VANDALIA -- A southern Illinois prison has opened its doors to journalists in the wake of a watchdog group's 2011 report of overcrowding, flooding and crumbling and unsanitary basement dormitories.
The minimum-security Vandalia Correctional Center allowed journalists in Friday for a close look at the facility's expanding vocational programs for inmates, something that even watchdog group The John Howard Association noted as a positive in its otherwise troubling report from its June 2011 visit.
The Illinois Department of Corrections is mired in a tumultuous period. Gov. Pat Quinn is closing two Illinois prisons that he says are too costly to operate, prompting an outcry from prison workers and their union that doing so will worsen the system's severe overcrowding and make the facilities more dangerous for employees and inmates.
Despite the budget constraints, officials at Vandalia have been able to maintain and even expand work experience programs with the aim of helping keep inmates from returning after their release.
Marvin Greenleaf, a 51-year-old former drug dealer from Chicago who is serving his 11th prison sentence since 1983, told reporters that working at the prison's meat plant has given him a sense of pride and a better work ethic.
"I know I can go out there and make something happen on the legitimate side," Greenleaf said, according to the (Decatur) Herald & Review (http://bit.ly/VdLBNN ). "I can go and cut somebody's grass. I can go and paint somebody's gutters, paint somebody's back porch."
He earns about $45 a week, which he sends home instead of having his wife send him money. He says he's determined to help support her when he is released.
More than 70 percent of Vandalia's 1,647 inmates are enrolled in educational or vocational programs, including auto body repair, construction and gardening, said vocational program coordinator Kathleen Mattingly.
Vandalia inmates will also be able to work with retired racehorses under a program in the works. She said she believes interaction with horses will help inmates "to begin to feel the sense of loving someone who will come to depend on them."
The 2011 visit by the independent prison watchdog group found a much different picture of the 91-year-old men's facility. It reported that several hundred inmates were housed in basement dormitories that badly needed repairs and renovation. The air was dank and smelled of mold, and one basement was flooded, it found.
The issue of prison access by the news media bubbled up last summer as the state's prison population reached near-record highs and a prison workers' union filed a lawsuit to keep Quinn from cutting spending by closing several prison facilities. In August, WBEZ Radio in Chicago and The Associated Press reported that they had been denied tours, which were commonplace in years past.
Pressed on the issue, Quinn declared prisons off-limits to reporters, saying they "aren't country clubs." The administration relented in November, announcing several media tours.
Eddie Caumiant, regional director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing most prison employees, told the Herald & Review the inmates are often miserable, especially in the sweltering summer heat. That makes the working environment more dangerous and unpleasant, he said.
"It's absolutely foolhardy to close prisons while there are overcrowding problems like this," Caumiant said of the governor's plans.
Illinois' supermax prison in Tamms closed on Jan. 4, and officials are planning to soon close the Dwight women's facility and shift inmates among three existing prisons.
On Friday, reporters asked inmate Rickey Hudson, a Chicagoan serving five years for selling heroin, what it was like to live in a dormitory with 87 other men.
"Hey, it's jail," Hudson said. "If you was thinking you were going to the Hilton hotel, you shouldn't have came to the jail. I'm 26 years old. I put myself in here."