This episode takes us back to the 1980s, when the town of Mt. Sterling in western Illinois was desperate for economic development. Farms were going under, infrastructure was worn out, and many feared the town would die. A group of young businessmen who dubbed themselves the “Chain Gang” began lobbying the state to build a prison in Brown County.
At the time, Governor Jim Thompson had popularized building prisons by selling rural communities on the jobs and other economic benefits of a prison. The enthusiasm led to a series of high profile prison “sweepstakes” in which small Illinois towns competed against one another, often employing hijinks and publicity stunts on a giddy march to mass incarceration.
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About the host
Shannon Heffernan is the host and a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ in Chicago. She has spent much of her career reporting on prisons. The work for this podcast began nearly four years ago when she got a call that an inmate at a prison had died under suspicious circumstances.
Motive is a production of WBEZ Chicago. Jesse Dukes (@CuriousDukes) is the producer. Marie Mendoza (@marieannmendoza) is our associate producer. Our editor is Rob Wildeboer. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. Tracy Brown is our Chief Content Officer. Joe DeCeault and Marie Mendoza mixed this episode. Original music by Cue Shop.
MARTYN LEWIS: Hello, my name is Martyn Lewis, and I’m speaking to you from Flora in the south-eastern tip of Illinois.
(LEWIS FADES UNDER)
SHANNON HEFFERNAN, HOST: It’s the 1980s, and in rural Illinois, a tall British man, with a luxurious mullet and pink Tuxedo stands in front of a camera.
LEWIS: I think it’s instructive to have a look at what the town of Flora has done because maybe you could get some ideas from what Flora’s done for your own campaign.
(LEWIS FADES UNDER)
HEFFERNAN: He’s there to make a short film about the big dream of a tiny town: Flora, Illinois, which hopes to convince Illinois’ governor to build a prison there.
(AMBIENT SOUND FROM FLORA PARADE, JAILHOUSE ROCK)
HEFFERNAN: To get attention they’ve organized a parade. The local highschool band, dressed in black and white striped prison uniforms, plays Jailhouse Rock. The parade also features some men driving tiny, clownish cars in circles.
(AMBIENT SOUND FROM FLORA PARADE, SIRENS)
LEWIS: Now these people are slightly crazy. They’re the Clay County Shrine Club Widget Patrol. Now you know what a widget patrol is.
(LEWIS FADES UNDER)
HEFFERNAN: No, I still do not know what a widget patrol is.
(LEWIS FADES UP)
LEWIS: And finally, bringing up the rear, is the cow of Flora!
(AMBIENT SOUND FROM FLORA PARADE)
The parade culminates in big rally where Spencer Christian, the weatherman at the time from Good Morning America, has flown in to make a speech.
SPENCER CHRISTIAN: I’m not supposed to be partisan or political in my job, but if I were the governor, I’d give you the prison.
(CHEERS FADE UNDER)
(THEME MUSIC STARTS)
HEFFERNAN: I grew up in Kansas CIty the 80s and 90S when mass Incarceration was booming. I had family that worked in jails. Family that was locked up in prison too. There’s nothing unusual about that: 45% of the U.S. population has had an immediate family member in prison.
It’s even higher for black families—63%. Let that sink. Nearly two in three people. It’s hard to overstate what a huge impact that’s had on Black communities who’ve borne the brunt of mass incarceration. In some black Chicago neighborhoods, it’s taken away big chunks of the population and dropped them in prisons in these largely white rural areas.
(THEME MUSIC PEAKS)
HEFFERNAN: So far in the podcast, we’ve told you a number of stories: a Black man beaten to death by white guards in Brown County’s Western Illinois Correctional Center. Mental health staff driven away by abuse and racism; a close knit community of guards protecting each other.
And like I mentioned in the very first episode, there’s a way many of us have gotten used to these stories and mass incarceration can feel normal, a given. But the history of how many of these prisons actually got built? It’s fairly recent, within my lifetime. And the story of how it happened, the giddy march towards mass incarceration, is painful and also bizarre.
(THEME MUSIC PEAK)
HEFFERNAN: From WBEZ Chicago, I’m Shannon Heffernan and this is Motive.
Episode 6: The Prison Sweepstakes.
(THEME MUSIC ENDS)
ED TEEFEY: Hey, Gary. How are you?
(UNIDENTIFIED MEN MURMUR IN RESPONSE)
TEEFEY: Good, good, good. You good?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So, so.
TEEFEY: I’ll call you, let’s get together.
HEFFERNAN: I met Ed Teefey at the bank where he works in Brown County, Illinois, a place that, nearly 40 years ago, was looking to prisons to solve its economic woes, just like Flora. Teefey can hardly walk 3 feet in this town without saying hello to someone.
TEEFEY: Hi Pat.
HEFFERNAN: You know everybody?
TEEFEY: Small town life.
(HEFFERNAN, TEEFEY LAUGH)
HEFFERNAN: Thank you, sir.
TEEFEY: Let’s just drive for a minute.
HEFFERNAN: Brown county is about four hours southwest of Chicago.
TEEFEY: My truck’s dirty, like everything else I got.
HEFFERNAN: We hopped in Teefey’s truck. Golden banners of corn unfurl next to the tiny two-lane highway. Teefey is a generous host, the kind that wants to make sure you don’t miss a thing about his hometown. He brags the area is known for good deer hunting. Teefey drives down Main Street. Pretty much everyone I see looks white. He points out a fancy restaurant and the local cafe.
TEEFY: There’s a coffee shop
HEFFERNAN: Brews, with delicious baked goods. Teefey invites me to meet up with two of his long-time friends Mike Yingling and John Oliver. We hang out on Oliver’s back porch.
HEFFERNAN: Is it ok if I just set these over here?
MAN:: Yeah, sure. Anywhere.
HEFFERNAN: Hey. Oh and I got some scones if you all want any.
MIKE YINGLING: Wow!
HEFFERNAN: They’re from–
TEEFY: His family runs Brews.
HEFFERNAN: Oh, yeah?
YINGLING: These are good, by the way.
(CONVERSATION FADES UNDER)
HEFFERNAN: They drink coffee, reminisce about the town. I can see what they love about this place—it’s full of people they know, people who are friendly and warm to them. But they also remember it in the early 80s when a lot of people were leaving. Because, like many rural places in the country, family farms were dying.
JOHN OLIVER: There was a time, this would have been before your time, that west central Illinois, was called Forgottonia.
HEFFERNAN: Forgottonia. That’s kind of insulting.
OLIVER: It was something we–
MIKE YINGLING: It was a common term.
OLIVER: The crux of the message was the state had forgotten us many years before. So it was common for even politicians to refer to this as Forgottonia.
HEFFERNAN: In 1982, one in five people in Brown County were living at or below the poverty line. And so little tax money was coming in, people were worried the county might have to close its schools. Even basic necessities seemed in pretty bad shape.
OLIVER: We used to have a road going north out of Mount Sterling called Route 99. When you went on that road, you didn’t have to steer because the ruts were so severe it’d keep you in line up to Camden.
HEFFERNAN: An editorial from the local newspaper read, “Frankly friends, it’s worse than you think. We are traveling at an alarming rate toward the black hole of non-existence.”
Forgottonia was in big trouble.
HEFFERNAN: Teefey was a democrat. Oliver, a Republican. And Yingling called himself a moderate. But these three friends were all super involved in the community.
HEFFERNAN: Back in the 80s, while other young people were fleeing to find jobs elsewhere, this group of guys committed to the place. They were all natural leaders—even in their younger days. And one day, Teefey said, they were chatting together about how they heard the state needed prisons and places to build them.
TEEFEY: I think we probably drank a few beers saying, “Hey, you know, is this something we want to get involved in?”
HEFFERNAN: Around town they’d heard skepticism, some of it rooted in racist fears of families visiting the prison and moving nearby. There were also worries about prison escapes. But then, there were what they saw as the benefits.
OLIVER: We were reading these news articles about how it could mean 400 good paying with good benefit jobs, and we were young and dumb enough to decide to go after it.
HEFFERNAN: The economy may have been dying, but the desire for prisons? That was booming. After all, the 80s and 90s was the era of the War on Drugs and “Get Tough On Crime.”
MCGRUFF THE CRIME DOG: McGruff here! See that guy? He is stealing that bike. Now see that lady? She’s calling the cops.
HEFFERNAN: For example, this is McGruff. He was a cartoon bloodhound in a trenchcoat, a hardboiled dog detective.
MCGRUFF: You know, you could do that. You’ll be helping to take a bite out of crime. (CARTOON CRUNCH SOUND)
HEFFERNAN: He made commercials about calling the police and had a whole music album of little bops like this:
(“WINNERS DON’T USE” STARTS)
MCGRUFF: McGruff here. I want you to learn a song that tells people to say no to drugs.
(MCGRUFF BEGINS SINGING)
MCGRUFF: Users are losers, and losers are users. So don’t use drugs, don’t use drugs. Winners don’t use, and users don’t win.
(“WINNERS DON’T USE” FADES)
HEFFERNAN: That’s how focused the country was on law and order. There was a massive anti-crime campaign for kids. Politicians on both sides of the aisle competed to be the toughest on crime, and speeches from President Ronald Regan had dog whistles appealing to white people’s fears of young Black men.
RONALD REAGAN: The portrait is that of a stark, staring face, a face that belongs to a frightening reality of our time. The face of a human predator, the face of the habitual criminal. Nothing in nature is more cruel and more dangerous.
HEFFERNAN: Regan set up a national taskforce to write up recommendations of how the nation should fight crime.
UIDENTIFIED MAN: They said their assignment from the new administration was not to worry about the causes of crime, but how to control it.
(?? FADES UNDER)
HEFFERNAN: Illinois’ Governor, a former prosecutor named Jim Thompson nicknamed “Big Jim,” was appointed as one of the taskforce heads.
JIM THOMPSON: The prison recommendations are very important, and that is to take the violent in our society and put them where they can’t injure innocent citizens, and that means penitentiaries.
HEFFERNAN: One of Thompson’s main conclusions to fight crime was more people should be locked away.
THOMPSON: Look, you can’t do halfway things when you’re talking about law enforcement. That is the very first obligation of government, is to protect our citizens. It’s more important than anything else because if you don’t have that, you can’t have anything else.
HEFFERNAN: This was a federal taskforce, and the law and order fervor was a national phenomenon. But the most important changes—the ones that really grew the prison population—happened at the state level.
Under Governor Thompson’s leadership, for example, Illinois passed a law called Class X that sent more people away to prison for longer sentences.
THOMPSON: I made up the name. I thought it had a ring to it. Movies can be X-rated. The “X” symbol was a powerful symbol in the American culture. You X’d something out.
HEFFERNAN: From 1980 to 1989, the prison population in the United States more than doubled. Even McGruff the Crime Dog would eventually land in prison many years later. True story: a man who played McGruff was found with a big stash of drugs and weapons, sentenced to 16 years.
In Illinois, cells meant for one person were now housing two. Governor Thompson needed to build new prisons fast.
THOMPSON: I ran as a law and order candidate. I was a creator of Class X, all of that stuff. If you’re a law and order candidate and you have tough criminal laws and tough criminal enforcement, you’re going to put crooks in jail. And if you’re doing that, you’ve got to build the prisons to hold them.
HEFFERNAN: Historically, no one wanted to live in a prison town. It sounded sad and dangerous. One town, Geneva, was up in arms when a member of Thompson’s staff held a public hearing about opening a prison there. But later, that staff member had an idea, a way to tackle two problems at once.
HEFFERNAN: Since people in some places were desperate for work, why not have towns, especially rural areas like Forgottonia, compete for the prisons and the jobs that come with them. The state announced a competition, and a bunch of towns went crazy for it. It came to be known as the prison sweepstakes.
NEWSCASTER: When Illinois prison officials fly into a town these days, there are welcoming committees, handshakes…
(NEWS FADES UNDER)
THOMPSON: A lot of times the local attitude was “Don’t put a prison in my district.” By the time we were through, it was, “Please put a prison in my district.”
HEFFERNAN: The prison boom in this era was huge. Up until 1978, only eight state prisons opened in Illinois. Then, in the span of just 23 years, 20 new prisons opened, and the state filled them with people.
A lot of them are from black neighborhoods in Chicago which, just like rural areas, were economically hard hit: disappearing factories, the disintegration of social service programs. Here’s a documentary clip from 1996 of a Chicago man Michael Johnson driving past public housing.
(AMBIENT SOUND OF CAR RUMBLING)
MICHAEL JOHNSON: They are going to tear all these buildings down. Where are all these people going to go then? Welfare reform. They are building more prisons for our kids because they know they are going to need them.
(AMBIENT SOUND FADES)
HEFFERNAN: There were activists and advocates during the era who rallied against mass incarceration, lIke you hear in this 1991 news clip featuring a group called the Sentencing Project which found that one in every four black men between 20 and 29 was in prison, jail, or on probation.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The rate of incarceration in the United states is about three to one, Black to white. You cannot tell me that Black people have a gene that makes them three times more likely to do something that will land them in prison than white people do.
HEFFERNAN: This kind of critique of mass incarceration has become more mainstream. You’ve likely heard stats like this before. But the way Thompson talked about it, prisons were about two things: locking away so-called dangerous criminals and jobs for the white rural towns where they were built.
So, two groups of people: one largely Black and brown, one mostly white. One urban, one rural. Both fall on hard economic times, and they both get the same response: prisons. Just, you know, entirely different sides of the equation.
Here’s Thompson responding to critiques years later that he built more prisons than any other governor in history.
THOMPSON: Absolutely. I’m not running away from that. I’m proud of that. Where was that criticism going? It certainly wasn’t going anywhere downstate where I built prisons. They were the biggest jobs in town. That one never bothered me. I said, “Yeah, criticize me for being a law and order governor, please. I’ll give you the space.”
HEFFERNAN: Those young guys back in Brown County heard about the sweepstakes. The three friends trying to figure out how to save Forgottonia: Teefey, Oliver and Yingling.
Farms were dying, and a new prison promised to bring 400 state jobs. But they were worried. Even compared to other rural areas, they were tiny. They saw themselves as underdogs. They’d have to fight hard. They formed a committee and called themselves “the Chain Gang”. A newspaper article shows the three of them standing in the middle of a deserted downtown street.
HEFFERNAN: I think that’s you all right. Is that? Passing that around.
OLIVER: I had dark hair back then.
YINGLING: You did. And lots of it, too. (LAUGHS)
HEFFERNAN: Either Brown County gets a new medium security prison, or Brown County dies. Does that match with how you felt at the time?
OLIVER + YINGLING: Yeah, yeah.
HEFFERNAN: They got to work on their sweepstakes campaign. Making calls, organizing giant rallies.
OLIVER (1986 NEWSCAST): Hello, this is John Oliver with the Brown County prison committee.
1986 WGEM NEWSCAST: High school students and members of the Brown County prison committee dubbed the ‘Chain Gang’ have called 1200 county residents in the last four days. Only six say they wouldn’t show tonight.
HEFFERNAN: And it wasn’t just jobs on the line. It was tax money. People in prison are counted as part of the population so that entitled these small towns to more tax dollars. After getting a prison, one mayor bragged that the town repaved its roads and built a community center: “This little town of 450 people is getting the tax money of a town of 2,700. And those people in that prison can’t vote me out of office.”
HEFFERNAN: After reporting on prisons for so long, the violence that happens there is pretty front of mind for me. But the way the sweepstakes is talked about, it can feel like getting swept up in some carnival atmosphere.
When the Chain Gang reminisces about the sweepstakes, it’s like when people get together and swap stories about college. Their campaign involved all kinds of quirky stunts, like painting the football field with the words “Brown County wants a prison” in 25-foot letters.
But the thing The Brown County Chain Gang became most famous for was flowers. They wore them on their collars and sent them to various state dignitaries with poems like, ”Roses are red. Violets are blue. When we think of prosperity, we think of you.”
TEEFEY: We sent flowers almost every Monday to Thompson’s secretary. I think, didn’t we?
TEEFEY: Melissa. Yes, Melissa, right? We wanted access.
HEFFERNAN: Well, she got lucky.
YINGLING: She probably got annoyed after a while.
HEFFERNAN: It seemed like local politicians and media were noticing.
MIKE JONES (1986 NEWSCAST WGEM): Brown County in West Central Illinois may be economically depressed, but their people certainly are not and they’re enthusiastically supporting all the speakers in their No. 1 effort of trying brings jobs here.
(AMBIENT CHEERING SOUND, FADES UNDER)
OLIVER: We even… I won’t tell you what the headlines said, but at the time, there was a magazine out called “Easy Riders.” And it was a motorcycle magazine, but they had a story on us. The headline was–
OLIVER: “Balls to the firewall approach.”
HEFFERNAN: Proverbial balls to the firewall or not, they lost. But then there were more sweepstakes For other prisons. And they kept trying. The competition was fierce. Over the years of the prison sweepstakes, other towns had chili cook offs and parades.
Another rural town in southern Illinois probably got the most media attention: Flora, Illinois. That’s the town that had the parade with the band playing Jailhouse Rock and the widget patrol.
HEFFERNAN: But what really made Flora stand out was a rap video they made.
(FLORA RAP VIDEO, “IS WE IS” AUDIO STARTS)
“IS WE IS” FLORA RAP: Down here in Flora, Illinois, we still think that you’re our boy, but is we is or is we isn’t gonna get ourselves a prison?
HEFFERNAN: In the video, there’s a man dressed in a barrel like you see in old-timey cartoons that says “I need a job.” He’s dancing by the side of a highway.
Everyone in the video looks white, and it feels, at best, cringey. At worst, racist. Flora’s mayor, probation officer and newspaper editor all make an appearance, each rapping a verse. The police chief dances, twirling his baton.
(FLORA RAP VIDEO, “IS WE IS” AUDIO FADES UP)
“IS WE IS” FLORA RAP: I’m Willie, chief [unintelligble] last name Thompson, just like you. Is we is or is we isn’t gonna get ourselves a prison?
(FLORA RAP VIDEO, “IS WE IS” AUDIO FADES UNDER)
HEFFERNAN: The video ended up doing the 1980s equivalent of going viral. The Barbed Wire Choir—as they were called—were all over newspapers and TV. A record label even put out a single of the song. But Flora never won a prison.
Brown County on the other hand? Thanks to the Chain Gang, it won the sweepstakes in 1986. The town celebrated. Schools were let out. Businesses closed so everyone could attend a massive rally.
NEWSCAST: I don’t want Forgottonia to be used by anybody in this area anymore. This governor cares.
HEFFERNAN: Governor Jim Thompson came to town to make the announcement.
THOMPSON (NEWSCAST): I thought it was time, in the state of Illinois, that a tiny town in a small county had a chance, and I wanted to give it to them.
HEFFERNAN: There was a naming contest for the prison. Out of 300 entries, the winner was… wait for it… Western Illinois Correctional Center. Someone won $150 for that name. To this day, Ed Teefey still has the shovel that was used at the groundbreaking hung on a wall in his office.
TEEFEY: I think people really felt like they were a part of it. It pulled the community together just like nothing else in my lifetime.
HEFFERNAN: But once the construction was complete, before actually incarcerating people inside, they wanted to do one more thing: a giant prison sleepover.
MARY GRIFFITH: I will tell you later on that I didn’t expect it to get that intense.
HEFFERNAN: What happens when people who spent years fighting for a prison stay the night in one and get a closer look at what they’ve actually been competing for?
GRIFFITH: They could quickly get us to obey everything they wanted us to do because the alternative was not pleasant.
HEFFERNAN: That’s after the break.
HEFFERNAN: Today, there are about 1,400 people incarcerated at Western Illinois Correctional Center. It’s where Larry Earvin was in prison—we’ve talked about him in previous episodes. He’s the 65-year-old man who, over 25 years after Western opened, was beaten to death by guards.
But in 1989 the prison was still a gleaming, empty building without a history. And on the very eve of people first being incarcerated inside, the state organized a special event: a sleepover. Local residents could spend the night in the prison. It would be a chance to let everyone see the new state-of-the-art facility, and give the new guards—many of whom had never worked in a prison before—the chance to practice.
John Oliver from the Chain Gang decided to go.
OLIVER: You know, for six years we’ve been going to every community group, every town council, telling them all the benefits of this prison.
HEFFERNAN: He felt like, after all that talk, he should see it up close. About 140 people accepted the invite. They were told to meet a prison bus at the Brown County Fairgrounds. It was a festive atmosphere.
GRIFFITH: And we sat in the grandstand.
HEFFERNAN: Mary Griffith, a local radio reporter who was there.
GRIFFITH: And I remember we were all sitting around very casually, just talking. All the people were friends, all upstanding, you know, bank presidents. We were all, I guess you would say, the movers and shakers of the community.
HEFFERNAN: I get the impression that many people were kind of imagining this would be like one of those mystery dinners people go to—you know, dress up in costume and pretend to solve a murder. Maybe it’s a little scary, but in a fun, Halloween-y kind of way. A quirky night out.
Karen Hasara, a state rep who was there, even remembers people who came for a supposedly romantic date.
HASARA: And the man said to his wife, I’m going to take you on a wonderful surprise trip for our wedding anniversary.
GRIFFITH: So after a while, they said, “Okay, we’re going to load you up on these correctional center buses, and we want you to know you’ll be treated as if you were a prisoner.”
HEFFERNAN: So they load up into the bus still chatting away. But guards tell them they have to be silent. They’re prisoners now. When they arrive, waiting for them there was the staff. Matt Bradbury was a correctional officer, and he’d been at the prison all night, cleaning and getting everything ready.
MATT BRADBURY: Yeah, they had no idea what they were in for because you knew some had been set up with contraband.
HEFFERNAN: I mean, these are dignitaries too. Like, they’re kind of like the celebrities of town. What was it like seeing them come in and kind of knowing?
BRADBURY: It was kind of, it was kind of like, oh, you know, this is going to be fun, you know?
HEFFERNAN: As soon as the group gets off the bus, staff book them, give them a prison number, take their fingerprints.
GRIFFITH: They gave us a complete frisking, but they didn’t do a cavity search. And I said, “Well, yes, I mean, I’m sorry, but nobody is going to submit to a cavity search if you’re the president of the PTA.”
OLIVER: And they were barking orders all the time. And when they said, move, you better move.
GRIFFITH: At this point in time, I realized this is going to be a little bit different because these people are really trying to make it like it would be.
BRADBURY: You know, we come busting in there and find a, you know, a homemade shank or, you know, drugs or something. You know, that was contraband. And we put the handcuffs on them and moved them on down to segregation and stuff like that.
HASARA: The guards went up to someone and yanked him out of line. Accused him of having a weapon.
HEFFERNAN: And what did you feel when that was happening?
HASARA: Well, it was scary. I sure hoped they weren’t coming toward me.
HEFFERNAN: So, for lots of the guests, it’s not feeling like a fun romp. The guards walk everyone single-file, silent, three feet apart into the auditorium where they had a presentation.
GRIFFITH: And they showed how they controlled different people. They had guys in the big suits where the dog would attack.
HEFFERNAN: Oh, so they actually brought the dogs in.
GRIFFITH: Yeah. Oh, yeah. And these dogs patrolled in the area.
OLIVER: We started hearing boots on the ground, and it kept getting louder and louder and louder, and it was in rhythm. And I want to think there were at least 40 of them, and they came in marching in unison to show us how they would react if a riot ever did break out in an Illinois prison.
HEFFERNAN: This group he’s describing? They have a nickname: Orange Crush because of their bright orange uniforms. They don’t just do riot control. Remember Vanoka Washington from the very first episode about the blindspot at Western Illinois Correctional Center? The group he describes flipping their cells—the men with batons and shields, marching—this is them.
There have been lawsuits from across the state over this group’s behavior—allegations of beatings, forcing men to strip and walk with their privates next to the man’s bottom in front of them. It, of course, didn’t go that far that night. As real as the participants said they felt like it was, this was all still just a show.
HEFFERNAN: Finally, it’s time for everyone to go to their cells.
OLIVER: I’m pretty sure the size is 6 feet by 10 feet.
HEFFERNAN: And there were these tiny narrow beds.
HASARA: A very hard bed, a toilet and a little basin. That’s about it.
HEFFERNAN: Hmm. Did they give you a private place to use the restroom?
HASARA: I don’t think so. I’m sure they didn’t let us out.
HEFFERNAN: So toilets right by the bed and the doors to the cells have windows. No privacy. So you have all these politicians and business owners literally shitting and pissing in full view of other people. Because that’s how America has designed prisons. Unsurprisingly, no one said they got a good night’s sleep.
GRIFFITH: I just remember how very uncomfortable, very uncomfortable the jumpsuit was and how I, you know, got very constipated because I didn’t want to go to the bathroom.
HASARA: They woke us up a couple times, at least in the night, to shine the light in there and kind of yelled.
OLIVER: I wasn’t enjoying myself, and I was glad to get out of there at 6 o’clock the next morning.
HEFFERNAN: So when everybody gets up the next morning, what do they look like coming out of their cells? I mean, I can imagine…
BRADBURY: (LAUGHS) I think they were just wanting to go home. I think they were just wanting to go home.
GRIFFITH: And then it was time to go back for the debriefing. We walked in a single-file line all the way to the debriefing room. The Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections was there. We all came in, we sat down, filling every chair, and we waited for his little goodbye speech. He said, “You were all sitting in the grandstand at the Brown County Fair, talking and joking and laughing and, you know, talking among yourselves and yelling across the aisle at people you hadn’t seen for a while,” and he said, “Today, you came in here in single file and filled in every single chair, even though nobody told you to do that.”
GRIFFITH: “I mean, you are compliant. We have made you compliant. This is what we do.”
HEFFERNAN: Do you think he was proud? Do you think that some of that was like, “Look what we’re able to do at this place?”
GRIFFITH: I think the director was telling us what he wanted us to know. That it is so easy to break people down. How completely, you know, unmindful, will you be after 14 years?
HEFFERNAN: A report from the Department of Corrections bragged that one participant said, ”Just because the place is brand-new with fresh paint and clean floors, it isn’t a pleasant experience.”
And of course—this goes without saying—what they experienced was just a taste, a little taste of the reality of people who actually live it.
OLIVER: I think everybody would tell you they were glad they went. I think they would tell you they don’t need to do it again.
HEFFERNAN: Yeah, it was- it sounds like it was actually genuinely hard.
OLIVER: It was eye opening.
HEFFERNAN: Are there any feelings about having been part of that moment in time when more people are being locked up?
TEEFEY: I’ll be honest with you. We just didn’t discuss it.
OLIVER: We were in our late 20s. We wanted jobs. That’s the only thing that was going through our minds. And back then it was fashionable to lock people up.
YINGLING: We didn’t cause them to be locked up just by having a prison. It was going to be somewhere. So I don’t feel any responsibility for that.
TEEFEY: And I don’t think we thought much about right or wrong. I don’t think we thought much about the social impact. We were looking at jobs in the economy and trying to keep the community vibrant and keep our young people here. And, you know, the 80s were a terrible time for the agricultural communities.
HEFFERNAN: The Chain Gang and others across the state had spent years, years, wrapped up in these sweepstakes. The sweepstakes had been like a big carnival: fun, buoyant, silly and with a real feeling of purpose. Save the town. Win some jobs.
I imagine it was easy for them to forget what it was all about. But whether you are pro- prisons or not, there’s no getting around the basics of what they are, just the plain reality of it—stacks of cages that people are forced to live inside.
After years of chili cook offs and parades, it must have felt strange sitting in those cells, realizing this was the prize you’d won.
HASARA: When I got home, I was very emotional. I cried but, of course, first of all, you can remember I hardly had any sleep at all. But it was just what have I done for the last 24 hours? And just the whole experience was kind of overwhelming.
HEFFERNAN: But you had only experienced it for one night, and you were already kind of having these thoughts.
HASARA: Yes, very much. Everyone… Everyone would have had those thoughts. There isn’t anyone who could have gone through that that wouldn’t have felt that way. And that having your total freedom taken away from you and being treated almost inhumanly. No one has any idea what that really is like—not that a lot of them didn’t deserve it. People want it that way. In a lot of cases, they want them to be punished.
HEFFERNAN: When I first heard people talking about this overnight, how awful it was. I guess I kind of expected a change of heart. Like, oh this is terrible, what we do to people. Maybe we need to rethink this prison boom.
And in some ways, the Chain Gang guys get there. The jobs are what was offered to them, and they took it, but they see the consequences too. But I also think Karen Hasara is right. It may have been painful to be confronted with, but many people still wanted it this way, wanted it to be punishment. I think it’s telling what the prison thought would be a good gift for John Oliver.
OLIVER: They gave one to my wife and one to me.
HEFFERNAN: He’s kept it all these years.
What are these? These are–
OLIVER: They’re billy clubs.
HEFFERNAN: A billy club. A baton, like the sticks Orange Crush—the guys with helmets and shields—used to keep people in line. Something that reminds him of a not quite so fun prison sleepover.
HEFFERNAN: Just as these one-night guests were leaving, shaken and a little bleary eyed, a bus arrived, full of the people who would actually be locked inside Western Illinois Correctional Center.
Mary Griffith, the local radio reporter, remembers seeing them as she left.
GRIFFITH: We saw them come in. I don’t know if they were in shackles or not, but I remember thinking to myself, “These people are about to endure the cavity check.” They were all compliant. They just walked in single file, walked into the building, and then that’s really about all we saw of them.
GRIFFITH: And I do remember thinking to myself how many Black men there were because, of course, in Brown County, Illinois, the Black population is almost entirely in the prison.
PASSMORE: A lot of people that were from Chicago that were on the bus with me had never been in that area, the rural countryside. It was, for some people, it was culture shock.
HEFFERNAN: Yul Passmore was on one of those early buses to Western. He remembers meeting the new guards, hearing them talk about taking these jobs because they didn’t want to have to leave their hometowns for work.
PASSMORE: You can kind of understand a little bit as far as them not wanting to leave their home. I don’t blame them, if that’s where they want to be. You know, so the prison brings in the money, but the only thing they don’t like is that they have to come there and be around us.
HEFFERNAN: They had to be around us, he says. As in, Black people. He said some guards told him they’d never met anyone Black before. And now, here were all these men streaming off the bus. Larry Eason was later on one of those western buses, too. He’d been in prison a while already, and he remembers seeing a shift as more people were sent away for longer.
LARRY EASON: You know, I looked up, and I said, “Damn, where’s all these kids coming from?” I mean, babies, you know, 18, 19.
HEFFERNAN: This is what the other side of the prison sweepstakes equation looked like up close. At the same time small rural towns were struggling, so was the Black population in Chicago.
Factories were closing. Jobs were hard to find. And social services like welfare were slashed. Neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and west sides were economically abandoned, and they didn’t have a sweepstakes.
But that doesn’t mean they weren’t part of the prison boom. Because, to borrow the words of sociologist Avery Gordon, “When the state abandons you, it never lets you out of its sight.”
Arrests of black people in those neighborhoods skyrocketed as white towns got jobs.
EASON: The farming went bad in rural areas and so there was no jobs for people in central, southern and western Illinois. And they came up with, hey, we can put these people back to work. Instead of farming cattle, we can farm humans.
HEFFERNAN: Coming up on Motive.
COLETTE PAYNE: It was a backyard where we would sit on the porch. You had monkey bars, you had swings, you had the clothesline.
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HEFFERNAN: We take a closer look at Chicago neighborhoods hit hard by mass incarceration: the other Forgottonia.
PAYNE: What I began to see is the monkey bars coming down, the clotheslines coming down, and that is so the police can, you know, drive up the back ways to where it wouldn’t be any interference.
HEFFERNAN: And we try to understand what is happening right now with efforts to shrink the prison population and defund prisons.
DAVID MERIDITH: It’s not a good thing. That’s one of the reasons. We got a lot of people that are worried, what’s my future going to be? Am I going to have to find another job?
RUTH WILSON GILMORE: I’m not interested in defunding households. I don’t mind that you have good pay and benefits in mind that you have them for sitting and watching somebody in a cage. What if we agreed that you keep the pay and benefits and do something else with your time and talents?
Motive is a production of WBEZ Chicago. Reporting by Shannon Heffernan (@shannon_h). The producer is Jesse Dukes (@curiousDukes). Joe DeCeault mixed this episode along with our Associate producer Marie Mendoza (@marieannmendoza). Nicole Pasulka is our fact checker. Our editor is Rob Wildeboer. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. Tracy Brown is our Chief Content Officer. We had additional production and reporting help from Colin McNulty, Arno Pedram and Candace Mittel Kahn. Archival audio from WGEM in Quincy, Illinois, and the Jim Thompson Project at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Original music by Cue Shop.
Thanks to Sylvia Goodman.