VIENNA – An Illinois prison that had been slammed by a watchdog as overcrowded and squalid was opened to reporters Friday, and the warden said he was confident that previous shortcomings, which he didn’t entirely discount, have been fixed.
The two-hour tour of the minimum-security Vienna Correctional Center in deep southern Illinois comes just weeks after Gov. Pat Quinn’s office relented on a decision to block journalists from touring the state’s prisons. The visit was tightly controlled: The state’s top prison chief barred cameras of any kind during the walkthrough, insisting that allowing them would be a security issue.
“Quite honestly, some of these people [inmates] don’t want to be on camera,” Tony Godinez, the Illinois Department of Corrections director, told about a dozen reporters before the tour.
Giving the media access to the lockup with 1,670 inmates – about 700 more than Godinez says it was designed to handle – was months in the making, and happened more than a year after the nonprofit John Howard Association issued a report about flooding, vermin, inoperable toilets, mold and more. The group called living conditions at Vienna “deplorable,” following years of complaints about overcrowding and understaffing at the prison.
Chicago’s WBEZ Radio and other media outlets had pressed for months for a tour, but the administration refused to let them in. In August, Quinn publicly declared that “prisons aren’t country clubs. They’re not there to be visited and looked at,” drawing Republican Treasurer Dan Rutherford’s rebuke that the approach was “uncalled for and out of touch.”
On Friday, Godinez insisted “we are a transparent agency” that did the best it could to accommodate reporters while focusing on weighty budget constraints.
“I regret we didn’t represent ourselves better than we did in the past,” Godinez said when peppered by reporters about the administration’s position about media accessibility and prison security. He said reporters have never been impeded visiting prisons to interview specific inmates, though arranging tours can be a trickier matter.
“It makes sense journalists would want to see this,” John Maki, executive director of the Chicago-based John Howard Association, told The Associated Press by telephone before the tour. “I think it’s in the governor’s interest, the public’s interest to fully understand what life is like in our prison system.
“Vienna is one of the most-profound examples of overcrowding and captures what this is all about.”
Exuding pride about the lockup he began overseeing a year ago, warden Randy Davis admitted the 47-year-old lockup has its issues.
“We’ve got good, solid old bones. But do we need cosmetics? Yeah,” he said of the prison building after the tour. He said the tour only excluded the lockup’s segregation unit and, for expedience, other housing units, where some windows are covered by plastic.
When questioned whether workers scrambled to glam up the prison to impress reporters, Davis didn’t deny it.
“You put your best foot forward,” he said.
The complex resembled a community college campus, albeit circled by razor wire. Davis led reporters through the prison’s vocational training area where inmates learn auto mechanics, body work, barbering and cosmetology. The tour also passed through the chapel, the dining area and recreation yard, where inmates in T-shirts played basketball, lifted weights or tossed beanbags.
But most of the reporters’ attention was saved for Building 19, the 500-inmate dormitory where the John Howard group last year reported finding rodent droppings, told of inmates complaining about mice and cockroaches and said windows on two floors were broken and birds had built nests inside. Maki later called the dorm “one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen.”
On Friday, that building’s living areas resembled military barracks, each with rows of bunk beds four feet apart. Some inmates gathered in front of a glassed-in television set mounted on the wall, while others napped.
None of the issues cited by the John Howard group were readily apparent, though the warden said mice and other pests can be a constant struggle anytime so many people are gathered in one spot, often with food.
“You’re gonna have it anywhere you go,” Davis said. “Something we’re really trying to do a better job with is sanitation in general.”
An inmate who’s called Building 19 home since his September arrival told reporters he has seen nothing alarming, other than the two cockroaches and a mouse he’s spotted “even though they mop, sweep and clean every day.”
“It’s not a big issue,” said Marcus Johnson, a 37-year-old from Decatur who is serving a two-year sentence for drug possession – his fourth drug-related stint. “It’s overcrowded, and living with 104 inmates at a time is kind of hard. But it’s something you’ve got to deal with.”