of the city of Vienna.  Population is 1434.

Mayor Simmons  runs auctions too.

SIMMONS: SOT - Auctioneering sound.

Simmons also spent 9 years working maintenance out at the prison and he says he doesn’t know what would happen to his town without it.

SIMMONS: [We have five fill stations here.  We have about 15 places to eat and ] ….thank God for the prison out there with their payroll they help our city very much.

But the prison once played a much larger role in this community.

Inmates used to work in town--mowing the city park, among other things.

SIMMONS: We’d give anything in the world for those guys back one day a week.

HARPER: Just because some people made a mistake.  I don’t see that that’s any reason to lock em up and say, well, we’re not going to do anything with you anymore.

Dean Harper used to work at Vienna back in the days when they kept the inmates busy.

He retired in 91.

Now he sells carports and sheds and spends a lot of his time puttering around the “This and That” flower shop that his wife Kathy runs.

C. HARPER: I’ve owned this shop 34 years.  I started in 1978.

The shop is on the corner of the only intersection in Vienna with a light.  

Kathy is having a big Christmas sale and everyone who comes in gets a free ceramic bear that’s a Christmas tree ornament.

SOT: Oh!  I love free stuff!

Some of the bears are wearing sweaters that say number 1 grandma and things like that.

I went with the tiny dentist bear who is actually holding a tooth in a pair of pliers.

I guess nothing says Christmas like tooth extraction.

Anyway, inmates used to come shopping here too.

C. HARPER: They never shoplifted.  They were never impolite.  They always just come in and shop like normal people and left.

In those days Dean Harper would also help the inmates get jobs around town, picking apples, bailing hay, doing construction and they were paid minimum wage.

HARPER: And they sent part of that home and then kept part and then people had a different look as far as what inmates really was.  They’re human too.

Harper says there were never any problems with inmates working and shopping and being part of the town.

HARPER: And you take an inmate that has been out and has worked all day long.  What does he want to do when he gets back?  He wants to eat supper and when it gets bedtime he wants to go to bed because in the morning he’s got to get up and start working again.

In a back office in the store Harper shows me pictures in a photo album of the prison in the old days.

Some of the photos are from a picnic there.  

Harper doesn’t remember all the details of the event but one picture shows hundreds of kids participating in some program inside the chapel at the prison.

The contrast is so striking compared to how closed off and secretive prisons are today, and this wasn’t the early 1900s or anything.  

This was just 15, 20, 25 years ago.

In those days, Harper says the prison offered college classes and Vienna residents would also enroll and go to the prison and sit in classes next to inmates.

When you think about all that, the college classes, inmates shopping and working in town, working on farms making money, running the ambulances, umpiring baseball  games, it’s hard not to get nostalgic -- and it’s hard not to ask the question: what exactly are we doing in corrections now?

Illinois taxpayers spend more than a billion dollars a year on prisons.

The state has 50 thousand people behind bars.

What is it we’re hoping to achieve?

Are we achieving it?

When reporters recently toured Vienna prison, administrators were busy painting over mold in showers, and replacing windows that had long been broken.

They were struggling to meet basic standards of sanitation.

Retired Correctional Officer Dean Harper says that’s a long ways from a department of corrections that used to try to help men put their lives back together.

HARPER: I just don’t know their system and I sometimes wonder if they know their system.  You’ve got to look back the way that it was and you can’t say that was 100 percent wrong because look at the amount of institutions that’s been built because we have incarcerated so many and not rehabilitated.  So, which system works?  When you take away a person’s ability to do good because they have done bad, what do you leave them?

WILDEBOER: It’s interesting the way you explain it, it all seems so simple and so obvious.

HARPER: It is very simple but you have to have, the number one thing, is common sense.  I’ve often said, if I could sit down with the governor and say, you know governor, let’s see if there’s not something that we couldn’t say, ‘hey corrections needs, can’t we do something with this?  Can’t we go back to working the inmates, can’t we do something that’s constructive instead of being destructive?’  But you couldn’t never get them to do that.  I don’t think that you could ever get them to ever sit down and admit, ‘we have a problem.’  To me it’s really a shame that we have all of these people locked up and really getting nothing in return.  And it’s not that the inmate don’t want to do it.  For whatever reason we won’t let them do it.

LEE: All I want to do is get something that I can present to an employer when I get out.

Paul Lee has been in prison several times and he doesn’t want to come back, but he hasn’t had any luck getting into classes at Vienna to get some job skills.

LEE: They put you on a list and tell you that you’re on a list and you never get called.

Lee says he’s willing to take a job doing anything when he’s out.

LEE: I wanna be able to be a man, I want to be productive in the neighborhood.  I wanna be productive in the society that I come from, you know what I’m saying, I wanna be, just get me something to do and I will do it at 57-years-old.

But Lee is just a couple months from his release date and he doesn’t love his job prospects.

LEE: I’m scared.  The closer I get the scareder I get because I’ve got to eat and if I don’t have no job what are you gonna do?  What are you gonna do?

More than 33,000 people will leave Illinois prisons this year.  

Nearly 50 percent of them  will be back in prison within three  years.