SPRINGFIELD — For years, members of the media have been granted limited access to tour Illinois prisons periodically, but Gov. Pat Quinn Friday decreed the state’s lock-ups off-limits to reporters.
“I think that’s a fundamental policy that we will always follow,” Quinn said, citing unspecified security concerns voiced by top prison officials.
The governor, who often touts that his administration is “transparent,” issued his decision in the wake of reports by WBEZ radio in Chicago that its reporters had been turned down numerous times in their attempts to confirm allegations of horrendous living conditions at the overcrowded, minimum-security facilities in Vienna and Vandalia.
The Associated Press reported Friday that the administration declined an Aug. 1 request to visit Pontiac’s segregation unit, where dangerous inmates will move when high-security Tamms prison closes Aug. 31.
“We’re not going to have tours of Illinois prisons. I don’t believe in that,” Quinn said. “Security comes first. It isn’t a country club. I think prisons are there to incarcerate criminals. They are not there to be visited and looked at.”
The decision comes as the Illinois Department of Corrections is attempting to house more than 48,000 inmates in a system built to handle 33,000 prisoners. The John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog organization, has documented that prisoners are living in squalid conditions at Vienna and Vandalia.
Along with being packed into basements, common areas and gymnasiums not originally built to house prisoners, the organization found inmates dealing with infestations of cockroaches, mold and other vermin.
In July, a group of inmates at Vienna filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to improve the conditions.
WBEZ reporters wanted a first-hand look at the situation, but Quinn said top prison brass think tours by reporters make prisons less safe for inmates and prison workers.
“I think it’s important that we listen to those who are on the front lines of the prison,” the governor said.
The policy switch comes after years of the prisons being occasionally opened for media tours.
In 1997, for example, more than 80 people — including 25 state lawmakers and members of the media — were given tours of the maximum-security Pontiac Correctional Center and the all-female Dwight Correctional Center.
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In 2005, then-state Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, led a contingent of lawmakers and reporters on a similar tour of the facilities, giving the public a close-up look at how the facilities were operating.
The move to limit access to facilities apparently began earlier this year when state Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, was barred from entering the Murphysboro youth prison in his district.
Luechtefeld said the new policy is likely more of a way to avoid bad publicity than a safety issue.
“It’s probably a lot about politics,” Luechtefeld said Friday.
The Quinn administration also is cracking down on prison employees talking with the news media. State police investigators were at Tamms Correctional Center last week reportedly probing the leak of information obtained by the Quad-City Times Springfield Bureau regarding a plan to ship some dangerous inmates to out-of-state prisons if Quinn gets his way and closes the state’s lone “supermax” facility.
A top prison official also sent a letter to the Times bureau suggesting that if the names of the inmates being considered for out-of-state placement were printed, guards and inmates could be in danger.
“If you proceed to disclose any information in your possession on this subject beyond yourself, the department will view your actions as attempting to promote disorder within the prison system,” wrote Jerry Buscher, executive chief of the Illinois Department of Corrections.