VANDALIA — Marvin Greenleaf believes he finally has it figured out.
Greenleaf, a 51-year-old former drug dealer from Chicago who is serving his 11th prison sentence since 1983, said that when he is released from Vandalia Correctional Center in September he is not coming back.
Greenleaf is one of 1,647 inmates at the 91-year-old men’s facility, set on 1,500 acres, 60 miles south of Decatur.
Once a self-sufficient farm, which supplied its inmates with food for their tables and plenty of outdoor work experience, the minimum-security prison still employs some inmates in productive industries, including meat processing, milk production, vegetable gardening and construction.
While the Illinois Department of Corrections is undergoing a tumultuous period, with numerous prison closings and budget constraints, prison officials are still working to keep educational and vocational programs afloat and even adding new ones.
Kathleen Mattingly, Corrections vocational program coordinator, said 71 percent of the Vandalia inmates are enrolled in educational or vocational programs, including auto body repair, construction occupations and gardening.
A welding program is about to be implemented, and a program in which inmates will work with retired racehorses, is on the horizon.
“The program will train the offenders in stable and barn management,” Mattingly said, while standing in a barn that inmates in the construction program have been refurbishing. In addition to gaining work skills, Mattingly believes interaction with horses will help inmates “to begin to feel the sense of loving someone who will come to depend on them.”
Christine Boyd, Corrections administrator of education and vocational services, said it is a priority to keep the inmates learning and working, so they will stay out after they are released.
The Corrections philosophy has changed in recent years. In the past, younger inmates were favored to gain entry to vocational programs, in the hope that they would immediately gain job skills and turn from a life of crime. But officials realize that the older inmates are often the ones who are eager to turn their lives around.
Greenleaf, who has lived in five prisons since he entered the system on an aggravated battery conviction when he was 21, said he realizes he has missed out on life because he “hasn’t applied himself” toward gaining an education or pursuing a career.
He said that working in the meat plant, where turkey and beef products are processed for all the state prisons, has helped him to gain a better work ethic and a sense of pride.
“It’s rewarding, because you learn different things,” Greenleaf said “I started out in the slicing room, but everybody there has to learn everything. How to run the saw, how to run the mixer, to break it down, put it back together.”
In the past, when Greenleaf was out of prison, his wife supported him, which made him feel like “less than a man.”
But since he has been working at the meat plant, earning about $45 a week, he has been sending some money home rather than having his wife send money to him. He is determined to continue working and help support her when he is released.
Greenleaf said he found out during the past year in Vandalia that he has a lot of talents, that he can do a lot of things.
“I know I can go out there and make something happen on the legitimate side,” Greenleaf said. “I can go and cut somebody’s grass. I can go and paint somebody’s gutters, paint somebody’s back porch.”
The Vandalia prison has been criticized lately because of its overcrowded conditions, which include dormitories that pack inmates together on bunk beds, 88 inmates or so to a room, with each bunk just a few feet away from the next one.
Eddie Caumiant, regional director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing most prison employees, said the inmates are often miserable, especially in the sweltering conditions of summer heat. That makes the working environment more dangerous and unpleasant.
“It’s absolutely foolhardy to close prisons while there are overcrowding problems like this,” Caumiant said.
Caumiant said another huge problem is that many prisons are understaffed. In some cases, security posts are not being manned, to avoid paying overtime.
During a tour of the prison Friday, a radio reporter asked inmate Rickey Hudson, a Chicago native serving five years for selling heroin, what it was like to live in a crowded dormitory with 87 other men.
“Hey, it’s jail,” Hudson said. “If you was thinking you were going to the Hilton hotel, you shouldn’t have came to the jail. I’m 26 years old. I put myself in here.”
“How’d you put yourself in that predicament?” another radio reporter asked.
“I was thinking I was the man. I was thinking I could do whatever I wanted to do,” Hudson said.
Greenleaf said he decided to change his ways because he “got tired of sitting on that nail.” He recently realized that he keeps bouncing back because when he gets out he wants everything “right now,” instead of working for what he needs and waiting.
“I’m steadily coming to the institutions, and I’m not accomplishing anything here,” Greenleaf said. “My wife has got older. My children have got grown. My grandchildren are getting older.”
He worries that he might be in prison when something happens to his parents, his wife or his grandchildren.
“I don’t want to sit up there and have a counselor or a lieutenant tell me my mother or father died and now I can’t go to the funeral,” Greenleaf said. “The fact of the matter is, I would want to be there.”