PI Original Anthony Burke Boylan Friday September 2nd, 2011, 11:27am

Illinois' Overcrowded Prisons: A Ticking Time Bomb

Illinois is risking costly legal action, the health of its prison employees and population due to severe overcrowding -- and a divisive partisan climate has made solving the problem far more difficult.

Illinois is risking costly legal action, the health of its prison employees and population due to severe overcrowding -- and a divisive partisan climate has made solving the problem far more difficult.

The prison population in Illinois is at a record high of 49,000, about 147 percent of the system’s capacity. Inmates are sleeping as many as four to a cell in prisons across the state, being housed on cots no more than two feet apart in basements, and prison staffs are facing greater dangers and have fewer disciplinary and precautionary options.

Prisoners and guards both are at greater risk. Correctional officers have fewer ways to discipline troubled or unruly prisoners, fewer ways to interdict contraband weapons and substances, and fewer ways to protect inmates who are potential targets of violence or even assassination attempts.

This week, two state legislators called for improvements. State Sens. John Jones (R-Mount Vernon) and Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) held a joint press conference urging the Governor to hire more correctional officers and to develop a responsible early release program.

“You can see this train wreck coming,’’ said Culta. Of particular concern to the lawmakers: the ratio of inmates to guards, which is as high as 34 to 1 on some shifts, they said. That figure is well above the recommended level of seven officers per inmate. Department of Corrections officials disputed the numbers, but did not provide alternative figures.

Existing facilities in the Illinois prison system were designed to hold no more than 33,000 inmates. Department officials, though, now claim the capacity is 51,000, a figure based on the number of beds they say can fit into the available space. A recent bid by the Illinois Department of Corrections to become accredited by the American Correctional Association was abandoned and many watchdog groups say it’s because the facilities could not meet the minimum square-foot-per-prisoner requirement.

“When there is overcrowding the violence increases and prisoners don’t get access to health care and mental health care,’’ said Don Specter, executive director of the Berkeley, California-based Prison Law Center that recently sued the state's prison system to relieve similar overcrowding. “Prisoners were dying at an alarming rate.

“Someone goes to prison for a minor crime and it ends up being a death sentence.’’

A lot of factors contribute to the current problem but the main three are sentencing laws, the state’s severe budget crisis and especially a politically-motivated decision by Gov. Pat Quinn to halt an early-release program that came under fire during his election campaign.

Quinn faced a tight primary race in 2010 and was criticized for the state’s Meritorious Good Time Push, a program that released some non-violent offenders with short sentences after only a few days in prison. At the same time, he ended the state’s regular Meritorious Good Time program, which had been in place for three decades. The prison population began to rise immediately and has gone up every month since.

Recent projections by the Illinois Department of Corrections estimated the population will climb even higher, to 49,500 in the near future. Current department head Gladyse Taylor now says officials expect the number to drop – but without a new early release program, plans to build new prisons or changes to sentencing laws, it’s unclear how that would happen.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union has condemned the situation and called for improvements for the safety of Illinois’ correctional workers.

“Ignoring the problem is unacceptable,’’ said Anders Lindall, an AFSCME spokesman. “The state must hire staff to ensure safety and provide rehabilitative programs and it must develop and implement a responsible good-time (release) policy.’’

Watchdog groups say there are two major ironies to the supposed get-tough policy on prisoners: Current incarceration policies don’t improve the safety of the general public – and might even make it worse – and taxpayers are footing an exorbitant bill to the tune of $1.3 billion annually at a time they can least afford it.

The John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison watchdog group, says research shows low-level, non-violent offenders who are incarcerated instead of given a supervised release are more likely to commit new crimes once they are released. That’s because their time in prison causes greater hardship and desperation socially and financially, restricts their ability to find work, and creates a general feeling of hopelessness.

“It would be some comfort if this money increased public safety,’’ according to John Maki, the coordinating director of John Howard. “But that’s not the case.

“Almost 70 percent of all Illinois inmates are in prison for non-violent crimes and about 50 percent of all offenders serve six months or less.’’

Like nearly every other group monitoring the situation, John Howard favors the creation of an early release program and revisions to sentencing laws that mandate prison terms for certain types of non-violent offenders, especially drug users.

Specter with the Prison Law Center sums it up like this: “You can build more prisons – at a huge cost to taxpayers – but if you don’t change the sentencing laws, you’ll just fill them up again.’’

Image: IndependentMail.com

Comments

We who are victims and victims families of some of the worst of these incarcerated offenders could not agree more that a better job needs to be done with diverting non-violent offenders. Those kinds of low level crimes should be handled in a different way so that there is NO pressure at all to provide early release for the violent ones. What we learned from the state's previous tragedy with "meritorious good time" is that people died, people were sexually assaulted, and worse when the state does not have time to properly process, incarcerate, and evaluate offenders before release who are violent. Crime Victims United of Illinois stands ready to work with prison reform groups on policy reforms that will help to divert non-violent offenders into programs where they can rehabilitate and provide restitution to the community. No pressure must be put on the state to release violent offenders. Www.illinoisvictims.org

County and Municipal Employees union has condemned the situation and called for improvements for the safety of Illinois’ correctional workers.

You know this was a problem in CEBU PHILIPPINES, then a woman government official had a vision. The Dancing Inmates was born. This prison become the center of tourism in CEBU. Just imagine the changes happened here, and this changed happened in a Third World Country called the Philippines.

colored contact lenses.

Comments

Log in or register to post comments