Gov. Quinn, we have questions

WBEZ has asked the Illinois governor for months to explain his thinking on overcrowding and conditions in the state’s billion-dollar prison system.

March 28, 2013

UPDATE: Illinois Governor Pat Quinn says he will lay out his prison plans and policies in an interview with WBEZ, but it’s going to be a couple of months yet.

For nine months, WBEZ has requested interviews and Quinn's office has consistently refused. This morning we asked you to get involved by contacting the governor if you wanted answers too. Kudos to you. That pressure, along with pressure from people tweeting and blogging, including reporters from the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader seems to have worked.
Quinn was rushing out of a press conference today in west suburban Franklin Park to head down to Champaign but he spoke briefly to WBEZ and committed himself to discussing prisons. He said that an interview would have to wait until after he finishes the state budget at the end of May.

“I think it’s the best time to first see what our budget for the department of corrections before talking about initiatives of the future,” Quinn said.

Quinn laying out his prison priorities is an indispensable first step in addressing the significant problems facing the Illinois Department of Corrections. Keep sharing your questions about state prisons using the links in this story. We’re listening.

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Got questions?

If you want answers from the governor about his policies for Illinois' billion-dollar prison system, you can copy and paste WBEZ's questions posed at the end this story and/or add your own and contact Gov. Quinn

And we want to hear from you: what other questions do you have about Illinois prisons?

Leave a voicemail at our prison phone line: 888-915-9945. Or fill out this form.

We'll be sure to pass your questions along and try to get answers. We might even use your voicemail as part of a radio story (with your permission, of course).

You can also tweet your questions about Illinois prisons to @GovernorQuinn. If you'd like Quinn to answer the questions posed by WBEZ, consider linking to this story. Example tweet:

Hey @GovernorQuinn, we have questions about Illinois prisons: wbez.is/10aKNL4

Over the last several weeks the Illinois Department of Corrections has moved 600 men into prison gymnasiums across the state. It’s the latest sign of the overcrowding problem facing the prisons — but it’s something the public will not see.

That’s because Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn refuses to let cameras in the facilities to document conditions. It’s part of Quinn’s pattern of obstructing public debate on prisons in Illinois, prisons that cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars every year.

Here’s a little history for some context.

A year ago, when WBEZ asked to visit a couple minimum security prisons, Quinn said no — citing safety and security. When WBEZ threatened to sue the governor, his administration quickly resolved safety and security concerns. To head off the litigation, the Department of Corrections planned guided tours for reporters.

The day before the tour at Vandalia in southern Illinois I interviewed several inmates, who all said something similar to what I heard from 51-year-old William Jessup.

“Well, what I was going to talk to you about today was some of our conditions that I have experienced and yes, they fixed part of them today, miraculously, like the broken windows,” Jessup said. “I can only assume because of the media coming in.”

As we walked through the prison, numerous inmates approached reporters to tell us about very recent improvements like bathrooms being cleaned with pressure sprayers and black mold being scrubbed off the ceilings.

At Vienna, another prison in southern Illinois, inmates told us that the showers had been painted just the day before the tour. Warden Randy Davis didn’t try to hide that fact.

“Do you get ready for visitors at your house? We do the same thing,” Davis said. “That’s what you do. You want to look good and put your best foot forward.”

The pre-tour improvements may be minor but they show a government agency being responsive to public scrutiny. That’s as it should be. But that scrutiny is being hampered by the fact that Gov. Quinn continues to prohibit cameras inside the prisons. The reason for prohibiting cameras? It’s one we’ve heard before.

“It could be a security issue,” said IDOC director Tony Godinez. “You know we have a population here that not all of them take very kindly to be scrutinized with cameras, you know, quite honestly, some of these people don’t want to be on camera.”

Vandalia inmates Martell Saulter and Jeffery McKenzie don’t think cameras would be a problem.

“It’s not like we’re gonna break the camera. Every inmate here at Vandalia has an outdate, if it’s no more than five years. I don’t think he want to risk that,” said McKenzie before he was interrupted by Saulter, who was sitting next to him.

“Don’t nobody do nothing like that ‘cause everybody’s short,” Saulter said.

Prisons don’t have to be shut off from the rest of the world. Take the Cook County Jail, where Steve Patterson used to work as the director of communications under Sheriff Tom Dart.

“Openness and transparency not only is good for the public, but it’s good for your operation and it breaks down a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions,” Patterson said.

When Patterson worked for the sheriff he says they had dozens of reporters in the jail, which with a population of 10,000 is much larger than any state prison.

“I can’t think of anyone who wasn’t allowed access to the facility,” Patterson said.

That includes television crews.

“The very first group that we worked with was from Chicago’s Towers Productions and they developed a three-part documentary for the Discovery Channel, which meant allowing them in the Cook County Jail with unfettered access for roughly nine or ten weeks," Patterson said. "And I remember distinctly Sheriff Dart saying, as long as everyone’s doing their jobs and doing it right, we should have nothing to hide, there’s no reason not to let them in."

Patterson says they also had a crew from MSNBC in the jail for about seven or eight months over the course of a year and a half. And the Oprah Winfrey network spent eight or nine weeks filming a two-hour documentary.

“Through all of that I cannot think of a single incident that we had a problem where the crew was put in danger or anything like that,” Patterson said.

During this time, when camera crews were spending months at the jail without incident, the jail was being run by the then-Executive Director Tony Godinez. Godinez is now the head of the Illinois Department of Corrections. He’s the person we heard from earlier in the story who, with the blessing or at the behest of Gov. Quinn, is now saying cameras could be a security risk.

The union representing prison workers says Quinn has other reasons to keep cameras out of prisons, not just concerns about safety and security.

“Pat Quinn, you know, seems to be very concerned about public scrutiny,” said AFSCME Regional Director Eddie Caumiant while standing outside the Vandalia prison after the media tour there.

Caumiant says he thinks Quinn doesn’t want visuals coming out of the facilities because the governor is closing prisons, which requires him to say the system’s not overcrowded.

“The narrative that they’ve been telling is that there’s all these facilities that are totally underused in the state,” Caumiant said. “You know, if you come in with a camera or your eyeballs, you can see that they’re stuffed to the gills. They’re not half full. They’re stacked to the rafters so I believe it gives the lie to the narrative, so it makes sense that he wouldn’t want visual evidence of that around.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Quinn says that’s false. She insists it’s an issue of safety and security. It’s something we’d like to challenge Gov. Quinn on but we can’t. For the last nine months now I’ve been seeking an interview with the governor to ask him about the camera ban and a number of other issues related to prisons. His press office has repeatedly refused the interview requests.

In our most recent back and forth with Quinn’s office, his spokeswoman Brooke Anderson told us that there certainly won’t be time for an interview for at least another two months while legislators are in Springfield. She said maybe they’ll think about an interview after that.

As with any public issue, we think the public has a right to know the governor’s thinking and planning when it comes to this billion dollar agency.

Again, here are a few of our questions:

  • Governor, there are almost 50,000 inmates in Illinois prisons. It’s an historic high. Nonetheless, you’ve closed prisons. Hasn’t that just exacerbated the overcrowding problem? Why isn’t the state bringing down the prison population first and then closing facilities?
  • Governor, your Department of Corrections has a new policy of housing men in gymnasiums at six facilities. The department insists this is a temporary fix, but the prison watchdog John Howard Association says there’s no public plan that will bring down the prison population anytime soon and, in fact, there’s good reason to think the population will continue to climb, so how can housing men in gyms possibly be a temporary fix?
  • Governor, I’ve heard horror stories about health care in prisons but the state has a more than $1.3 billion contract with a private health care company to do the work. What is the state doing to ensure that inmates are receiving the health care that taxpayers are paying for?

There are a lot of other issues to discuss: little education or training, overcrowded and dilapidated facilities, poor prospects for inmates who are released.

I have spent nine months trying to get the governor to discuss these issues. I have clearly been spectacularly unsuccessful, so I’m turning to you.

If you think it’s important that he address this issue please take a few minutes to send him a note. You can copy and paste the questions we’ve posed and/or write your own.

We’d also like to hear your questions. What do you want to know about Illinois prisons? Leave a voicemail at our prison phone line: 888-915-9945 or fill out this form.

You can also tweet your questions about Illinois prisons to @GovernorQuinn. If you'd like Quinn to answer the questions posed by WBEZ, consider linking to this story. Example tweet:

Hey @GovernorQuinn, we have questions about Illinois prisons: http://wbez.is/10aKNL4

In the meantime: Gov. Quinn, please consider our interview requests an open invitation.