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updated: 10/24/2012 9:41 PM

Students allowed in state prison, but reporters banned

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  • Twenty-five criminal justice students visited Pontiac Correctional Center on Oct. 19.

      Twenty-five criminal justice students visited Pontiac Correctional Center on Oct. 19.
    Associated Press file photo

 
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- Gov. Pat Quinn's administration is defending its decision allowing community college students to take an "educational" tour of one of the state's maximum-security prison while at the same time continuing to bar reporters from such visits as a security risk.

A group of 25 criminal justice students from Heartland Community College in Normal toured the maximum-security prison in Pontiac last Friday, said Corrections Department spokeswoman Stacey Solano. A college spokesman said he was told the undergrads didn't see inmate living areas.

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The Associated Press and other news media outlets have been denied tour requests under Quinn, who is attempting to close two prisons to save money despite historic overcrowding of the state's prisons. According to an AP analysis of state data, there are now more than 49,300 inmates held in prisons designed for 33,700.

When asked in August why reporters can't tour taxpayer-financed prisons, Quinn said it would be a "security risk." He added, "Prisons aren't country clubs. They're not there to be visited and looked at."

Solano said the Heartland students' visit was closely monitored.

"Educational tours are guided tours where students do not communicate with inmates or any staff other than those offering the tour," Solano said in an email, adding that visitors may not bring recording devices and may only "view areas of the facility where safety, security and inmate privacy are not threatened."

But later Wednesday, Solano said in an email that prison director Tony Godinez is working to determine "a manageable and appropriate way" to conduct media visits. It was not immediately clear whether Godinez could still decide against allowing tours.

The Springfield bureau of Lee Enterprises reported Tuesday the Heartland trip was led by adjunct criminal justice professor Jennifer Bursell, who would not speak to the news agency out of fear prison administrators would cut off future tours. Bursell did not respond to messages left by the AP seeking comment.

Heartland spokesman Josh Reinhart said he did not have all the details, but said, "Calling it a tour is a bit misleading."

"My understanding is students don't actually have any contact with inmates and have no access to inmate areas," Reinhart said.

He said the class is for students interested in becoming correctional officers or prison administrators. Students only visited administrative areas of the prison, Reinhart said, but he could not say what those areas comprised.

The AP requested a tour of Pontiac when it became clear that high-security inmates from Tamms Correctional Center, which Quinn wants closed, would be transferred there. The request was denied in an email from Solano. Other media have asked for tours to see what an outside watchdog group has called crowded, filthy conditions.

While Reinhart says Heartland students' trip was limited to administrative areas, other students have been allowed into cell blocks. Lee Enterprises reported in August that criminal justice professor Jesse Krienert of Illinois State University has led student tours for 15 years of Pontiac, the maximum-security Stateville prison near Joliet, and the women's penitentiary at Dwight, which Quinn also wants shuttered. She said students mingle with inmates in hallways and recreation yards and have never voiced concern for safety.

Krienert did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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