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The Pandemic Had Prisoners’ Nerves On Edge. Then The Power Started Going Out.

For weeks, two houses in Illinois’ Vienna Correctional Center ran on generator power and had intermittent failures, multiple prisoners told The Appeal. The outages made it harder to use the shared bathroom, one of the few places they could wash their hands.

Cell with door

Tyrone, 33, says it’s been difficult being incarcerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, waiting for someone locked up with him in Illinois’ Vienna Correctional Center to contract the disease. 

Then, he said, the power started going out for several hours a day. 

For more than three weeks, two of the housing units in the Vienna Correctional Center, a minimum-security state prison in southern Illinois, were running on generator power because of a water line leak that damaged the electrical system, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. 

The generators would frequently shut off, leaving prisoners without electricity, showers, or hot water, four people incarcerated there told The Appeal. Their names have been changed out of concern for their safety.

The department said it began using generators in those units on April 24, and that the units were restored to normal power on Monday. Anders Lindall, a spokesperson for AFSCME Council 31, which represents correctional officers in Illinois, confirmed that there had “been occasional outages due to aging infrastructure.” 

When the power would go out, Vienna prisoners told The Appeal, they stayed in their cells, avoiding even trips to the bathroom. There are no sinks in their cells, so they need to leave to wash their hands, said Hasan, who was incarcerated at Vienna until early March when he was transferred to a different state prison. 

“It’s hard to use the bathroom in the dark especially since we have a community washroom,” Wayne, who has been incarcerated since 2014, told The Appeal through the prison’s messaging system. When the power went out, he said, he felt “very unsafe.”

Conditions in prisons already make it difficult to take preventive measures against the novel coronavirus like social distancing and frequent hand washing. Seven of the nation’s 10 largest outbreaks are at correctional facilities, according to data compiled by the New York Times. At Vienna, the electrical outages added another hurdle and another source of anxiety.

“I worry about a lot of things when the lights go off,” Tyrone said. “It’s like the walls closing in.” 

As of Tuesday, there were no confirmed cases of the virus among staff or prisoners at Vienna. But because of limited testing, many may have the virus who have not been diagnosed. Only about 600 of more than 36,000 state prisoners have been tested, according to the Department of Corrections. As of Wednesday, 197 state prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 and 12 have died from the disease. 

About two weeks ago, Tyrone said his unit went without electricity for roughly 12 hours until a new generator could replace a broken one. Most days, they were left in the dark for a few hours, he said. 

DOC spokesperson Lindsey Hess denied that the power was ever out for 12 hours. “Units 5 and 6 were without power for approximately 4 hours” on May 5, she said in an email. 

Vienna’s deteriorating infrastructure was creating inhumane conditions for the people incarcerated there long before the pandemic, according to Alan Mills, executive director of the civil rights law firm Uptown People’s Law Center, which has filed several class action suits against the Department of Corrections. In 2012, Mills’s firm sued the DOC on behalf of prisoners at Vienna alleging that they were being held in buildings with mold, poor ventilation, broken plumbing, and vermin infestations. The suit was dismissed in 2017, at the plaintiffs’ request, after conditions improved. 

Despite those improvements, structural problems at the prison persist, Mills said. 

“There’s a lot of deferred maintenance at Vienna,” he said. “Vienna, like every prison in the state, still doesn’t have the sort of maintenance that it ought to.”

Matt, who is also incarcerated at Vienna, said the power would go out at any hour of the day or night.

“When we lose power if you do not have a battery [powered] light you are left in the dark and with no lights in the halls or bathroom it’s hard to get back and forth to even use the bathroom,” he wrote The Appeal. “The c\o may come around sometimes but not alot of times so most men just stay in their cells.”

Prisoners told The Appeal that the showers would shut off when the power went out, but Hess disputed that claim. “Showers work without electricity,” she said. “If there is a loss of power after dark, visibility would be limited; therefore, we would shut down showers due to safety/security concerns until visibility is restored.” 

Hot water remained accessible for two to three hours after losing power, according to Hess.   

Unreliable electricity is just one hazard that incarcerated people at Vienna, which opened in the 1960s, have to navigate. 

Hasan called Vienna’s conditions “deplorable.” 

“It is roach infested, mice run [rampant] in the dining hall and we were subject to mice feces in foods as well as some small black [worm]-like bugs in our dry cereal,” he wrote to The Appeal through the prison’s messaging service.

Vienna isn’t the only prison in the state dealing with power failures. Women incarcerated at Logan Correctional Center in central Illinois have reported that their healthcare unit is running on a generator, Mills said. “Prisoners have been told that part of the reason that there have been a lot of confusion about medication is because the nurses are often forced to do the dividing up of the medicine for people in the dark with flashlights,” he said. “Not the best way to run a prison is with generators that are obviously meant to be temporary.”

Hess confirmed that Logan’s healthcare unit has been running on a generator since April 9. There is no timeline for moving the unit off the generator, she wrote in an email to The Appeal. “However, there is no break in services,” she wrote. “All lights and life saving devices are fully operational.” 

The decaying infrastructure at Vienna will keep on causing problems, said Carlos, who has been incarcerated since 2015.

“This place is just plain old,” Carlos wrote to The Appeal in a message. The prison needs “real repairs as far as the electrical lines that power this place.”

Carlos’s fiance said she talks to him six to eight times a day. Recently, he has been sharing his frustrations with the electrical issues.  

“He understands that prison is prison and it’s not meant to be a cake walk, but as the years start to go by, it just starts to deteriorate more and more and they’re doing less and less to fix it,” she said.

As a result, prisoners are left to suffer in the dark. 

“This place likes to put a bandaid on a bullet hole,” Carlos wrote.