Imprisoned By Perception


Still reeling from its controversial early-prisoner-release program, Illinois is searching for ways to cope with its 'exploding' prison population.

At Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet, Illinois, new inmates sleep on cots in gymnasiums. Workers at Pontiac Correctional Center buy hand soap when supplies run low. Everywhere, two bunks per cell are the norm.

They are just a few of the situations aggravated by too many prisoners housed by a state whose checkbook is written in red ink.

“We are bursting at the seams in every facility in the state of Illinois,” said Eddie Caumiant, regional director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that represents prison guards and other correctional staff.

Illinois' prison population is exploding. With 48,760 inmates on Feb. 14, the state is on track to fill 52,000 beds, the maximum capacity now claimed by the Illinois Department of Corrections.

The census has climbed steadily, by more than 3,000 inmates, since January 2010, when public outcry pushed Gov. Pat Quinn against a wall during a tight election. Previously, IDOC required that new inmates spend at least 60 days in prison before they could be considered for Meritorious Good Time credit.

Quinn ended that longtime practice for eligible offenders, leading to the surge in the state's prison population. Finding a replacement for the Meritorious Good Time and MGT-Push programs is a top priority for corrections officials.

“This is job one,” said Cara Smith, the department's newly hired chief of staff and an attorney who spent several years working for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Waiting for a plan

In September 2010, Quinn named Gladyse Taylor as acting director of IDOC. She replaced Michael Randle, who now directs a juvenile corrections facility in Ohio.

Taylor and her staff are close to having a short- and long-term plan ready for in-house review that would overhaul the MGT program, said Smith.

“The Department of Corrections doesn't have the luxury of saying 'no' to inmates sent to it. We have to make do,” said Smith, adding that among its few options is training and hiring additional staff.

Long-term answers may be found in overhauling sentencing policies that send so many people to prison, she said.

“This population is a classic example of the sentencing policy in Illinois. This is not a Department of Corrections problem. This is a criminal justice problem,” said Smith.

More inmates and limited space pose risks for inmates and staff, said Rick Bard, a former IDOC director of operations who retired last year.

“Prisons in the best of circumstances can sometimes be a dangerous and challenging place to work or be incarcerated. An overcrowded prison system can increase the frustration levels of inmates and the stress levels of staff that have to deal with numerous safety and security issues on a daily basis,” he said.

Supervising a record number of inmates means there's less time for screening, for monitoring problem inmates and fewer educational and other programs to occupy the time of inmates, said Bard, who still resides in Illinois.

Caumiant, whose union represents the majority of the state's 11,000 prison workers, estimates Illinois' current prison population is at 140 percent capacity. The state has 27 adult prisons and various work camps, boot camps and adult transition centers. AFSCME has complained for years about overcrowding, but says the recent inmate surge has raised the level of concern. The proximity to housing 50,000 inmates “is psychologically significant because it's never been reached before,” he said.

Caumiant says the answer lies in northwest Illinois, where the state built, but can't afford to staff, a rarely-used maximum security prison that sits in the small town of Thomson.

The facility “should be used for the purpose it was built for — to provide needed space,” said Caumiant. The prison housed some medium-security inmates before closing in April.

Meanwhile, the state continues to discuss selling the facility to the federal government.

Crisis not new

The state's prison population crisis is not new.

Then-Gov. James Thompson's administration created MGT in 1978 to influence inmate behavior and control the prison population. The Crime Reduction Act of 2009 steered short-term inmates and low-level offenders toward community-based programs instead of prison cells.

Supporters of the Reduction Act said inmates with a year or less to serve weren't in prison long enough to receive counseling, or educational and other services. Low-level offenders represent more than half the prison population, and their departure meant more available beds for those convicted of serious crimes.

During a November 2010 tour of the Northern Reception and Classification Center next to Stateville, employees told monitors with the John Howard Association that inmates are housed in the infirmary when cells were full.

The center — where inmates usually stay for several weeks of evaluation before transferring to a prison — is frequently over its 1,876-inmate capacity, according to the prison watchdog group. And inmates are staying longer at the center because prison beds are harder to come by.

In a public talk and report released a month later, Northwestern University law professor Malcolm Young estimated the prison population could hit 54,000 by June 2012 if overcrowding is not eased.

His prediction was based on state data that 24,172 inmates, or 65 percent of the total population, qualified for and received MGT in 2009. Inmates received an average of 135 days of good-time credit, reducing the average daily population by 8,940 prisoners.

Hal Jennings, a longtime Bloomington defense attorney, sees the overcrowding when he meets with imprisoned clients.

“The state needs to do something before the entire system becomes uncorked,” said Jennings.

What's next

It costs about $65 a day to house a state prison inmate. Keeping nearly 30,000 MGT-eligible inmates imprisoned for an extra 60 days adds $175 million per year in housing expenses, according to estimates from prison reform activist Stephen Eisenman, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston.

State corrections officials think Eisenman's cost estimates are too high and are working on their own figures on what the higher population is costing taxpayers.

Defendants will serve more time without the MGT program, even if they make plea agreements with the expectation of shorter sentences. That will disrupt the lives of minor offenders and of their families, Eisenman said.

In addition, IDOC jobs may attract fewer experienced people in the wake of the MGT controversy, he said, and the political fallout could impact future reform efforts.

“A greater reluctance on the part of the governor to enact meaningful prison reform to reduce overcrowding and lower recidivism rates” is among potential negative consequences, Eisenman said.

It's likely the governor will be cautious when it comes to prison reform ideas, said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“That doesn't mean that he'll be uninterested in good ideas, but it does mean that he's less likely to green light something that he hasn't paid much attention to, or that comes to his desk without a lot of careful analysis and forecasting,” said Gaines.

Meanwhile, the state's deficit of more than $12 billion still looms over all areas of government, said Gaines.

“Ideas for saving money in the prison system will appeal insofar as anything that can save money will appeal, but no governor having seen the backlash against early release will jump at economy without thinking about how it is achieved,” he said.

Editor's note: This story, with support from the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice, appeared today in the Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois. Additional stories and graphics in today's package are available here . Edith Brady-Lunny, the author of the stories, is a reporter for The Pantagraph and a former John Jay/HF Guggenheim Reporting Fellow.

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