Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What do we learn from prison tours?

I have, from time to time during my decades as a reporter-type person, had a chance to see prison facilities from the inside.

A picture postcard view of a non-touristy location in Illinois.

So it was with some self-interest that I read the recent Associated Press report about how the Illinois Department of Corrections, under Gov. Pat Quinn, has been inclined to reject all requests for prison tours.

QUINN DEFENDS SUCH rejections on the grounds that they are highly-secure facilities and that having to make the arrangements to ensure that visitors don’t get harmed while on the inside.

“Prisons aren’t country clubs. They’re not there to be visited and looked at,” the governor said.

From my own observations, they definitely aren’t country clubs – except that they’re out in the country in locations fairly isolated from urban areas.

Yet I’m not sure I can get all offended by the restrictions on people being taken on tours of the facilities. In part because that wire service report had something of an undertone of a reporter writing a story to take out their frustration on someone who’s denying them some information.

BUT ALSO BECAUSE of my own experiences in seeing prison facilities (which include Stateville near Joliet, Pontiac and Tamms).

I always got the sense that what I was seeing was such a highly restricted view of prison conditions. I doubt that I was seeing “reality” as it exists within the Illinois Department of Corrections system.

I doubt any reporter-type has seen reality in prison – unless, by some chance, they managed to do something that got them locked up as an inmate!

I remember being shown a stage at Stateville and being told of the quality theatrical productions that inmates there put on from time to time. I also recall the sight of athletic fields and basketball courts.

I’M SURE THERE are some inmates who wile away their time dribbling or wielding a bat in a socially-acceptable manner.

Yet I’m not going to be naïve enough to think that what I saw was close to being the entirety of prison life. Even if that is what I saw on an official tour, as provided by the Illinois Department of Corrections of the kind that it seems are no longer given.

So while some people are going to make sincere arguments about how access to information is better for society, and how state facilities are taxpayer-funded so that we ought to be aware of what is going on, I’m not sure the official prison tour is the best way to find things out.

If anything, I’d want to know about the things I’m not being permitted to see on a tour. That’s probably where the real news lies.

AND AS FOR what I have been allowed to see of prison facilities in Illinois, I must admit to having an impression. The system, by and large, is old!

We have facilities that date back more than a century – 19th Century incarceration for the needs of the 21st Century.

When Stateville is one of the state’s newest facilities (opening in 1925), we have to admit that our Department of Corrections probably is long overdue for a construction boom.

All kinds of new facilities to replace those that have been around for decades and are physically capable of having incarcerated generations of certain families. Not a pleasant thought.

NOT ONLY BECAUSE it means so many repeat offenders, but because it means a need that the state can’t possibly pay for. The state can’t even afford to maintain the facilities it has now – take Tamms (one of the few newly-built prisons in Illinois) into consideration.

That, in and of itself, is a story that I’m sure state officials wouldn’t want a lot of emphasis placed upon. Just think what other ugly stories exist within the state prison system?


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