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.
Robert Wildeboer of member station WBEZ has the first of two stories this week looking at the Vienna prison and what its decline tells us about the prison system in Illinois.
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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.
Robert Wildeboer, WBEZ.