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Students allowed in state prison, reporters banned

Published: Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 10:00 a.m. CDT
Caption
FILE - This Aug. 20, 2008 file photo shows the Pontiac Correctional Center in Pontiac. Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration is describing a prison tour by community college students as “educational” while continuing to bar news reporters as a “security risk.” The Department of Corrections said 25 criminal justice students from Heartland Community College in Normal toured the maximum-security Pontiac lockup on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

SPRINGFIELD (AP) — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's administration is defending its decision allowing community college students to take an "educational" tour of one of the state's maximum-security prisons while at the same time continuing to bar reporters from such visits as a security risk.

A group of 25 criminal justice students from Heartland Community College in Normal toured the prison in Pontiac last Friday, Corrections Department spokeswoman Stacey Solano said. A college spokesman said he was told the undergrads didn't see inmate living areas.

The Associated Press and other news media outlets have been denied tour requests under Quinn, who is attempting to close two prisons to save money despite historic overcrowding of the state's prisons. According to an AP analysis of state data, there are now more than 49,300 inmates held in prisons designed for 33,700.

When asked in August why reporters can't tour taxpayer-financed prisons, Quinn said it would be a "security risk." He added, "Prisons aren't country clubs. They're not there to be visited and looked at."

An AP follow-up request by letter on Aug. 23 for a Pontiac tour to Corrections Director S.A. "Tony" Godinez was never answered.

Solano responded in an email Wednesday night that Godinez is still considering the requests by AP and other media outlets "to determine, in the director's legal discretion, a manageable and appropriate way to accommodate media tours."

She did not immediately respond when asked whether Godinez had decided to allow tours and was working out guidelines or if the review could still result in a decision against letting reporters inside.

The Springfield bureau of Lee Enterprises reported Tuesday the Heartland trip was led by adjunct criminal justice professor Jennifer Bursell, who would not speak to the news agency out of fear prison administrators would cut off future tours. Bursell did not respond to messages left by the AP seeking comment.

"Educational tours are guided tours where students do not communicate with inmates or any staff other than those offering the tour," Solano explained, adding that visitors may not bring recording devices and may only "view areas of the facility where safety, security and inmate privacy are not threatened."

She did not respond when asked how a tour by reporters would differ from such an "educational" journey.

Heartland spokesman Josh Reinhart said he did not have all the details, but said, "Calling it a tour is a bit misleading."

"My understanding is students don't actually have any contact with inmates and have no access to inmate areas," Reinhart said.

He said the class is for students interested in becoming correctional officers or prison administrators. Students only visited administrative areas of the prison, Reinhart said, but he could not say what those areas comprised.

The AP requested a tour of Pontiac when it became clear that high-security inmates from Tamms Correctional Center, which Quinn wants closed, would be transferred there. Other media have asked for tours to see, for example, what an outside watchdog group has called crowded, filthy conditions.

While Reinhart says Heartland students' trip was limited to administrative areas, other students have been allowed into cell blocks. Lee Enterprises reported in August that criminal justice professor Jesse Krienert of Illinois State University has led student tours for 15 years of Pontiac, the maximum-security Stateville prison near Joliet, and the women's penitentiary at Dwight, which Quinn also wants shuttered. She said students mingle with inmates in hallways and recreation yards and have never voiced concern for safety.

Krienert did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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Contact John O'Connor at https://www.twitter.com/apoconnor

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