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Shutting Down the Panopticon: A Report From Inside the Stateville Correctional Center

Prisoners at the roach-infested and noisy Stateville panopticon prison may soon be moving to other facilities.

Stateville Correctional Center. (Photo: Rw2; Edited: LW / TO)

Rumors have been ricocheting around Stateville Correctional Center ever since Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner ordered F-House closed on October 14, 2016. Just an hour outside of Chicago, Stateville is one of the country’s oldest prisons. Guards are in a panic over rumors that the entire prison will be closing within a year. A few visiting their loved ones incarcerated there report that guards have asked people to contact their state representatives to keep Stateville open. They were told that if Stateville closes, their loved ones will be transferred hundreds of miles away to prisons in downstate Illinois, making visits cumbersome, and making their loved ones more likely to be mistreated by racist white guards. (More than half of Stateville’s guards are Black or Latino.)

Incongruously, plans are allegedly underfoot to finally make repairs to F-House. This has the guards spreading rumors that either F-House will be reopened for the occupancy, or that it is being turned into a museum as the last remaining Panopticon in the country. Panopticons are round prison buildings built with the intent to have incarcerated people remain under 24-hour direct surveillance. F-House is also known as the “roundhouse.”

Inside the Thunder Dome

Built in 1922, F-House’s interior reminded people who toured it of the Thunder Dome from the Movie Mad Max. Imagine a wagon wheel lying on its side and missing all of its spokes. A giant guard tower sits at the hub and four stories encircle it with hundreds of cells. It housed around 400 men and not a moment of silence. There was an endless cacophony of people yelling back and forth, doors and chuckholes being slammed opened and closed, and guys kicking on doors. People there often used sign language to converse with others in order to be “heard.”

Two weeks after Gov. Rauner’s announcement that F-House would be closing, a dozen students from DePaul University, who attend a Restorative Justice class with men from Stateville at the prison, were allowed to tour F-House prior to class. They were visibly shaken afterward and several were moved to tears.

F-House has been described by the Chicago Sun-Times as “decrepit,” “dehumanizing” and “hazardous both for inmates and workers.” Rauner stated that it is “one of the state’s oldest and most costly prison housing units” that “promotes a loud, chaotic environment for offenders.” It has $10.3 million in deferred maintenance costs. The John Howard Association noted how conditions in F-House were “unsanitary, inhumane, and degrading for prisoners and staff alike.” It continued:

The archaic panopticon design creates a physical environment that is damaging to the physical and mental health of prisoners and operationally dangerous for correctional staff. The grim conditions inside the roundhouse included persistent, insufferable noise-levels, extreme temperatures and poor ventilation; infestations of cockroaches and other pests; poor sanitation including issues with toilets, plumbing, and showers; and a physical plant that is overall dilapidated and beyond repair.

You know it’s bad when even the John Howard Association is arguing for the closure of F-House. While it claims to be an advocate for people incarcerated in Illinois and a “watchdog,” it is more akin to a jellyfish hypnotized by Illinois Department of Corrections administrators, often working directly against incarcerated people’s interests. Recently, the association refused to support bills in Illinois against solitary confinement and lowering the cost of prison phone calls.

What has gone unreported, however, is the fact that those inhumane conditions at F-House were the catalyst for dozens of lawsuits filed by the people subjected to them. The increasing number of lawsuits and the astronomical costs incurred by the state to defend itself increased the costs of keeping F-House open at a time when the state is broke and dysfunctional. Moreover, it was only a matter of time before a court ruled that the Illinois Department of Corrections had to either close F-House or spend the $10.3 million to fix it, and put a halt to the unconstitutional living conditions which amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution.

Infestations of Cockroaches

One of these lawsuits was filed by Cordellus McMurtry after a chill-inducing experience in F-House in July 2015. It began on July 18 when he awoke with an ear ache. That day he informed the nurse making rounds and gave her a formal request to be called to the Healthcare Unit. Five days later, McMurtry had still not been examined by any medical personnel and complained to both the major and his counselor that he was being denied medical care; believed he could feel and hear a cockroach crawling around in his ear.

Three days later, after receiving no medical attention, he submitted another formal request to be seen, to no avail. The next day, unable to bear the pain and emotional trauma any longer, McMurtry lay down on his back and kicked the cell door for hours until staff finally caved in and took him to the Healthcare Unit. There, sure enough, a cockroach was flushed from his ear by medical staff. He had a roach in his ear for a full nine days.

McMurtry was then returned to his roach-infested cell where he lived in constant fear that another roach would violate his ear canal while sleeping. To prevent it from happening again, he crammed his ears full of toilet paper and slept with a sheet over his head for months until he was moved to another cell house.

Education Reduces Recidivism

One would think that if the guards in Stateville were truly concerned about the prison closing completely, they would not only abandon their opposition to education programs there, but would actively support their expansion. Stateville is one of the few prisons in Illinois that has been able to bring in numerous college-level (thus far noncredit) courses at no cost to taxpayers. Chaplain Adamson has successfully coordinated dozens of volunteers from a handful of established universities like Northwestern, DePaul and the University of Illinois to offer courses.

These courses get guys out of their cells and expand their intellect and they are also a boon to society. Education reduces recidivism. The more educated a guy is when he gets out of prison, the better his chances of gaining employment and contributing to society. Therefore, the risk of him returning to a life of crime to make ends meet is also lower. Unfortunately, Stateville’s guards are opposed to the increased movement of the incarcerated. Guards constantly work to implement rules and policies to minimize the number and size of such educational programs.

Rauner announced that he was opening prisons in Kewanee and Murphysboro that would focus on “rehabilitation and helping [people] transition back to their communities.” The Illinois Department of Corrections, after abandoning the ideal of rehabilitation for decades, has begun correcting course. If Stateville’s guards want to have a leg to stand on in arguing that the prison is an indispensable tool that should remain open, they should be working extra hard to make it a paragon of rehabilitation, instead of hindering educational programs and fighting to maintain its status as a decrepit human warehouse.

Less than a month after Rauner’s edict, F-House stands more than half empty. Hundreds of men have been transferred from Stateville. Despite upending hundreds of men’s lives, Stateville’s residents wholeheartedly agree with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board which gave Rauner “An ‘A’ for Closing F House.” Too bad it took three decades longer than it should have.

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