Vienna Correctional Center
Vienna Correctional Center
Vienna Correctional Center is a minimum-security male facility, located approximately five hours south of Chicago, adjacent to medium-security Shawnee Correctional Center. Vienna operates one of the two boot camp programs within the Illinois Department of Corrections, Dixon Springs Impact Incarceration Program, which is the only IDOC facility that houses both male and female populations.
In JHA’s 2011 monitoring report for Vienna we wrote: Most urgently, Vienna needs the help of the governor and the legislature to enact legislation and support programs that will safely reduce the state’s prison population, which has reached almost 50,000 inmates, a record high. In particular, Illinois needs to find more cost-effective alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent inmates who have swelled minimum-security prisons like Vienna at great cost and little benefit to taxpayers. … The Illinois Governor and General Assembly must reduce the prison population through sentencing reform, enact a safe replacement for Meritorious Good Time, and provide Vienna and other DOC facilities with funding and staffing needed to meet the population’s basic medical and mental health needs. If such action is not taken, it is all but inevitable that this issue will end up being litigated in the courts.
Years later, litigation is pending on all aspects of conditions in Illinois’ prisons, and for conditions at Vienna itself. It now lies with the courts to determine whether the deteriorating conditions in our underresourced prisons violate constitutional rights and contemporary standards of decency, and if so, what can and will be done. Taxpayers ultimately will have to pay for prison improvements. JHA urges more proactive, preemptive, and considered state spending.
At the time of JHA’s October 2014 visit, IDOC’s population held at the same numbers as three years prior, around 49,000, with over 1,600 inmates at Vienna. Recently, Illinois’ new governor has set a goal to reduce our prison population 25% in ten years. Employing alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenses and expanding use of sentencing credits are just two ways that this could begin to be achieved. Vienna is a good example of how restricting sentencing credits results in immediate population inflation and related detriments.
More than half of Vienna’s population has less than a year left to serve on their sentences, and 80% have less than two years. Low-level non-violent inmates, like the majority of inmates at Vienna, should be the first to be targeted for population reduction efforts. Lack of available programming means that inmates are not maximally earning possible sentencing credits, which would result in lowered population.
As discussed in JHA’s prior reports, harsh, crowded, unhygienic prison conditions, manifested in Vienna’s Building 19, have no demonstrable deterrent effect on recidivism, and, in fact, tend to undermine both facility safety and community safety when inmates return home. While Vienna administrators compared dorm housing conditions in Building 19 to those in a military barracks, the analogy ignores that inmates may be confined inside these housing units the majority of the time and have limited opportunities for outside activity.
During JHA’s 2014 Vienna monitoring visit, an administrator stated that the facility is “100%better” than at the time of JHA’s visit three years prior. This improvement was mostly attributed to staffing gains and financial support for physical plant repairs, which were estimated to be completed in 2016.
Because most Vienna inmates have little time left to serve on their sentences, there is a high rate of population turnover. The inmates that we spoke with on our 2014 visit complained of largely the same issues as the inmates that we spoke with in 2011. In addition to physical condition issues, inmates reported frustration about lack of availability of sentencing credit and work release to reward model behavior. Staff also continue to express regret that their facility, once a model program focused on reentry and rehabilitation that inmates worked to earn their way into, had become an overcrowded warehouse.
Illinois must today confront the reality of our overcrowded and unproductive prison environments for individuals convicted of low-level offenses, who present low risk to public safety, and ask the worth of our continued investment in incarcerating these individuals, rather than limiting the use of incarceration to inmates who have been assessed and determined to pose a higher risk of harming others and more resistance to rehabilitation.
On September 27, 2011, JHA visited Vienna Correctional Center (Vienna). Vienna is a Level Six minimum-security adult male facility that houses mostly low-level inmates. It also operates Dixon Springs-Impact Incarceration Program (IIP), a co-ed boot camp. Located on the fringes of Shawnee National Forest and adjacent to Shawnee Correctional Center, a male minimum-security prison, Vienna is about 350 miles south of Chicago and 170 miles west of Nashville, Tennessee.
Vienna represents the best of what Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) can be and the worst of what it has become through a lack of vital resources and severe overcrowding.
For most of its more than 40-year history, Vienna was widely regarded as Illinois’ most successful and innovative prison. It was designed to function as a small town where inmates could learn how to become responsible citizens. Until a little over 10 years ago, the facility did not have a fence, and inmates did not wear uniforms.
Education was critical to Vienna’s rehabilitative mission. The prison’s education and vocational program rivaled—and in some cases surpassed—the area’s best technical high schools and post-secondary institutions. In fact, Vienna’s programming was so good that local area residents took classes in the prison with inmates.
During this period, Vienna embodied a mutually beneficial relationship between prison and community that went far beyond the typical economic support prisons provide to their local economies. Up until the mid 1990s, Vienna inmates volunteered in the local community, umpired baseball games on weekends, and even ran an Emergency Technician Program, which supplied the surrounding area with a 24-hour ambulance service staffed by specially trained inmates.
Today Vienna has gone from being Illinois’ most innovative and successful prison to its most overcrowded. Although the facility was designed to hold 685 inmates, it now houses more than 1,600 people. Years of neglect and lack of essential maintenance and upkeep have made these conditions worse, as mostly low-level inmates are crammed into dilapidated buildings infested with mice and cockroaches.
While Vienna’s staff and administration are acutely aware of the problems they face, they believe if given the appropriate resources they could turn the facility around. They point to current renovations, which include a desperately needed re-roofing project. They also note how last spring, when the region faced some of the worst flooding it has ever seen, inmates and staff volunteered and helped prepare more than 400,000 sandbags, which saved countless homes and buildings from serious damage.
At JHA’s meeting with Vienna’s administration, a senior member aptly described the current state of the facility: “Vienna is a good place with a proud history in need of help.” Most urgently, Vienna needs the help of the governor and the legislature to enact legislation and support programs that will safely reduce the state’s prison population, which has reached almost 50,000 inmates, a record high. In particular, Illinois needs to find more cost-effective alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent inmates who have swelled minimum-security prisons like Vienna at great cost and little benefit to taxpayers.
With a reduction in population, DOC could return Vienna to a model, re-entry prison that inmates could earn their way into through good behavior. This proposal is based not on liberal or conservative approaches to crime, but on cost-effective use of tax dollars and state resources. Ultimately, the choice for elected officials is not whether to spend money on its prison system. It is whether to put money into smart re-entry programming or an endless cycle of re-incarceration.