May 19, 1996 in Nation/World

Outrage Over Speck Video Prompts Call For Reforms But Prison Critic Says Hot Air From Lawmakers Not The Answer

James Webb Associated Press
 

Richard Speck horrified the public with his savage killings of eight student nurses in 1966. Now, four years after his death, he’s shocking people again as the grotesque star of a drug-and-sex videotape that suggests a prison system run amok.

“It’s a documentary that takes us inside a prison that prison officials would never let us see and would like us to think doesn’t exist,” said William Martin, who prosecuted Speck.

Martin and others say it’s a chance to wake up a naive public and reform a troubled system. But they fear election-minded politicians will ignore what they see as the underlying problems in favor of tough rhetoric.

The grainy, two-hour tape was excerpted in a weeklong series on Chicago’s WBBM-TV earlier this month by anchorman Bill Kurtis, who also planned to show it on his national A&E; cable series “Investigative Reports.” Kurtis’ production company obtained the tape from a lawyer who remains anonymous.

The tape apparently was made with prison video equipment in 1988 somewhere in the sprawling Stateville Correctional Center, one of Illinois’ four maximum-security prisons.

Speck, who died of heart attack in 1991 while serving a life sentence, details his killings, along with a lesson on strangling: “It ain’t like you see on TV. … You have to go at it for about 3-1/2 minutes.”

Later the fleshy, middle-aged murderer strips off his prison coveralls to reveal blue women’s panties and heavy breasts. He has sex with a fellow inmate, and the two snort what appears to be cocaine and flash what looks like a wad of cash.

Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan said he would investigate whether any inmates or guards could be charged in the events on tape or its creation.

State lawmakers, most of them up for re-election, called a special hearing and were shown the tape on Wednesday.

Lawmakers said the tape gives shocking substance to longstanding rumors of gross misconduct in Illinois’ prison system. There have been recent allegations that male guards had sex with female inmates at Dwight Correctional Center, and federal court testimony that imprisoned members of Chicago’s Gangster Disciples gang had free rein inside state prisons.

“This is not anecdotal anymore, this is not a prisoner writing a letter to a legislator,” said state Rep. Peter Roskam. “This is videotape and we’ve got to deal with it.”

Martin and others suggest the politicians are either naive or hypocritical: In a chaotic prison where a guard’s goal is just to survive the day without a riot, it’s not surprising that Speck, the prison painter, could sneak away and that another inmate could grab a video camera. And drugs and sex are a part of daily prison life, they say.

“In essence we have a system that is in substantial crisis. It’s been creeping that way for some time,” said Michael Mahoney, president of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group.

He and others point to rising prison violence, a falling staff-to-inmate ratio, poorly designed cellblocks, and a growing waiting list for education and substance abuse programs.

Illinois has more than 38,000 inmates jammed into prisons designed for just more than 24,000. A November 1995 Justice Department report said that, on average, states operated their prisons at least 17 percent above intended capacity in 1994.

Mahoney said the solution requires steps that elected officials may be loathe to take, such as reducing penalties for some crimes, moving older and nonviolent criminals out of prison and improving the environment for inmates.

“Very few people have the guts to say today, ‘What we’re doing isn’t working,”’ Martin said.

The state Senate’s first reaction to the Speck tape was to vote to make it a felony for inmates or guards to have unauthorized video cameras, even though that’s already prohibited by prison rules.

“Our constituents are screaming through us to tell the Department of Corrections to make prison life as miserable as legally possible,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard, who sponsored the measure.


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