The pat downs happen three people at a time. It is early, and you are standing on the cold floor without shoes on so that even the soles of your feet can be thoroughly examined. The pat downs do not leave any crevice unchecked; shoes and bras must be shaken out. All papers and notebooks are checked. Makeup, jewelry and revealing clothes are forbidden. Past the Visitor Center, you will see the inmates with special privileges working: doing laundry, preparing food, sewing uniforms. Six gates act as a barrier separating the outside world from those inside. Each massive steel blockade towers in silence, lined up in 50 foot increments, acting as checkpoints for additional inspections of notebooks and paper. Past the dining hall, you walk into a school house and wait for students to arrive.
“At first, most people are scared of the prisoners,” Alexandria Boutros said. “By the end of the class, they are scared of the prison.” This is her second quarter inside the Stateville Correctional Center through DePaul University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, where undergraduate students and prisoners sit in the school house together to learn about social issues and each other. The program allows DePaul students to study restorative justice, politics and inequality within the 33-foot concrete walls of the Stateville Correctional Center.
The origin of the program can be traced back to Temple University, Philadelphia. It was created to form a relationship between prisons and institutions of higher learning where the approach to social justice is impacted by the learning environment itself. “Outside” undergraduate students and the same number of “inside” incarcerated students have class together within a prison and learn lessons of justice and truth from each other.
Howard Rosing, executive director of the Steans Center at DePaul University, brought the Inside-Out Program to DePaul from Temple. As a faculty member of the Community Service Studies program, he has always had an interest in bringing justice to the incarcerated.
“This seemed to be a way to do that that provides dignity to all parties,” Howard said. “I don’t feel that incarceration provides any sense of dignity to the inside students, so we use this program to infuse human dignity into the prison system.This is not just a means of learning; it is a solidarity movement.”
Alexandria has come to know the ritual of pat downs, visitor passes and checkpoints well. She has heard the stories of men entrapped by a system that exploits them. She has seen their pain.
“Learning in this way deconstructs what incarceration means to us,” Howard said. “Within the program, the inside students are treated as equals to outside students, even though they are not equal. The outside students get to walk out.”
Until Nov. 1 this year, an institution rooted in the notion that everyone should be afraid of prisoners sat just three miles down the road. The Statesville Haunted House was designed to emulate the inside of the Stateville Correctional Center. The “haunted” prison describes the setting of their maze vividly, sparing no detail of the horror visitors are about to enter into:
The Prisoners have rioted, the guards have fled, a darkness has seized control of this Maximum Security Prison and our Warden has opened the gates for visitors. After the prisoners have processed “The Meat/Visitors,” you will be forced to find your way through 23 maximum security cells and come eye-to-eye with over 100 criminals that were too evil to die. Statesville Haunted Prison®. No one escapes.
Paul Siegel, founder and president of the Statesville Haunted Prison, grew up across the street from the original correctional center. According to Kaity Siegel — Paul’s daughter and general manager of the haunted prison — the idea behind the attraction arose from a rather dramatic childhood story; according to family lore, an inmate knocked on their door ten years before Paul was born, demanding the keys to his father’s car in the midst of a great escape. He and an accomplice got one mile down the road before the police caught up with them, but the narrative left an impression that would eventually lead to the Statesville Haunted Prison. The family enterprise started as a hay ride in 1995, according to Kaity, and a 7,000 square foot maze was opened a year later — five minutes away from the actual prison. It’s been growing and thriving ever since.
According to the family, the Statesville Haunted Prison was not thrown together impulsively; research and work went into choosing the featured prisoners. “Our thinking was: ‘why not base it off of something actually scary?’” Kaity said. “What better way to make something scary than base it off of real life and real people?”
While the attraction has been praised and enjoyed by many since its creation, some advocates for prison reform argue that this representation is nowhere near the truth; not only does it exist in the realm of fantasy, but it further entrenches negative stigma surrounding the incarcerated. Kaity disagreed, saying that their haunted prison was a Halloween attraction like any other.
“We are not doing this to mock anyone,” Kaity said. “We did our research on the scariest prisoners to come out of Stateville Correction Center like John Wayne Gacy and Richard Speck. So many of our ‘prisoners’ are based off of them and the things they did.”
Despite the family’s intentions, the distinction between Stateville and Statesville is confusing by design — only the letter “s” identifies one from the other. According to Kaity, people periodically make the mistake of sending letters meant for inmates to Siegel family grounds. Others who call the haunted prison looking for incarcerated loved ones are met with a voicemail, along with a default explanation of how to contact the real Stateville prison. Kaity said these mistakes are common, and that some visitors even think the haunted prison is located inside the actual correctional center. One of the first questions on the FAQ page asks, “is Statesville Haunted Prison a real prison?” The answer is no — it takes the “format and plot” of one. Below is recorded audio of Statesville Haunted Prison’s voicemail, in which calls who intended to call Stateville Correctional Center are redirected.
The haunted prison is an extremely successful business endeavor with top ratings from must-see Halloween attraction lists. Last month, DePaul’s weekly newspaper — the DePaulia — published an article highlighting the inner workings of the haunted prison and its artistic merits. The DePaulia’s characterization of the enterprise — praising “its ability to make everything look real,” for example — frustrated the students participating in the Inside-Out Program. The students, who have taken classes with actual Stateville inmates, believe this implication of realism tacitly promotes the haunted prison’s demonization of these human beings. The gruesome images of corroded cells, flooding septic systems and ravenous men contribute to the haunted prison’s continued success at the expense of the men for whom Stateville is a reality.
“I am so disappointed in the DePaulia and all of its members for their lack of research and knowledge, for their exploitation of a marginalized identity for a story,” said Maria Vega, another student currently taking classes at Stateville.
When 14 East reached out to the DePaulia for a response, editor-in-chief Jessica Villagomez declined to comment directly on the criticisms from Inside-Out students.
“If readers are questioning our editorial process and decision-making please guide them to me,” she wrote.
The haunted house industry has a straightforward goal: terrifying people in every way possible. Whether it be through elaborate mazes, masked actors or monsters popping out behind corners, their intentions are rarely evil. When haunted houses use mental institutions or prisons as a setting, however, ethical lines begin to blur. People shrieking in straight jackets and prisoners reaching blood-soaked hands through cell bars are not just edgy or harmless Halloween characters; they are a grossly exaggerated depiction of the underprivileged and systemically oppressed human beings who spend time in these institutions.
The characters portrayed inside Statesville Haunted Prison are “guilty” of torture, mass killings and mutilation. They even have their own files modeled to look like actual criminal records. According to the students who spend time with these men, the terrifying depictions of prisoners consumed by crime and bloodthirst within the prison cannot be further from the truth. Shamiah Byrd refused to accept the Statesville Haunted Prison as anything but an act of dehumanization.
“To glorify an occasion that depicts human beings as animals or scary, or to belittle someone’s sanity?” Shamiah asks. “To go through a haunted house right across from a prison because it’s ‘the scariest haunted house in the state’ is to be completely ignorant of what is actually taking place.”
According to a 2013 study conducted by the John Howard Academy, Stateville’s staff of mental health professionals are assigned an average of 95 patients each. Furthermore, hundreds of prisoners seek mental health treatment without success, becoming statistics lost in a sizable backlog.
“The Statesville Haunted House depicts these prisoners as crazy, insane monsters with axes in their heads,” Alexandria said. “Mental illness is already extremely stigmatized when it should be viewed as a health problem. The haunted house plays off of the fear of mental illness and the lack of resources prisons have to deal with it.”
Many would argue that the Stateville Correctional Center does not need Halloween decorations or masks to evoke fear. It is home to the nation’s last operational panopticon — an architectural design where cells are arranged around a central tower of light from which prisoners can be observed at all times. The use of these in prisons has been widely discontinued due to the inhumane and animal-like conditions it often provides prisoners. According to inmate accounts, rats, cockroaches and flooded toilets are common in their cells. Violence at the hands of both correctional officers and other inmates is often unavoidable. Actors performing with live rats and smearing feces on their faces is no laughing matter for the students who actually know individuals living in squalid conditions.
“Just being in Stateville is violence against you,” Alexandria said.
She has personally heard the unbelievable measures prisoners must take, sometimes having to heave their bodies against cell doors in order to get any aid from the officers.
“These inmates are human beings and their feelings are valid!” Shamiah said. “Their presence is more than just a show-and-tell for a haunted house. As a human being, you should take a moment to think about your privilege and what it means to dehumanize someone who cannot enjoy that same privilege.”
Students who make the drive out to Crest Hill, Illinois every week and take classes in the Stateville Correctional Center have found complexity, goodness and beauty in this incredibly bleak place.
“The students I learn with inside Stateville Correctional Center are some of the strongest, most influential people I have been fortunate enough to meet and share a unique learning space with,” Megan Escobosa, another student involved with the Inside-Out Program, said.
The current Inside-Out class centers on restorative justice — a theory of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and within the community at large.
The student voices supporting those held in the Stateville Correctional Center do so because the prisoners they have come to know are all registered DePaul students who are unable to defend themselves from inside the walls. Despite the message of the Statesville Haunted Prison, the men inside the correctional center are not defined by their crimes, their pasts or outward perceptions of their humanity. They are not the sum total of their charges, they are not case files and they are not incarceration statistics. They have homework, class discussions and final projects like every other DePaul student seen walking through Lincoln Park.
“The way in which being in that space has changed me is indescribable,” said Maria. “Sharing experiences, learning and being taught in those highly charged and oppressive spaces has allowed me to see the resilience and strength of the people who have been incarcerated.”
Professor Kimberley Moe has been teaching the Inside-Out Program for five years. The relationship she began fostering with Stateville was one rooted in need; according to Kimberley, the first class she brought in ended an educational drought that had lasted since the Clinton administration.
“To bring education into these spaces makes you remember what liberal education is all about,” Kimberley said. “During one of the first sessions of the course, I had one of the inmates tell me, ‘When I’m in class here, I don’t feel like I am in prison.’ It hit me that this what liberal education is about: knowledge for the sake of knowledge.”
The class she is currently teaching inside the correctional center is the first in DePaul’s history to give official college credit to the inmates.
“The inmates feel victimized by the system, and they can experience validation; their frustration becomes smaller against the backdrop of a bigger perspective,” Kimberley said.
As a professor, Kimberley feels privileged to belong to a university that not only permits but encourages this kind of restorative work through education. It allows both the inside and the outside students to face stereotypes, fears and implicit biases about incarceration.
“The haunted house is just one of a billion ways people are demonized, but it is more direct with this,” Kimberley said. “It is right across the street, it is using the same name and undoing the work we are doing.”
Additional reporting by Brendan Pedersen and Maxwell Newsom
Header Image courtesy of Statesville Haunted Prison Photo Gallery