Public and media access to correctional institutions should be a requirement in a democracy. Correctional institutions throughout the U.S. and Illinois have a long history of denying access. Once again, the traditional dogma around the correctional institutions’ need to protect the privacy and rights of those in their charge is brought up. The reality is that these denials are purely political in nature and serve only to block access to the failures of public officials to do their jobs. Governor Quinn’s denial of WBEZ’s request to have a reporter visit the St. Charles juvenile facility is once again about politics and not about protecting the incarcerated. You can listen to a report about the denied access on WBEZ’s web site at this link.
The denial of access translates into the Governor saying “trust us, everything in the facility is running properly and there is no need for the public or the media to validate what we are saying.” Really? !
Below are my top 5 responses to this ridiculous position:
- This is Illinois – there is no way any public institution shall be trusted blindly.
- Incarcerated youth are one of the most vulnerable populations and as such the public has a greater interest in validating the conditions for which they are incarcerated.
- Mistrust, misperceptions, rumor, innuendo, etc., are all generated when public institutions operate secretly, the only way for public agencies to combat this scourge is to throw their doors open and let the glare of the spotlight validate or disprove these perceptions.
- Simple rules can be put into place to protect the very limited privacy concerns that are real and need addressing.
- Youth and adults that are incarcerated have not forfeited their right to freedom of speech or their ability to challenge the conditions in which they are being incarcerated. Both groups have the ability (for the younger youths with parental agreement) to talk with the media if they so wish. The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, or the Illinois Department of Corrections, should immediately stop acting in their political interests and exploiting the concerns of privacy advocates as a reason for refusing public access.
The criminal justice system as a whole consistently throws up the privacy shield to block access to both the data they create and the individuals they are charged with incarcerating. The term “shield” was used purposely because that is how these agencies use it as a way of deflecting requests for access. The reality is that the use of this shield is nothing more than exploiting the legitimate concerns these individuals have for privacy.
- If there is unlimited access will, the legitimate privacy concerns of inmates, both youth and adult, be abused? Yes, to some degree.
- If there is unlimited access will there be significantly less abuse within the system? Yes, without any doubt.
- If there is little access, (i.e. the current state of access), will the legitimate privacy concerns of inmates, both youth and adult, be abused? No.
- If there is little access, (i.e. the current state of access), will there be significantly less abuse within the system? No.
- Is there a middle ground to these two extreme access levels? Yes.
The problem is that there is no political motivation for the pols in Springfield, or at either the Illinois Department of Corrections or the Department of Juvenile Justice, to find that middle ground. If the status quo continues, it is obvious that the current administration under Illinois’s latest version of our “reform” and “change” Governor has no interest in truly being transparent.
My history of access:
- I have toured Rikers Island Jail (New York City’s version of Cook County Jail) when I was an intern at the Vera Institute of Justice five summers ago as part of special program that allowed the Vera interns to tag along with the New York Department of Correction’s interns. Maybe because this was part of NYDOC program but the tour lasted hours and we even were allowed to visit the administrative segregation unit for the men and the protected custody for the female inmates. As a criminal justice student seeking both an M.A. and a Ph.D. in the field this experience was truly the most impactful in my studies, an experience that will stay with me forever.
- Also, a couple of summers ago I was part of an extremely limited tour, (words limit my ability to communicate how limited this tour was), of Cook County Jail for a class in my Ph.D. studies. It was so limited to be a waste of time, especially when compared to my Riker’s experience.
- Nearly 15 years ago I was allowed to interview a female inmate at Lincoln Correctional Center when I was working with WLUW Radio for a story I was doing. IDOC and jail officials made the experience as hard as possible. If it weren’t for my hard headedness I would have never made it to the point to actually interview Mildred.
My personal feeling during the three times I have been able to access correctional facilities is that this situation is ripe for abuse, both from the visitors and the correctional facility. I have wrestled with whether or not visits like the tour I had at Rikers should be allowed and whether or not by allowing such tours the administrators were reducing the incarcerated to something resembling zoo animals on display for throngs of gawkers. While I acknowledge that with greater access this will always exist to some degree, the benefits still outweigh the costs. Fro proof about how denied access allows problems to not only fester, buy spread like cancer, take a look at the condition of New York’s Juvenile Justice system.
The benefits of a correctional system that is always under public and media scrutiny for their actions would significantly reduce the harm and bad practices that are forced upon the incarcerated. The history of both Chicago and Illinois are replete with examples of corruption and abuse from our public officials. There is little doubt that corruption and abuse exist within our correctional facilities. Allowing these facilities to continue to operate under the same veil of secrecy which they have for decades can no longer be allowed to stand. Our “rouge” Governor, the one who has always challenged the machine on the issues of patronage politics, corruption, abuse, and transparency should stand up and put the ideals he has espoused as an outsider into action now that he is the individual in charge. Anything less would demonstrate that his rhetoric from the outside is nothing more than just that, rhetoric.