Across the Fence

Neighbors of the Hanna City Work Camp and the men incarcerated there have something in common: they all live in the shadow of a prison.

By Johanna Rosenbohm

At 8:30 every Monday morning from May to October, the prisoners at the Hanna City Work Camp begin to mow the ditches across the road from the house where I grew up. About eight guys in blue pants and white T-shirts with push mowers walk up and down, an unarmed guard at one end of the rows of grass they cut. The mail and newspaper come by about noon, but my mother won’t cross the road to get them until the afternoon, when the prisoners are gone. But if I’m visiting, she’ll send me out while they’re there. Sometimes we say hello to one another. I nod slightly and shuffle envelopes, waiting for the semis to blow past so I can get back home.

My mother is uneasy about living across from the prison. For the most part, she can ignore it. It’s a minimum-security work camp, and breakouts are rare. When she drives past in her minivan she doesn’t wave or stare at anyone. But on Mondays, she complains, she can’t mow, because she doesn’t feel comfortable. A decade ago some prisoners yelled “compliments” at her and whistled. My mother turns red when she tells me this and sets her jaw. This pains her, because my mother’s truest hobby is mowing. It seems that all of central Illinois loves to mow. The lawns here are plentiful and bountiful, and in the summer you can’t go from one neighborhood to another without hearing the drone of an old push mower or seeing someone bump through his yard on a John Deere rider. Even when the grass is as beige as her living-room carpet, as it was last summer, she’s out there trimming it to the nub. But on Monday mornings she stays in the house.

The work camp sits about a mile west of my hometown–Hanna City, population 1,400–on Route 116. As you drive from town to the camp you’ll pass the Heritage Bank, three gas stations, two bait shops, the new Methodist church, and the Hog Trof restaurant, where “OSTRICH BURGERS NEW” are served. Peoria, the largest nearby city, is about a dozen miles east. Hanna City turned 200 years old in 1982 and held a huge celebration that summer, with carnival rides, parades, and a talent pageant. “Hanna City is a strong little town,” the bicentennial booklet reads. “It has gained its strength through faith and the ability to change….The love of God and countrymen runs strong through this community….The peaceful and secure surroundings of this quiet little town make this a wonderful place to live. A lot of farmers like to move into town when they retire.”

The booklet shows pictures of the old air force base camp, which housed the 791st Air Craft Control and Warning Squadron. It’s the prison now. It still looks the same as it did when I grew up. The huge radar that spins inside a pressurized plastic balloon–it looks like a giant golf ball–is still operated by the Federal Aviation Administration. But in 1968 the base closed and became a youth center, actually a home for juvenile delinquents. We always called it the “boys’ school.”

When I was younger the school would call every now and then to tell us that boys had escaped. Mom would keep my two sisters and me in the house. “Don’t go outside,” she’d say. “The boys are out.” We’d lurk around the living-room windows until they were found. They’d run through our yard sometimes, though I never caught more than a glimpse of them. Before we’d moved there, a neighbor told me, a boy got out and climbed up one of the apple trees in the yard. About six or seven guards came over and milled around with their walkie-talkies, until the guy who lived there stopped his mower and said, “Are you looking for that kid? He’s up there.” The kid was laughing.

“It was only boys,” says Dick Isbell, who lives in town. He started working at the air base in 1953 and stayed on the premises 36 years, until rheumatoid arthritis made him retire. “The girls were up at Brimfield. There were five different teachers and a library. Some of the boys worked. They had a lot to do–there were 40 acres to mow.”

Isbell worked as a maintenance electrician. When the boys moved in, he took on four at a time to teach them his trade. “We made out little test sheets for them to measure what they learned,” he says. “Didn’t have them long enough to go into details. Just the basics–the difference between AC, DC and always turn off the power switch before you work on something.”

The boys’ school stayed open until 1983, when the state decided to convert it to a work camp to relieve prison overcrowding. Neighbors found out about the change from youth-center workers who were petitioning to keep their jobs. Not surprisingly, the town protested the decision. Special meetings were held, local TV crews showed up to film irate citizens, and Hanna City adopted a resolution to keep the youth center. There was talk of a lawsuit against the state by the employees, but Harold Haller, mayor at the time, says nothing ever came of it. The state’s plans prevailed, and the place was a prison by the end of the year. “The boys caused us a lot more problems than the prisoners,” Haller says. “They know if they do anything to mess up, they go back up to the lockup. But the boys were always out, stealing cars and stuff. Of course, it’s different for us in town than with you all living right next to it.”

One night the boys’ school called to let us know some boys were out. Since it was harvest season, my dad offered to take his combine out in the cornfields and pick the outside rows, knocking down the cornstalks to make it easier to see the boys when they ran out of the field. I imagined them running through the corn rows, their arms itching from the rough leaves, their faces blank in the glare of the tractor lights. But dad never found any of the runaways himself.

The work camp is a satellite facility for the Illinois River Correctional Center in Canton, 20 miles away. Right now the camp houses about 200 inmates. After 14 years, my mother still hasn’t warmed up to this situation. When the camp opened, the officials did nothing to quell rumors that rapists and murderers were in charge of high-powered lawn mowers. “I know I should be more Christian about it,” mom says, then quotes Jesus. “‘Even as you do unto the least of you, you do to me.’ But I have to be realistic.” I could go either way. I understand my mother’s discomfort, but I don’t think it’s cushy across the road or that there’s a lot to fear. My dad doesn’t mind the prison much. What he hates is the traffic on the highway.

At first, Isbell says, he was told to have nothing to do with the prisoners. But that soon changed. “We’d take them to cut grass at the state hospital and at the old cemeteries,” he says. “We had one truck full of mowers and gasoline, and a van full of prisoners–because if we put them with the gasoline, they’d make rags and pour gas on them and put them in plastic bags and sniff ’em till they passed out. Stupid.” He snorts.

“For a long time they weren’t allowed to smoke. They’d steal butts out of car ashtrays and take steel wool from the laundry room, wrap it in toilet paper, and stick it in the light socket. The end would immediately turn red, and that’s what they’d use to light ’em. They called ’em ‘squares.’ ‘Get me a box of squares,’ they’d say.”

Isbell, who’s now in his 60s, had to attend sensitivity training and learn gang signs and symbols. “You have to establish a rapport with them,” he says. “Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, he uses that theory.” Isbell says he once established rapport with a counterfeiter who told him, “When I get out of here, I’m going to send you a bucketful of hundred dollar bills!” He laughs. “I told him please not to.”

Barb Williams’s yard is separated from the prison by a chain-link fence with razor ribbon spiraling along the top. She hates living next door to the camp, mostly because the prisoners don’t behave as she’d like them to. “They’re too lazy to scratch their butts where they itch,” she says. She thinks the prison’s attitude is too lax. “It used to be prisoners, now it’s inmates. It used to be prison, now it’s work release. They’ve civilized theirselves into oblivion.” She says no prisoner has ever harmed her. “But the question in the back of the mind is, when are they going to?”

Mostly she hates the way the prisoners mow outside the fence. “They came right up in my yard. They turned their mowers in my yard and put streaks in my grass. One guy mowed clear down to my driveway–right to my flower garden!” She says they stopped when she protested to the supervisor. “They think I’m a mean old woman. I don’t care, as long as they keep out of my yard.”

Williams has lived in her house with her family for more than 20 years. The family who live behind her don’t mind the prison; they just ignore it. Williams never says anything to the prisoners. “It doesn’t feel like a prison. It feels like a home they can’t leave and return to.”

When I asked to tour the prison I told the warden at the time, Rodney Ahitow, that I’d grown up in Hanna City but not exactly where. As soon as I went through the gates, a guard in a light green shirt and dark green pants came trotting toward me. “Can I help you?” he asked. I told him I had an appointment for a tour. “Oh, are you the girl who lives across the street?” he said, checking my car doors to make sure they were all locked. My last name’s on the mailbox, and my uncle is a night-shift guard. The guard introduced me to the supervisor saying, “This is the one who lives across the street.” I asked them not to refer to me that way, as a favor to my mother.

On the tour Captain Russell Reynolds, another guard, did most of the talking. Sharon Eeten, an office associate, chitchatted with the guards and prisoners, blowing impressive bubbles with her gum. We started off at the row houses–nine white shoe boxes with vertical siding that sit at the front of the base. Inmates lived in them until the winter of 1995; it cost too much to heat them. A couple of prison officials still lived in two of them, but the rest were vacant. The one Reynolds showed me looked like a deserted fraternity house. The four rooms were plain and brown, the cots stripped of their mattresses, the furniture scattered. A pay phone was attached to the kitchen wall. A red ashtray was bolted to the outside of the door–nearly every building in the camp had one. There were ashtrays throughout the prison, even in the arms of the chairs in the barbershop. All the rooms smelled musty, as if people had smoked in them for years, but I saw hardly anyone smoking.

The guards, all dressed in green uniforms, were armed with walkie-talkies and handcuffs. The only guns I saw were the two miniature charms that hung from a badge that said “Expert” on Reynolds’s chest. “There’s no need for weapons,” he said. “It’s not the kind of atmosphere the warden wants.” He showed me a supply closet full of cuffs and yellow flashlights. “No Mace,” he said.

Contrary to popular belief, most of the prisoners are there on drug or theft charges.

“No arson,” Eeten said.

“No sex offenders,” Reynolds said. “No murderers. No. They never reach minimum security.” He said that all the inmates have three years or less to go on their sentences and were among the best-behaved prisoners at the larger, more secure prisons from which they’d been transferred.

Walking around was like touring a factory or a school. No one really noticed us. It wasn’t like a prison. I hadn’t been forbidden to look into the prisoners’ eyes, as we’d been when my eighth-grade class toured the county jail on a field trip. “We’re bringing you here so that you don’t end up here,” our guides had told us. “We don’t ever want to see you again.”

In addition to mowing, work-camp inmates do community work such as building construction and renovation and emergency flood relief. Everyone at the camp works, says the supervisor, Tom Campbell. A few work in the prison garden at the edge of the grounds, some work in the dining hall, some in the commissary or the barbershop. The administration tries to match the interests of inmates to their jobs; each inmate must stay with a task for eight days before switching to a new one. The most a prisoner can make a month is $75, though most average $45. Campbell says they’re among the best wages in the Illinois system.

Reynolds took me to his office, where we got to listen in on telephone conversations. When a prisoner dials out, a recording tells him that anything he says can be monitored or taped. The prison records every single phone conversation on a computer and keeps the records for five or six months. Reynolds punched in a number on his telephone and voices came out of the plastic monitor on his desk. “Are you still asleep?” a man asked. A woman murmured. Neither could tell that we were listening to them.

The monitor transmitted more static than voices. Reynolds turned it off, then dialed up the coordinator of a basketball tournament going on in Peoria. “Yeah, can we get more of those T-shirts? Some of the guards here would love those. XXL, if you got ’em.” There was a pile of T-shirts on a chair, intended for the prisoners who helped set up the basketball tournament. They’d get to keep the shirts, but they couldn’t have them until they were released, unless they gave them to a visitor to take home.

On weekends busloads of visitors come in from Peoria to spend the day in the low-ceilinged visiting room. When I visited, it was empty. There was only the pool table, and toys in the adjacent kiddie room. Dirty silver ashtrays were stacked on a drinking fountain.

We walked over to the maintenance building, where the lawn mowers were parked. In one room was a wall full of standard tools in every size–handsaws, hammers, wrenches, rulers, screwdrivers. A prisoner wearing a clean, tight, white T-shirt and navy pants sat at a huge gray desk in the corner. He looked young, like a student left in charge while the teacher’s gone from the classroom. “How are you?” Eeten asked him. He nodded at her. The outline of each tool was painted on the wall, and each had been given a number so that you could tell what was out. “If a tool is missing,” Reynolds said, and laughed, “well, it’s found, let me tell you.”

There’s a separate building for every activity, which is what made it most prisonlike. You had to leave your living quarters to do anything–visit your family, eat, take GED classes, lift weights. But the biggest complaint of people like my mom and Barb Williams is that the distinction between life inside and outside the camp isn’t big enough.

We went through the chapel, the school building, the industrial-maintenance building. We went to the commissary where prisoners buy jeans, snack food, denture adhesive with their earnings from mowing or building or cooking. A prisoner puts his fingerprint on a form with a list of the things he wants to buy, and the money’s deducted from his computerized account.

A short man with a shower cap on his head walked past us with a brown bag full of groceries. “Is it count time yet, man?” he asked Reynolds. The prisoners have to stop still ten times a day to be counted. When the officials report the numbers to the main prison, Williams listens to them on the police scanner sitting on her kitchen counter.

In the dorms, pool tables were everywhere–games were always going on. Reynolds checked to make sure all the men were dressed before leading me into the bunk rooms. The bathrooms had no doors. A sign hung on a mirror: Flush with a bucket of water! The honors men are those on their best behavior with the least amount of time left. They had the nicest pressed-wood lockers, the cleanest rooms, and the most to lose, according to Reynolds. The other floors had beat-up steel lockers at the ends of the bunks. The rooms, with their low ceilings and old linoleum, looked like they belonged in a dingy summer camp–even the newest building had a dreary cast. Eeten flipped on the light in the bunk rooms, waking up a couple of napping prisoners.

Most of the guys were lifting weights outside. Richard Pryor, who was born in Peoria, had donated money years ago to help pay for the equipment. There was loud music and shouting as Reynolds led me around the gym and the two-lane bowling alley left over from the air-base days. A score sheet someone left behind said that Mike had bowled a 201. Reynolds and Eeten laughed.

Two guys were sitting in what Reynolds calls the Geritol ward, for prisoners around the age of 40. A third guy stood over a picture he’d just finished, an oil pastel of one of the sitting prisoners, with an open Bible hovering over his head and an older woman with wings behind him, her hand on his shoulder. “Your mother?” Reynolds asked the model. He nodded. “He should draw wings on your shoulders,” said Reynolds, laughing. “D’ja ever see the movie Michael?”

“If I had wings I would fly,” the guy said and smiled. “I would fly.”

Several years ago three prisoners escaped while working on a road crew. One was caught right away. The other two were found in Missouri after they robbed a farmer; their original charge had been robbery. My uncle the prison guard can be a man of few words, so I was surprised when he launched into a detailed description of how the prisoners should have lain low for a few days and then headed for Chicago, where their buddies would have had money and cars for them. When he finished he chuckled and said softly, “I would’ve gotten away.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Armando Villa.