SPRINGFIELD – First, Gov. Pat Quinn rejected reporters’ requests to tour Illinois prisons as he plans a major shakeup in the state’s corrections system. Now his administration is refusing to reveal precisely who has been allowed to see inside the state penitentiaries during his three years in office.
Carefully controlled prison walk-throughs were commonplace for lawmakers, journalists and others in years past as a way to illustrate conditions for prisoners and the state employees who keep them in line. But after barring the gate to reporters last month, Quinn’s administration has deemed it too burdensome to reveal who has been allowed to enter in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Associated Press.
Despite the governor’s declaration that allowing reporters inside is a “security risk,” prison officials said only individual wardens have information about tours by outside groups, and that top Department of Corrections brass don’t keep track of who’s coming and going, although some evidence contradicts that.
The policy raises more questions about the administration’s transparency and management as the Corrections agency carries out Quinn’s budget-cutting plan to shutter two major state lockups despite severe overcrowding. The union representing prison employees objects to the proposal, saying it could lead to dangerous conditions for guards and inmates.
The AP and other media have asked to see prison conditions, which are described very differently by the two sides. When rejected, the AP sought information about approved tours so it could speak with others who have been inside. But the state denied the information request, saying it would take too much time for a busy agency to collect the data from more than two dozen facilities.
The administration’s tighter prison control comes as correctional systems nationally are trending toward more access, according to Daron Hall, president of the American Correctional Association, which accredits prison systems.
Hall, the county sheriff in Nashville, Tenn., and a Democrat like Quinn, said his own philosophy is to let reporters into his four jails to see what his agency is up against. He said he understands safety concerns, however, and said Illinois’ overcrowding situation might merit caution.
“It’s a closed environment, literally, and the public (doesn’t) understand,” Hall said. “And when there is a problem, I’ve always felt it was good if the media has had access before, for various reasons — one, to educate the community about how tough our jobs are. It’s not an easy world.”
Quinn has ordered the closing of two major penitentiaries, though his original plan to have it done by Aug. 31 was thwarted by an ongoing union lawsuit. One of the facilities is the high-security Tamms, which holds the state’s most dangerous prisoners. They would be transferred to Pontiac prison, where workers say there’s insufficient space and safeguards.
A shutdown of a women’s prison in Dwight would initiate a complicated movement of 5,000 inmates among a half-dozen prisons.
The administration has not volunteered much about how this will happen, even when media have requested information through open-records laws. The AP has filed 12 FOIA requests to the governor’s office and Corrections since July, but three-quarters of them were denied.
The AP is asking for an on-site look at the state’s segregation units, particularly Pontiac’s, where more than two dozen inmates have already been transferred from Tamms. Among other media outlets rebuffed on tour requests is WBEZ, a public radio outlet in Chicago.
Corrections’ denial of information about tours also raises accountability questions. How severe is the purported “security risk” if only individual prison wardens, and not their bosses in Springfield, have records of who’s getting inside?
“If the governor is claiming there are legitimate security concerns, I do think it would be important for his senior staff or administrators to know who is or who is not being admitted for a tour,” said Rep. Jason Barickman, a Republican whose district includes the Dwight and Pontiac prisons.
He and other members of the General Assembly say they have been allowed to visit various lockups within the past year. Lawmakers have not embraced Quinn’s closure plan and included money in the budget to keep the prisons open.
The AP requested information on organized tours by community groups, lawmakers, reporters or others. Corrections responded that “there is no central repository for these documents” and offered, under the law, to consider a “narrowed” request — in this case, information from just two prisons out of two dozen.
Spokeswoman Kayce Ataiyero told the AP each prison’s visitor logs “contain thousands of entries — including those representing the visits of inmates’ family and friends,” making a search too laborious.
But other evidence suggests top Corrections officials do know about separate tour groups, and are involved in approving them. When a reporter called Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton, a staff member in the warden’s office said a tour request must be submitted in writing to the warden, but a deputy director of the department has final say.
In addition, prison wardens submit weekly activity reports to one of the three deputy directors who supervise them, routinely listing approved tours.
Ataiyero did not respond to a question about whether the data could be collected from the deputy directors. Nor would she say whether the agency’s computerized “Visitor Tracking System” could provide answers.
Contact John O’Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor
Illinois Freedom of Information Act: http://tinyurl.com/63wtctz
IDOC Offender Management Systems: http://tinyurl.com/9rvfy6w