Closer Look: Ill. prisons mum on who gets tours
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — First, Gov. Pat Quinn rejected reporters' requests to tour Illinois prisons as he plans a major shakeup in the state's corrections system. Now his administration is refusing to reveal precisely who has been allowed to see inside state penitentiaries during his three years in office.
Carefully controlled prison walk-throughs were commonplace for lawmakers, journalists and others in years past as a way to illustrate conditions for prisoners and the state employees who keep them in line. But after barring the gate to reporters last month, Quinn's administration has deemed it too burdensome to reveal who has been allowed to enter in response to a Freedom of Information request by The Associated Press.
Despite the governor's declaration that allowing reporters inside is a "security risk," prison officials say only individual wardens have information about tours by outside groups, and that top Department of Corrections brass don't keep track of who's coming and going, though some evidence contradicts that.
The policy raises more questions about the administration's transparency and management as the Corrections agency carries out Quinn's budget-cutting plan to shutter two major state lockups despite severe overcrowding. The union representing prison employees objects to the proposal, saying it could lead to dangerous conditions for guards and inmates.
The AP and other media have asked to see prison conditions, which are described very differently by the two sides. When rejected, the AP sought information about approved tours so it could speak with others who have been inside. But the state denied the information request, saying it would take too much time for a busy agency to collect the data from more than two dozen facilities.
The administration's tighter prison control comes as correctional systems nationally are trending toward more access, according to Daron Hall, president of the American Correctional Association, which accredits prison systems.
Hall, the county sheriff in Nashville, Tenn., and a Democrat like Quinn, says his own philosophy is to let reporters into his four jails of 4,000 inmates to see what his agency is up against, instead of merely reacting to a crisis and the resulting media demand for information. He said he understands safety concerns, however, and said Illinois' overcrowding situation might merit caution.
"It's a closed environment, literally, and the public (doesn't) understand," Hall said. "And when there is a problem, I've always felt it was good if the media has had access before, for various reasons — one, to educate the community about how tough our jobs are. It's not an easy world."
Quinn has ordered the closing of two major penitentiaries, though his original plan to have it done by Aug. 31 was thwarted by an ongoing union lawsuit. One of the facilities is the high-security Tamms, which holds the state's most dangerous prisoners. They would be transferred to Pontiac prison, where workers say there's insufficient space and safeguards.
A shutdown of a women's prison in Dwight would initiate a complicated movement of 5,000 inmates among a half-dozen prisons.
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