By Jamey Dunn
While the Illinois Department of Corrections has fixed some of the serious maintenance issues at the Vienna Correctional Center, the overcrowding in the prison is hard to overlook.
The minimum security prison in southern Illinois became the subject of scrutiny after the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group, released a report last year detailing conditions that the report called “deplorable” and “unfit” for the inmates living there.
Several news outlets asked to tour that prison and others in the state, but Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration initially denied those requests. Newspapers then ran editorials critical of the lack of transparency. WBEZ Chicago threatened to sue the administration to gain access, and Quinn then relented. DoC announced in October that reporters would be allowed to tour three of the state’s prisons: Vandalia Correctional Center, another minimum security prison plagued by reports of substandard living conditions; Pontiac Correctional Center, a maximum security prison that would absorb prisoners from the super-maximum security prison near Tamms as part of Quinn’s facility closure plan; and the prison in Vienna, where DoC officials led reporters on a tour on Friday.
With an average daily population of a little more than 1,600, the prison now holds twice the number of inmates it was designed to house. However, warden Randy Davis said the facility’s emphasis on education, vocation and recreation makes that number manageable. “Could we drop a couple two or three hundred [prisoners]? Yeah, that would be great. ... Do I think for the most part we are extremely overcrowded? Not really. Not based on the fact that we try to get the inmates out a lot of the institution. We make every effort to get them into recreation, vocational training, education programs. My thing is, I like to see inmates out and about and doing things. It’s easier to operate. You have less problems,” said Davis, who has been warden at the facility since December 2012.
Vienna Correctional Center consists of several building, including six housing halls that were built in the 1970s and resemble dorms, albeit far less cushy than the average college freshman expects today. Most cells in those units hold two prisoners and are about 7 feet by 6 1/2 feet. Some cells hold only one prisoner and have a toilet. Davis said older inmates with health problems are typically assigned to them. Two of the cells entered by reporters had holes in the wall. Davis said there used to be shelves in the cells, but they were removed, and the holes should have been filled. The hole in one cell did not penetrate the wall completely but instead resembled a small cubby. In another unoccupied cell, the hole had been taped over.
The housing units are not air-conditioned, and some inmates complained that they are also not heated well. Inmates can open windows covered with metal screens in their cells. “I’ve had times that it’s been awful cold in here. Awful cold. And you wore [all] your clothes and everything just to try to keep warm and still chatter your teeth,” said Richard Nicholson, who has been at Vienna for two years, serving time for residential burglary. “I wore my hat, my coat and every piece of clothing I had just to keep warm.” He is scheduled for release later this month.
During the day, prisoners in the units have to go outside, but they must be present in their cells for counts that occur four times daily. They have keys to their doors, so they can lock up their belongings. In the yard outside one of the housing units, two prisoners played a bean bag toss game commonly seen at college parties, while two others argued about football. Inmates lifted weights, attended to jobs, such as cleaning, and played basketball. Some hung out in their rooms reading, sleeping or watching television. Some of those who cannot afford a TV sat in the common rooms of the housing units watching the shared set in each building.
Each unit has a shared bathroom with three toilets, two urinals and four showers shared by about 60 prisoners. Davis said work had been done to address the leaky pipes and mold problems described in the John Howard report. The shower that a reporter saw had been freshly painted within a few days before the tour. Davis said keeping the bathroom paint fresh and the plumbing in the old building workable is an ongoing battle. “Our plumbers and our pipe fitters stay very busy.”
Davis said he is most proud of the vocational and educational programs, housed in their own dedicated building, which looks a bit like an old brick school. The prison offers several vocational programs, including a body shop, a mechanics program and a cosmetology course. Visitors to the cosmetology program could almost imagine they had stepped into a barbershop outside of the prison’s gates. A row of chairs with salon hair dryer hoods runs down the middle of the room. Posters of people modeling hairstyles hung on the walls. Inmates in the program worked at their stations — which include a large mirror and styling chair along with clips, combs, trimmers and other essentials — cutting, shaving and styling other inmates’ hair with intense focus.
But the vocational and educational programs are not an option for prisoners who never make it past the waiting lists that average 50 to 100 inmates long, depending on the program. About half of the inmates at Vienna are only serving a year or less there. “That is key. That is absolutely where the rubber hits the road. While we don’t control who comes in, when we send people out, we’re hoping they come out better so they don’t come back in,” said DoC Director Tony Godinez. “So we’re re-shifting our program efforts to those individuals that are going to be leaving us soon because it makes more sense to re-divert those program efforts to those individuals — education, vocational studies, drug treatment. Because those are the individuals that are actually leaving soon, that could potentially come back, not the person that’s doing 40 years.” Inmates also work in the prison, but there are only about 650 jobs available.
Building 19, which is one of only two original 1965 buildings left at the facility, gained a level of public infamy after the John Howard report and ensuing news stories, but its conditions have been well-known among Vienna prisoners for some time. If you ask an inmate about 19, odds are he has something to say. The building houses the prison’s intake center, and new prisoners live there until permanent placement at one of the housing units. Davis said inmates typically live there for about 10 days, but he said it sometimes takes longer to place offenders who have gang affiliations because they must be kept away from inmates in rival gangs. About 500 inmates are in the building at any time.
One inmate, who did not want to give his name, said he had been living in Building 19 for his entire six-month sentence, which was scheduled to an end in a few weeks. Davis said that in some cases, inmates with short sentences do spend all their time at Vienna living in Building 19.
The John Howard Report was especially critical of the conditions there, detailing disrepair and disgusting living arrangements. “On both floors, windows were broken and without screens. As a result, birds had flown into the living areas and built nests in the light fixtures. Inmates complained that mice, cockroaches and other insects were everywhere.”
Reporters did not find such conditions on their tour last week. Most windows had been repaired, although a few were still boarded up here and there. The inmate who spent his six-month sentence in 19 said he was bothered by spiders and mold in the building. Another prisoner, Marcus Johnson, who said he had been in Building 19 since he arrived at Vienna in September, said there had been a mouse crawling in the hollow frame of his bunk bed, but prison workers put out traps and the mouse stopped making its appearances soon after.
Nicholson, who lived in Building 19 in 2010, had this to say: “Back then, I’ve got to say that it wasn’t real good. It needed a lot of work. The bathrooms dripped on you whenever you were using them, the piping. I imagine they’ve got that fixed by now. But I would say that building is not really fit for people.” But he said that there had been recent improvements all over the prison. “Lately, they’ve really been cracking down and doing quite a bit.”
Davis said that after he was hired last year, there was no time to replace the original 1960s windows before the winter. “We did board up the windows last year,” he said. “We just didn’t have time to get that fixed.” He pointed out that the prison is in a rural area, where even homeowners usually have to deal with some pests. “You’re going to have mice, and you’re going to have bugs.” But he said that the prison has switched pest control vendors since the John Howard visit, and he said he has seen improvement.
However, another section of the report still rings true. “As JHA entered the second floor, we saw hundreds of inmates with nothing to do except pace around the room or huddle around a small television in the corner of the room. A Vienna staff member seemed to recognize the stunned look on our faces. ‘This is a nightmare,’ he said quietly to one of JHA’s staff. ‘This should not be.’”
It would be difficult for anyone who walked into Building 19 for the first time not to be a bit shocked at the row after row of metal bunk beds. Reporters were not allowed into a full wing, which typically houses about 100 inmates, but they walked past one. Inside, inmates called out for them to come talk to them and pointed to the room and the dozens of other inmates around them. But even in the wing that reporters entered, where most inmates had gone out for recreation, they got a feeling for what it was like for the residents.
On an average weekday, inmates in building 19 get one to two hours of yard recreation. They get an hour in the gym about every three days. Davis said he hopes to convert a large room, now used to store laundry, into an indoor recreational area for 19 because once winter comes, outdoor recreation would be limited. Inmates in building 19 also take their meals in the prison cafeteria. But the rest of their time is spent on their wing of the building, penned up indoors with 100 other men. Most sit on their bunk beds, reading or watching television if they have one.
The hours kept by the prison’s cafeteria are another indicator of the issues caused by crowding. Breakfast service begins at 4:45, lunch at 9:30 and dinner at 3:30. Davis said that schedule is needed to have time to prepare food for and feed the more than 1,600 inmates.
“It’s overcrowded. Living amongst 104 inmates at a time is kind of hard, but that’s something you’ve got to deal with,” Johnson said. “Being amongst that many people, going to the restroom, we’ve got to wait because there’s like five or six sinks and it’s like 30 or 40 or 50 inmates at a time need to use the restroom or even the phone. You know, it’s kind of hard, but we all try to adapt to it.”
Johnson said most inmates find something to do, such as reading books, and try to keep to themselves. “But you’ve got a lot of guys. That’s a hundred different personalities that you’ve got to deal with. People have their days where you say one thing, and they want to fly off the hinges.”
Johnson is serving a two-year sentence for drug possession, and he said he does not know when he will be assigned to another housing unit. When asked what the hardest part of prison life was, he said: “The hardest? I mean, Building 19. Building 19 is the hardest. If you get me away from as many inmates at one time in one room then I’m all right. But right now, I can’t do nothing but just deal with it.”
Vienna Lt. Michael Turner, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 415, said the parts of the prison that reporters visited on the tour were representative of what the rest of the prison looks like. “What you saw ... is typical. It’s an institution. It’s not a brand new institution. It’s not an ancient institution. It’s one that needs a little TLC daily. We do the best we can to do that. Resources are very, very limited,” he said. Turner said the major issues are, “in my opinion, I think more than the structure of the institution or the shape the institution is in, the overcrowding and the understaffing.”
Davis said the staff totals about 100, with about 60 corrections officers on duty on a typical weekday. He said the prison is about 70 people short of recommended staffing levels, and that security shifts would not be fully staffed if it weren’t for mandatory overtime for guards. Overtime shifts are 16 hours.
“You can’t watch everything. You can’t control everything. You do what you can, and really, that’s all you can do,” Turner said. “Staff are tired. We’ve been doing this consistently since the beginning of the year.”
John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, said he is glad that DoC has fixed some of the maintenance issues that his organization highlighted, but he said the real problem is the number of inmates in the prison. “Prison overcrowding, you can’t make repairs in the facility to solve that problem.”
He said Vienna was once a model for rehabilitation. “It used to be this crown jewel of the DoC. It was a place where people got educations. With the numbers they have, they can’t provide those services to everyone. It’s just not possible.”
However, Maki said the public should not point the finger solely at IDoC. “This is a problem that the Department of Corrections cannot solve.”
The Department of Corrections is working to implement a new program that would allow prisoners to earn up to 180 days off their sentences in exchange for completing classes, working and participating in vocational programs. A similar program, known as the Meritorious Good Time program, was ended in 2010 when Quinn took heat for the DoC allowing inmates out after serving only weeks of their sentences. Advocates, including Maki, have said that shutting down that program contributed to the crowding at Vienna and other lower-security prisons in the state.
Godinez said the new program should be up and running by early next year. “February. I hope it’s sooner than that. But we have to do this deliberately. There’s no rush in getting people out. Remember our mission — our core mission — is public safety.”
Maki said the only way to solve the crowding problem is to get lawmakers, law enforcement leaders, advocates and members of the public together “and ask ourselves what kind of prison system do we want to have?”
He said that criminals should be punished. But for some, there might be different, cheaper ways than prison sentences. ‘Prison is only one form of punishment, but for low-level offenders, prison is not the appropriate form, and it’s very expensive” He noted that taxpayers are shelling out an estimated $22,000 per prisoner per year for incarceration at Vienna. “This model costs us money.”
As for the conditions of the prison system overall, Godinez said: “We have done the best that we can with the limited resources that we have. ... We’re running on a budget that we had six years ago with 4,000 more inmates and 3,000 less staff.”