Conditions At Vienna State Prison, Part Two

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

Illinois Public Radio member station WBEZ has been looking at the Vienna state prison in far southern Illinois.

In part one of its two-part series, we heard how not so many years ago, prison inmates staffed the ambulance service and took care of residents who were having medical emergencies.

As Robert Wildeboer reports, that’s far different than life there now.

[.mp3 – 7:31]

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.

Robert WIldeboer, WBEZ.

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