Seven months ago, when I read some concerning reports by the John Howard Association about Illinois’ prison system, I had no idea I’d be spending much of the year simply trying to get into the prisons to report on conditions first hand.
If you regularly listen to WBEZ or check out this website, then you may be familiar with some of the stories we’ve published about inmates living in crowded basements that habitually flood, infestations so severe an inmate had to get a cockroach surgically removed from his ear, and a broken jaw going untreated for eight weeks while the inmate withered away because it was too painful to eat. We thought the public should see and know first hand exactly what’s going on, but Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has consistently refused requests for access.
“Yeah, well I don't believe in that. I think that it's important that when it comes to the security of our prisons I go with the director that I have at the Department of Corrections. Security comes first and it isn't a country club,” Quinn told reporters earlier this year in Springfield.
Public officials and citizens called on the governor to let reporters into prisons but Quinn was unresponsive. So over the past several weeks WBEZ has been working with attorneys Jeffrey Colman and Jason Bradford from the law firm of Jenner and Block. They volunteered their time to represent WBEZ to push for access.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in prisons and I believe it’s extraordinarily important for the public, the taxpayers, to understand what the conditions are in our state prisons, in our federal prisons, at places like Guantanamo,” said Colman. “I think it’s wrong for government to deny the media and through the media the public the ability to see and hear what things are like in the prisons and what the hundreds and hundreds of millions dollars of taxpayer money are being used to do.”
Colman and Bradford met with attorneys for Governor Quinn and the general counsel for the Department of Corrections. They laid out our concerns and legal arguments.
“We believe that we have valid constitutional claims to be brought and we did indeed threaten to sue the Illinois Department of Corrections because it was denying media representatives access to the Illinois prisons,” said Colman.
After months and months of requests from WBEZ and other media outlets, Gov. Quinn is finally allowing reporters into prisons. It’s a step in the right direction but it took the threat of that federal lawsuit, and Quinn’s administration continues to throw up roadblocks to meaningful transparency.
Last Friday the Department of Corrections released a new media policy, though it’s disappointingly similar to the old media policy. Basically, it leaves everything to the discretion of the director of the Department of Corrections. But here’s the new part: Instead of blocking media visits altogether, the department is now planning to hold a few media tours, including visits to Vienna and Vandalia, prisons WBEZ had earlier been told we couldn’t visit because of blanket concerns about safety and security.
However, the new policy does not allow reporters to take microphones or cameras on the tours, and that is a significant impediment for reporters trying to inform the public about what’s going on inside. It means if there’s mold or flooding, the public won’t be able to see how severe it is or isn’t. The public won’t know what Building 19 at Vienna looks like when all the windows are boarded up like it’s an abandoned building even though it still houses hundreds of inmates. It means the public can’t see first hand what it looks like when the ceiling on an entire cell block collapses, requiring 88 men to be moved to a gym where they’re forced to share only two toilets.
I asked the Department of Corrections to explain the prohibition on mics and cameras but they didn’t. In an emailed statement a spokeswoman noted that media are permitted to bring a notebook and the department will provide so-called flex pens on tours, which is above and beyond what is permitted on any other tour.
John Maki with the John Howard Association, a non-partisan prison watchdog group in Illinois, says transparency should be a default position of any government. “So, if the Department of Corrections is saying we will not allow “X,” whether it’s a microphone or whatever, they should be able to explain, they should be able to say 'this is why,' and if they can’t, I think that’s a problem,” said Maki.
“I’ve been on the ground in Illinois prisons for a few decades and increasingly it has tightened up,” said Carol Marin. She’s a reporter with NBC 5 and WTTW in Chicago and a columnist for the Chicago Sun Times and she’s reported from dozens of prisons.
“We had a cameraman colleague who used to joke that I would never take him any nice places. I was always going into prisons. We’ve been in just about every prison in the state of Illinois, including Menard, which is to hell and gone on the other side of the state,” said Marin while sitting at her desk at NBC. She showed me video from a story she did from a prison in the late 1970s where she’s chatting with six or eight, maybe more inmates about the importance of gang ties behind bars. In another tape she’s interviewing inmates on the cell block and in a shop where they’re welding. She says she’s taken a camera and microphone all over the prisons and historically that wasn’t a problem in Illinois.
“I’m gonna tell you,” said Marin, growing increasingly frustrated as she talked about the lack of access to prisons in Illinois these days. “You can’t report on prisons if you can’t see them, if you can’t talk to inmates, and if you can’t bring in a camera, and what the administration, I think, is counting on is that in a day of reduced news budgets, fewer reporters, and the distance that prisons are from Chicago that we won’t care or we won’t cover it and as a consequence taxpayers won’t see it.”
Marin says she thinks that the Department of Corrections also figures that news organizations are suffering from shrinking budgets and are therefore unlikely to sue for access. “We are less likely to insist that it is our right and our responsibility to cover public institutions into which millions if not billions of taxpayer dollars go,” she said.
The threat of a lawsuit did push the Illinois Department of Corrections to allow reporters in for guided tours, but the new media policy is long way from maximizing transparency. Instead it seems aimed solely at minimizing the threat of a lawsuit. For months we’ve been requesting an interview with Gov. Quinn to discuss the policy decisions being made by the corrections department under him, but his press office has declined.
Three media tours at state prisons are tentatively scheduled – one a month - for each of the next three months, but WBEZ’s attorney Jeff Colman will be watching and prepared for litigation. “Opening the Illinois prisons to media review for the first time in several years is a very positive development but we continue to believe that the Department of Corrections policies and practices -- including this new directive -- violate constitutional guarantees and deprive the public of the meaningful ability to see and hear about conditions in the prisons and what taxpayer monies are being funded to do,” he said.