State sued over prison conditions

From: Illinois Times, June 28 2012
By Bruce Rushton

Conditions at Vienna Correctional Center are something out of a Dickens novel, judging by a stomach-churning lawsuit filed earlier this month by inmates who say they live with filth, vermin and a paucity of bathrooms.

A lawyer for inmates says that prisoners at Vienna and Vandalia Correctional Center, which could be the next legal target, are living in poorer conditions than inmates in California, which has been ordered to reduce overcrowding by a federal judge.

“We are worse than California,” says Alan Mills, legal director for the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, which sued the state in federal court on June 13. “California is putting people in gymnasiums. But, to my knowledge, they are not putting people into basements or storage rooms.”

In addition to suing the state over conditions at Vienna Correctional Center, the Uptown People’s Law Center is considering a lawsuit over conditions at Vandalia Correctional Center, where minimum security inmates are held, Mills said. If the state doesn’t settle, lawsuits could take years to resolve, he said.

It is, Mills said, a matter of math. The inmate population has increased by 10 percent during the past two years while the state prison budget has decreased by 15 percent, he said. There is some hope in recently passed legislation that reinstitutes an early-release program for inmates who behave themselves, Mills said.

The legislature also appropriated $26 million to keep the Tamms supermax prison open. Gov. Pat Quinn says that he will close it nonetheless, and if the money is spent to expand a minimum security work camp next to the supermax, intolerable conditions might improve, Mills said.

Stacey Solano, Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said the department doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits, but health, safety and security of inmates and staff is the department’s top priority. She confirmed that Tamms will be closed, but declined to say how the department might spend money appropriated to keep the supermax open.
In the meantime, inmates are living in squalor, according to the class-action lawsuit filed on June 13 in federal court.

Nearly 1,900 prisoners are living in Vienna Correctional Center, which was built to hold 925 inmates, according to the lawsuit. While state law requires each inmate to have at least 50 square feet in cells or dormitories, inmates at Vienna have 33 square feet or less, the plaintiffs say. Inmates get three hours or less of exercise time each week, and much of their time is spent on bunks crammed 18 inches apart, so close that a prisoner can reach out and touch the person sleeping next to them.

Rather than fix broken windows, the state has boarded them up, depriving inmates of natural light and fresh air. Mice, rats, millipedes, cockroaches and other vermin run free, and food contains rodent feces and mold, according to the plaintiffs.

“Prisoners find cockroaches in their coffee cups, drinking glasses and toothbrushes and feel cockroaches crawl across them while they lie in their bunks,” the plaintiffs say. “The men often have to physically sweep cockroaches off of their mattresses and remove cockroach feces from their pillows and clothing.”

A converted administration building that is home to 600 inmates has seven toilets, two urinals, seven sinks and seven showers.

“To make matters worse, some of these toilets and sinks often do not function or drain properly due to leaking or clogged pipes,” the plaintiffs say. “Rust-colored water comes out of these few sinks, which the prisoners use to brush their teeth, wash their faces and ‘clean’ their dishes. Broken toilets are left filled with feces, sometimes for weeks.”

Mold is rampant.

“It grows along the walls and ceilings, in the light fixtures, around the sinks and drinking fountains, in the showers and behind the toilets,” the plaintiffs say. “The mold on the ceiling and in the showers sometimes grows so thick that it breaks off and falls on the prisoners while they are sleeping in their bunks or showering.”

Just five guards watch over the 600 inmates who live in the converted administration building.

“Because there are so many prisoners and so few officers, the officers are frequently unaware of the fights that occur in the dormitories and when the officers are aware, they often let the inmates fight it out, intervening only after the fight is finished in order to issue disciplinary citations,” plaintiffs say.

The conditions described in the lawsuit are confirmed in a report by the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison reform group that visited the prison last fall. The visitors smelled sewage and found inmates dodging rust-colored water that dripped from bathroom ceilings. Prisoners said they were given just five minutes to eat meals. Hundreds of inmates with nothing to do simply paced or huddled around a small television.

“A Vienna staff member seemed to recognize the stunned look on our faces,” the report’s author wrote. “‘This is a nightmare,’ he said quietly to one of JHA’s staff. ‘This should not be.’”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

Read the Monitoring Visit by John Howard Association of Illinois below:

http://www.illinoistimes.com/Springfield/file-123-.pdf

Read the Vienna Complaint Court Document below:

http://www.illinoistimes.com/Springfield/file-124-.pdf

Underwear Shortage In Illinois Prisons: Latest Sign Of State’s Financial Woes

Huffington Post:
June 29th 2011

Illinois’ budget crisis is not news to anyone, and as politicians in Springfield argue about what to cut, the budgetary woes have begun to spill over into some somewhat unusual and unexpected areas.
In Taylorville, Illinois–there’s an underwear shortage.

According to the Bloomington Pantagraph, inmates at the central Illinois prison are being forced to wear the same pair of underwear for several days in a row because the jail cannot afford more undergarments. A prison watchdog group suspects the Taylorville facility may not be alone.

A report issued by the John Howard Association shows that inmates in the prison are wearing dirty and threadbare clothes that are only being washed twice a week, raising “serious hygiene concerns.” Several inmates reported much of the original clothing they received to wear — three pairs of pants, three shirts, one jacket, one hat, two pairs of boxers and two pairs of socks — are already used, soiled or in otherwise poor condition when they receive them.

The group is calling for the state Department of Corrections to remedy the situation and provide sufficient clothing for its inmates, in addition to looking at other issues — like overcrowding and a lack of in-facility educational programs. They say such programs can reduce the rate of recidivism.

Read the rest here.

Top Ten Things to Know About Illinois’ Prisons

Reblogged from:  John Maki, Coordinating Director, John Howard Association of Illinois

 Dec 13, 2010, Huffington Post

 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.