SPRINGFIELD | One of the few independent organizations with regular access to the state’s overcrowded prison system is being criticized by the agency it is trying to help.
A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Corrections has called elements of reports issued by the John Howard Association “inaccurate” and “untrue.”
The spokesman, Tom Shaer, says he’s not trying to undermine the Chicago-based prison watchdog group’s credibility.
“I don’t want you to think this was part of an effort to undermine anybody because that’s absolutely, completely untrue,” said Shaer, who started with the state in April and makes $105,000 annually.
“We have no desire to get in the way of the very important work that the John Howard Association does,” Shaer said.
But, Shaer’s public criticism of the organization comes as Gov. Pat Quinn's administration has severely limited media access to the prison system in recent years, leaving the John Howard Association as one of the few sources providing an independent view of how the state’s prisons are operating.
The organization raised alarm bells when it released reports on prisons in Vandalia and Vienna indicating that prisoners were living in squalid conditions. A recent report commended officials for the operation of the Decatur Correctional Center.
In July, Shaer was quoted by a Southern Illinois television station raising questions about the association’s July report on staffing problems at the Big Muddy Correctional Center in Ina.
“It has a history of stating things that are helpful and useful and truthful and accurate, and it also has a history of having things in its reports that are inaccurate and untrue,” Shaer said.
In June, Shaer told WILY radio in Centralia that he disagreed with a John Howard report on conditions at Menard Correctional Center.
“That’s their opinion and their most recent report on Vandalia Correctional Center was filled with inaccuracies, false statements, misrepresentations and also valuable, important factual information,” Shaer said.
John Howard Association Executive Director John Maki said he was puzzled by Shaer’s remarks because the organization allows Department of Corrections brass to review the reports before they are released to the public.
“From our perspective, we get a lot of access. For that reason, we have a sacred responsibility to be as accurate as possible,” Maki said.
The negative comments from Shaer come nearly a year after Quinn decreed the state’s lockups off-limits to reporters.
“We’re not going to have tours of Illinois prisons. I don’t believe in that,” Quinn told reporters in August 2012.
The Quinn administration also tried to limit prison employees from talking with the news media. For example, state police investigators probed a leak of information obtained by the Lee Enterprises Springfield Bureau last year regarding a plan to ship some dangerous inmates to out-of-state prisons.
A now-retired top prison official also sent a letter to the Lee bureau suggesting that if the names of the inmates being considered for out-of-state placement were printed, guards and inmates could be in danger.
“If you proceed to disclose any information in your possession on this subject beyond yourself, the department will view your actions as attempting to promote disorder within the prison system,” wrote Jerry Buscher, former executive chief of the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Quinn later relented on his media ban and department officials took reporters on limited visits of prisons in Vandalia, Vienna and Pontiac.
The virtual media blackout has left the John Howard Association as one of the only outside groups allowed inside to view and document conditions in a system where 49,000 inmates are packed into space built for 32,000.
Shaer said he stands by what he said and he isn't under orders to try and discredit the John Howard reports.
“What I said, positive and negative, I said with no agenda other than to speak the truth as I know it,” Shaer said. “Nobody told me what to say. Nobody told me to go out and criticize.”
He said he has spoken with Maki about his comments and said the state would continue to give access to the organization.
“I think it’s a logical question that you’re asking. I can assure you there is zero change in the level of cooperation we’re going to give,” Shaer said. “In fact, I would predict the level of cooperation will increase.”