Activists petition Illinois public health department to shut down Vienna prison

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Activists and family members of people incarcerated in Vienna Correctional Center are calling on the Illinois Department of Public Health to shut down the minimum-security prison in southern Illinois.

The prison has been plagued by electrical issues, which caused intermittent power outages over several weeks in May, according to news reports. Prison officials have relied on backup generators, which “generate noxious fumes and are themselves unreliable,” according to the letter, which has over 1,000 signatures.

The petition also claims the prison is “infested with black mold and rodents in the dining halls and kitchen.” These ongoing issues have made the facility dangerous, especially during a pandemic, advocates say.

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“The combination of the COVID-19 threat with the extreme living conditions at the prison are a lethal mix, not only for the individuals incarcerated in the facility but also for the staff and for the surrounding community in Southern Illinois,” reads the petition, which was sent to IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike on June 10.

The Illinois Department of Corrections “has no plans to shut down Vienna Correctional Center,” said spokesperson Lindsey Hess. In an email to Injustice Watch, Hess said the department is spending more than $2.3 million in ongoing maintenance projects at the facility. She also denied that inmates had ever been deprived of water and stated that repairs to the electrical system were completed in mid-May.

The Illinois Department of Public Health said Thursday they had not received the petition. Governor J.B. Pritzker’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Melissa Flores, whose fiancé is incarcerated at Vienna, said the letter came out of frustrated conversations she had with others who have loved ones in the prison.

“I felt that if this petition was created, that we could show IDPH, the director, and everybody else that our complaints are valid,” Flores said.

Flores and the other organizers chose to address the public health department instead of the department of corrections because they felt that their complaints to the prison agency were “falling on deaf ears.”

“IDPH, they’re really focused on [the prisoners’] health. Not what they did, not why they’re in there,” said Flores. “IDOC is really fixated on the fact that these people have committed crimes, and they don’t deserve to be out in the world.”

In a recent survey by the prison watchdog John Howard Association, 75 percent of prisoners at Vienna reported that they did not receive enough cleaning supplies to keep their cells clean. Over 80 percent of inmates said they were not able to go to the yard at any point in the previous week, even though the prison is not currently on lockdown.

Problems at Vienna, which is at the southern tip of the state near the Kentucky border, have built up over the years, said Alan Mills, the executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center. In January 2014, Vienna lost power, leaving some inside without light or heat in the middle of “one of the coldest winters in memory,” according to news reports at the time.

“The basic problem with Vienna is that it has been allowed to deteriorate for decades,” said Mills, who filed a 2012 lawsuit against the prison over maintenance and sanitation issues. The lawsuit led to some important repairs and the closing of one of the most decrepit prison buildings, but “there’s lots and lots of deferred maintenance,” Mills said.

Over the years, activists in Illinois have often called for the closure of prisons, including Stateville, Pontiac and Menard. Vienna, which opened in November 1965, is often on the list. But these calls have rarely been successful.

The last Illinois state prisons to close were Tamms Correctional Center and Dwight Correctional Center, both of which were shuttered by former Gov. Pat Quinn in 2013 primarily for budgetary reasons. Tamms was the state’s last “supermax” prison, and Quinn agreed to close the facility in response to outrage over the isolation and poor treatment of inmates. Maintenance problems, including poor water and leaky roofs, contributed to the closing of Dwight, Mills said.

Mills said Vienna should be closed once the pandemic ends and the need for social distancing across the system goes down.

But Flores says that the situation can’t wait. Her fiancé has severe respiratory problems, adding to her fears about the unsanitary conditions during the pandemic. The issues with water, electricity and general sanitation make it necessary to get prisoners out of the facility as soon as possible, she said.

“I just feel like they’re holding these inmates hostage,” she said.

Correction (July 19, 1:00 p.m.): This story has been updated to clarify that Uptown People’s Law Office did not win their 2012 lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Corrections. Rather, the department voluntarily made changes at Vienna prison in return for UPLC dropping the suit.