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What is Stateville Correctional Center?

By Matt Brady
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Stateville Correctional Center is one of the most storied prisons in U.S. history. Built in 1925 in Crest Hill, Illinois, the maximum security state prison has housed numerous famed and notorious criminals, such as Leopold and Loeb, Richard Speck and John Wayne Gacy. It is also one of the most architecturally striking prisons, featuring the only remaining panopticon — a central tower with a complete view of surrounding prison cells — in the U.S. Stateville Correctional Center has also been well known as a controversial test site for malaria vaccines from the 1940s-60s. The prison remains in operation today, located off of historic Route 66.

Stateville Correctional Center, like many other famous prisons, may be best known for the famous criminals who have resided there. Leopold and Loeb, the Ivy League-educated murderers in pursuit of the perfect crime, were incarcerated at Stateville. Richard Loeb died while in prison after being attacked by a fellow inmate. Nathan Leopold was given early release in 1958. Richard Speck, who murdered eight Chicago nursing students, was also housed at Stateville. In 1996, a videotape from 1988 was publicly released, which showed Speck partying freely in his Stateville cell, apparently with drugs. The video sparked controversy and widespread indictment over the lax control in American prisons. John Wayne Gacy, a notorious serial killer, was given a lethal injection at Stateville Correctional Center in 1994.

F-house, the name of one of the cell houses in the Stateville Correctional Center, is known for being the last remaining cell block in the U.S. to feature a panopticon. A panopticon is a guard tower which sits in the middle of a prison house and provides a 360-degree viewpoint. With the tower's superior vantage, inmates can never be sure whether they're being watched or not. The concept of a panopticon was developed by Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher who believed that the structure would be a tool for moral reformation in prison. His theory was that if prisoners had to assume they were being watched at all time, then behavior among inmates might improve, even with fewer guards on duty. Fewer guards required would also help prisons save money.

In the 1940s, the U.S. military, partnering with the University of Chicago, began conducting experiments with malaria on Stateville Correctional Center inmates — Leopold was one of them. The purpose was not only to study the effects of malaria within a controlled environment, but to test whether certain medications and vaccinations might be effective in fighting the disease. Although the tests were voluntary, with volunteers offered the incentive of lesser prison terms, they stirred up controversy among groups who felt such human testing was unethical. At the 1946 Medical Trial at Nuremberg, in which members of the Nazi party were convicted of crimes against humanity, it was argued that the experimentation going on at Stateville was not morally different than what Nazis had afflicted on the Jews. In the end, however, the Stateville experiments weren't deemed unethical, and continued over the next couple of decades.

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