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Top Ten Things to Know About Illinois' Prisons

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The John Howard Association is the only organization in Illinois--and one of a very few in the country--that monitors its state's prison conditions.

In 2010, we visited almost 20 of Illinois' prisons, communicated with thousands of inmates, and met with dozens of prison administrators and government officials.

Based on our work, we compiled a top-ten list of things Illinois citizens should know about their prison system in 2010.

1. Will Reform Continue?

In September 2010, Michael Randle resigned as the director of IDOC. During his 14-month tenure, Randle put the department on the path to reform, bringing in outside evaluators to assess policies and procedures, working with community groups to reduce recidivism, and exploring cost-effective alternatives to incarceration. Acting Director Gladyse Taylor has adopted many of these reforms. JHA hopes this continues.

2. The State Can't Pay Its Bills On Time

Due to the state's fiscal crisis, IDOC has operated under onerous budget cuts. More recently, the state comptroller has been unable to pay for goods and services needed by IDOC, leaving prison administrators scrambling to secure essentials like clothing and ammunition.

3. Too Many People In Prison

While states across the country are reducing their prison populations, Illinois has added more than 3,000 inmates, the equivalent of a large prison. This recent growth stems from the suspension of Meritorious Good Time, but the problem of prison overcrowding is rooted in ineffective and costly decades of tough on crime legislation, the war on drugs, and harsh sentencing practices.

4. Reform In The Works

In 2010, Illinois took significant steps to bring sweeping reform mandated by the Crime Reduction Act. Counties implemented Adult Redeploy, a program that funds local, cost-effective alternatives to incarceration; the state submitted a proposal for an assessment tool that will help better determine which offenders should be in prison; and the Sentencing Policy Advisory Council gathered and analyzed criminal justice information to help make the system less costly and more efficient.

5. Health Suffers

Medical, mental health and dental care remain chronic problems in the state's prisons. JHA staff almost always discover personnel shortages in its inspection of prisons. Preventive care needed to prevent serious illness is often deferred, with predictable results.

6. Better, But Not Enough

The state has made progress in reducing the number of men held at Tamms, the state's supermax prison. Yet the prison remains dedicated to solitary confinement and sensory deprivation. Forty inmates have been held in solitary since the prison opened in 1998.

7. A Good Idea

Video visitation is an innovative idea, and correctional issues want to make it available around the state. Video kiosks at half-way houses and other state facilities will make it possible for inmates in isolated prisons to stay in touch with loved ones and friends.

8. A Terrible Idea

Education, known to combat recidivism, is growing increasingly scarce in Illinois prisons because of budget cuts. Community colleges have been forced to cut programs, while prison policy means inmates serving long sentences may never get a chance to earn a GED.

9. It Is Expensive

An Illinois inmate costs the state about $25,000 a year. Because the state has eliminated an early release program, the prison population has risen by 3,000 this year to nearly 49,000 men and women. With longer sentences, we can expect the prison population to rise in coming years.

10. Important To Keep In Mind

Research shows that when low-level non-violent offenders are incarcerated instead of given supervised release, they are more likely to commit new crimes once they get out of prison. 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.