Friday, October 14, 2016

EXTRA: Silence in the Stateville ‘roundhouse?’ Not likely in reality

Gov. Bruce Rauner included amongst his Friday announcements a decision to have the Illinois Department of Corrections close the one remaining roundhouse that was in existence at the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet.
You can find the most off-beat images on old postcards -- including the roundhouse

It is a unique structure, “F House” (as it is officially known in prison jargon). A panopticon, the idea was that it was a round structure with the prison cells built surrounding the guard tower.

THE THEORY WAS that it made it possible for one team of guards to literally watch into the cells of the thousands of prison inmates held in the facility. It was supposed to make inmates think twice before misbehaving because, in theory, an inmate would never know if the guard was watching them – and catching them in the act.

But it also created a situation where all those thousands of inmates had their attention focused on the guard tower, which meant that the guards were under constant observation by the inmates. Definitely not a structure with a fung shui-inspired design.

There’s also the fact that the structure was built over 90 years ago and has become decrepit throughout the years (inmates aren’t exactly the kind of people who care about properly maintaining the property).

Safety and operational hazards had developed both the inmates who were housed there and the corrections officers who had to work there.
'Killers' gave us a cinematic Stateville prison riot

IN SHORT, IT was a place quite unique from any other on planet Earth’s existence. I remember the times I was inside Stateville (as a reporter-type person), walking past the roundhouse would invariably create a raucous round of outcries from the inmates – usually obscene and menacing.

A lot of tension that has built up through the decades, falling just short of a century of existence. It will be a place that likely will be haunted for decades to come.

Which is why I always find it to be rather amusing in the film “Call Northside 777” in the scene where actor James Stewart’s reporter character visits the prison and is inside the roundhouse.

They actually shot the scene in there, and the place was totally empty. An eerie silence dominated the scene, which might have been necessary to properly shoot the scene.
'Call Northside 777' gave us an inside glimpse of the roundhouse
BUT I DOUBT that place was ever so quiet in real life. The sounds of incarcerated men venting their anger would have drowned out the scene if they had tried to shoot the footage.

Of course, we also got to see scenes from Stateville in the Oliver Stone-directed “Natural Born Killers,” which staged a riot in the prison that actually got the inmates stoked up that a few days later, a real outburst was reported inside the prison.

The scenes, as I recall, were truly bloody and gory. Probably to the point of cinematic overkill.

Which makes me wonder if the reality of life inside F House lies somewhere between the two films – and likely dominated by a sense of boredom punctuated by a fear of an outburst potentially occurring at any given time.

IF ANYTHING, MY sense of being inside the prison on the occasions when I had reason to be there were of the grime and filth that had accumulated throughout the decades.
Stateville used to have multiple roundhouses, but now has the last remaining one
Personally, I haven’t been inside Stateville in nearly two decades myself. I can only imagine how disgusting the place has become by now.

Which is all the more reason why it’s a good thing that Rauner made the decision to close the place – which the John Howard Association has said is “not fit for human habitation” – down for good.

I don’t care if prison isn’t supposed to be a country club-like existence; there are limits to how decrepit of conditions we can let people live in before it reflects negatively on us all as a society.


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