CHESTER, IL—Touting the layout’s benefits in promoting communication and a more productive penal environment, the Illinois Department of Corrections unveiled its new open-plan prison Friday at the Menard Correctional Center.
Menard officials told reporters that the penitentiary has eliminated the concrete walls and individual holding cells normally associated with state prison facilities, opting instead for a free, nonrestrictive arrangement in which the detention center’s 3,400 convicted felons share a collective space, where they can take advantage of collaborative opportunities afforded by the newly remodeled floor plan.
“With this new open layout, we’re fostering a communal correctional environment that encourages camaraderie and cooperation among all our prisoners, short-timers and lifers alike,” said prison administrator James DeNault, adding that the bright, airy environment creates a more inviting maximum-security space for convicts. “By removing the boundaries of a conventional penitentiary, we’re encouraging increased interactivity among our inmates. So, when one of our prisoners wants to use the restroom or has to report for laundry duty, for example, he’ll now walk past areas controlled by the Aryan Brotherhood, Raza Unida, the Vice Lords, and so forth—all groups he never would have had the opportunity to connect with normally.”
“Both our guards and our prisoners are very excited about the new setup,” he added. “I think it’s going to make for a much more modern, dynamic incarceration experience.”
DeNault explained to reporters that, in place of hundreds of individual cells, Menard now features a sprawling 700,000-square-foot open area lined with multiple rows of ergonomic beds separated by short panels of frosted glass. The renovations have also reportedly included a refurbishing of the prison’s general aesthetic, with the facility’s electronically sealed doors and iron bars having been removed in favor of exposed brick and large, wall-mounted LCD TV screens that display the Illinois Department of Corrections seal.
Additionally, sources confirmed that the facility has exchanged its steel benches for brightly colored teal and orange couches on which prisoners can lounge while engaged in their work program jobs of sewing bedspreads or mixing roadway paint for 30 cents an hour.
“I’d gotten used to spending 22 hours a day in my cell with the door locked, but I have to admit that this new layout has been kind of nice,” said convicted drug trafficker Miguel Flores, 38, noting that prior to the floor plan update, he tended to only associate with felons housed in his immediate cell block. “Just yesterday, I struck up a conversation with this sex offender after passing him a few times on the way to the yard, and before I knew it, we were exchanging OxyContin hookups. That never would have happened in the old setup.”
“And if I do need some space to myself, I can always hit one of the guards in the face with a cafeteria tray and get thrown into solitary for a couple days,” Flores added. “Though there are only a few cells back there, and they tend to fill up pretty fast.”
In addition to the improved energy and sense of community the new open-plan system is said to have instilled, many inmates claimed that the updated layout has allowed them to work more closely with their fellow career criminals. Specifically, a number of prisoners told reporters that the new floor plan facilitates open channels of dialogue that allow gang leaders to more effectively communicate with subordinates and coordinate their attacks on rivals.
“The guys in my corridor were a little hesitant about the open-plan concept at first, but it’s already paying off,” said 45-year-old Adam “Bleach” Chamberlain, who is currently serving a life sentence without parole for the 2006 murder of his ex-girlfriend in Chicago. “Just the other day, I overheard a few guys talking about shanking someone who ratted out their liquor and cell phone smuggling operation. Because they were discussing it in the open nearby, I was able to step right into the conversation and say, ‘Hey, why not jump him when he goes to the infirmary and just bash his skull against the sink and kick his teeth out?’ Something like that just wouldn’t be possible if we were still locked up in separate cells.”
“We really beat the fuck out of him,” he continued.
Menard’s directors have also been pleased with the new floor plan, noting that the updated layout is far more cost-effective than the previous arrangement, as it allows the prison to add considerably more hardened criminals without necessitating a substantial investment in steel-reinforced barriers, corridors with controlled-access gates, and rimless toilets for each inmate.
While warden Kim Butler said she has been satisfied with the inmates’ response overall, she admitted that it will take a certain amount of time to fully adjust to the new surroundings for some convicts, particularly the mentally unstable and those at the bottom of the prison’s social pecking order who now feel more exposed.
“Sure, it sometimes gets a little loud, and once in a while the entire prison will erupt into an uncontrollable race riot, but these are just minor drawbacks,” Butler said. “Once our inmates consider the numerous advantages of spending the next few years or the remainder of their lives in an open-plan layout, I’m confident they’ll come around to the new setup.”
“And if they don’t, it’s not exactly like they have a choice,” Butler added.