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SPRINGFIELD | Two federal judges plan to visit an Illinois prison next month as part of a class action lawsuit brought by inmates at the overcrowded facility.

In an unusual order issued Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Philip M. Frazier called for taking the ongoing deliberations out of the federal courthouse in Benton and meeting with lawyers for the state and the inmates at the Vienna Correctional Center.

U.S. Judge Phil Gilbert, who would handle a trial if a settlement isn't reached, also may attend the Oct. 30 summit.

"It is anticipated that Judge Gilbert will participate," Frazier wrote in his order.

A spokeswoman for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan confirmed steps were underway to set up the rare meeting, but offered no further reaction to the judge's decision.

Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer said the agency requested the meeting.

"This visit you’re inquiring about was requested by the IDOC to facilitate resolution of litigation regarding alleged conditions at Vienna Correctional Center," Shaer said in an email Tuesday.

The visit is the latest step in a case dating to July 2012, when three inmates filed suit on behalf of nearly 1,900 prisoners at the facility alleging they were living in moldy, vermin-infested quarters with insufficient bathroom facilities.

The case, which has been in settlement talks since late 2013, highlighted problems dogging the Department of Corrections as it deals with crowded conditions in its more than two dozen facilities.

John Maki, executive director of the Chicago-based John Howard Association, said the meeting could give the judges a close-up view of what life looks like at a crowded prison.

"I think its really positive," said Maki, whose prison watchdog group issued a damning report on conditions at Vienna more than two years ago.

"Vienna is where the overcrowding problem within the Illinois Department of Corrections first hit me. When we were there a couple of years ago, it was really awful," Maki said.

Shaer said the current population is 1,664. In July, the population was listed at 1,830. Agency reports show the Southern Illinois prison was designed for 925 inmates.

The overall number of prisoners in Illinois continues to hover in the 48,000-inmate range in a system designed for about 32,000 inmates. Despite a revamped early prisoner release program, Corrections officials are predicting the population will top 50,000 inmates by March 2015.

Along with the presence of mold, mice and cockroaches, the three Vienna prisoners who filed the lawsuit said broken windows on some buildings had been simply boarded up, rather than replaced.

They also argued the prison was ill-equipped to handle the influx of inmates.

“The clothing and bedding materials provided to prisoners are often stained, soiled and tattered,” the suit added.

And, they said educational and vocational programs, once a hallmark of the 50-year-old facility, have been curtailed because of state budget problems.

Said Maki, "Vienna used to be the crown jewel of the Illinois Department of Corrections. Now it has become a warehouse."

Corrections officials have been working to upgrade the facility since the lawsuit was filed. In November 2012, officials hosted a tour of the facility to highlight some of the improvements made to inmate living areas.

Maki said the outcome of the lawsuit could have far-reaching effects on the state's prison policies. Conditions within the state system, for example, could lead to what occurred in California when a court ruled the state must release thousands of inmates because of overcrowding.

"I hope we don't need the courts the way California did," Maki said.


Night Editor

Jeanette is a journalist with The Times Media Co. who has worked as both a reporter and editor. She has a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield.