75% of Illinois lawmakers surveyed by Illinois Public Radio say they have never stepped foot in a maximum security prison cell block. And 40% of those legislators have never toured or visited a prison even once. Yet they're the ones signing the checks for the $1.3 billion per year agency. IPR's Robert Wildeboer reports on what legislators, do, and do not know about prisons.
During the last year WBEZ sent a simple survey to every Illinois representative--they're the people who oversee the Department of Corrections, because they sign off on its budget.
We asked if they'd ever been in a prison, a cell block, a maximum security cell block, and how many prisons they'd been in and when. We asked if they'd ever been in a prison, a cell block, a maximum security cell block, and how many prisons they'd been in and when. It's perhaps a bit of a crude measure but gives some insight into how much legislators know about the costly agency. Of the 118 legislators in the house, 95 responded to our survey. 40% had never been in a prison. 65% had never walked through a cell block and 75% had never walked through a maximum security cell block. And I have a feeling those numbers would be even higher if all the legislators responded.
A number of them refused to participate in the 9 question survey --that takes seriously, about 90 seconds to complete. We followed up numerous times with all of them and my sense from some was that they didn't want to go on the record saying they hadn't been in a prison. The list of legislators who refused to participate is on our website and includes House Speaker Mike Madigan, whose spokesman said of the survey quote, "it does not look like the type of activity the speaker or his staff participate in."
Numerous follow up calls and emails went unreturned.
Lawmakers have had tour opportunities
RUTHERFORD: When I became a legislator it was pretty obvious to me that one of the major expenses for the state budget is department of corrections and few people knew anything about it.
State treasurer Dan Rutherford is currently running for governor but in 1993 he started as a legislator from Pontiac where there's a men's maximum security prison.
RUTHERFORD: Having grown up in a community where, you know, generations of families and friends have worked at the correctional center, I don't think the public really and particularly policy makers understood what it really was.
So Rutherford arranged tours of Pontiac prison. He says every two years he'd invite the newly elected freshman legislators and then if there was still room, he'd invite staff members too. A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Corrections says the agency still wants as many legislators as possible to tour prisons as often as is feasible. Basically, if a legislator wants a tour, the agency will find a way to make it happen.
Who should visit?
MAUTINO: If it's an appropriation person and they're dealing with funding corrections then they should avail themselves of the ability to go into the facilities.
That's Frank Mautino is the deputy majority leader in the house. He used to serve on the public safety appropriations committee, which oversees prison spending. He says they held some of their committee meetings inside the prisons where they'd get a tour and hear from employees. That's how he first visited Menard, a maximum security prison in Southern Illinois.
MAUTINO: It gave me a respect for the work that is done by the men and women who work in corrections and I've always been mindful of their needs.
REDFIELD: You can't expect every legislator to be super interested and engaged in corrections.
Kent Redfield is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. He was also a legislative analyst for House Democrats. He says legislators have different areas of expertise and there's a natural division of labor.
REDFIELD: If you don't have a facility in your district and you've got a whole bunch of things that are much more important to your constituents, then I don't think it's surprising that you've got legislators that haven't been to corrections facilities.
That said, Redfield says the more legislators know about prisons the better our prison policy will be, and that's especially important in the current climate of shrinking budgets.
REDFIELD: If all you know is what the department of corrections tells you then that really narrows the kind of decision making options and may predetermine the outcome of budget and policy kinds of decisions.
Out of sight, out of mind
MAKI: No one goes in these places. That's why they are how they are.
John Maki is the director of the John Howard Association, a nonpartisan prison watchdog group in Illinois. He says much of what we know about prisons comes from movies and television and is simply not true.
MAKI: What's really unfortunate about our prison policy, not only in Illinois but across the country, is that it really depends upon, not the reality of prisons and what prisons can really do, but I think fantasies, things that are not grounded in reality.
Maki says it's hard to go into a prison and not start asking some serious questions about what we're doing.
MAKI: Well when you go in our prison system and you see how crowded it is, and you see how under-resourced it is, I think it would be very hard to believe that our prison system can actually change people for the better. And that's not a judgement of the Illinois Department of Corrections. They are doing hard work with very limited resources. That's just a kind of fact about the reality of our system.
And Maki says if legislators saw that first hand, they'd start asking questions about what our prisons are accomplishing and what they cost. And Maki thinks they'd also be more thoughtful in the sentences they attach to certain crimes when they pass laws.
MAKI: It's not a coincidence I think that the United State's has the largest prison system in the world and that we know so little about how prisons actually work. Because we don't see these places, we're allowed to believe what we want to believe.
But Maki says that's not entirely on legislators. They're not the only ones who don't visit prisons to see the reality first hand.
MAKI: Typically judges don't do this, prosecutors don't do this, defenders don't do this, police don't do this. Again, outside of the people who live there, or who work there, almost no one goes in these places that are extremely expensive and where thousands and thousands of lives are kind of coursing through.
But circling back to the legislators who fund the department of corrections and vote on the laws and sentences that put people in prison, Maki says he's not surprised that 40 percent of legislators have never stepped foot into a prison, and 75 percent have never seen a maximum security cell block,
MAKI: They don't go to these places because their constituents don't ask them to. If there was a demand for this, they would do it.
Maki says lawmakers are representatives of the people who vote them into office and when it comes to prisons the voters aren't demanding anything different.
You can check out lawmaker's full responses to the short survey as well as an interactive map and charts breaking down the data. You can also see which legislators refused to fill out the survey.
pictured, Vandalia Correctional Center (photo credit, Robert Wildeboer)
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