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. 

Rising Criticism of Tamms Illinois Supermax

Source: Solitary Watch

2010 January 2

by James Ridgeway


Some of the best reporting on solitary confinement last year came from Beth Hundsdorfer and George Pawlaczyk at the Belleville News-Democrat, a regional paper in southwestern Illinois. Their multi-part series on the state’s twelve-year-old supermax prison, ”Trapped in Tamms,” appeared in the paper in August. Their expose was particularly damning on the treatment of mentally ill inmates at Tamms.
In a tribute to the power of good investigative reporting, the series fueled a series of responses, including statements from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and hearings in the Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Human Rights, chaired by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. The following month, the Illinois Department of Corrections issued a “Ten-Point Plan” for reforming Tamms. (More information on Tamms, including a critique of the DOC’s plan, can be found on the web site of Tamms Year Ten, a grassroots coalition that protests ”misguided and inhumane conditions” at the supermax).
A new story by Hundsdorfer and Pawlaczyk appeared this week in the News-Democrat and in the Chicago Tribune. It focuses on the cost of housing Tamms’s 250 high-security prisoners–some $23 million annually, or $92,000 per inmate–as well as continuing questions about the supermax’s humanity and efficacy.
The annual cost of providing mental health care at Tamms — which critics, such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch, say causes mental illness by imposing years solitary confinement — is $1.2 million. Most of that expense goes into operating the Special Treatment Unit, which usually houses fewer than a dozen inmates. The Tamms staff psychiatrist is paid $288,000 per year.
Five months after a Belleville News-Democrat investigative series reported abuses at the supermax, and nearly four months after prison system director Michael Randle announced limited reforms, 48 inmates have been cleared for transfer out of Tamms.
But as Randle struggles to find ways to keep costs down statewide, prison experts and attorneys who handle prison-condition lawsuits question whether Tamms actually works….
Supermax critics challenge the idea that confining 250 or so prisoners — half of 1 percent of the entire state prison-system population — does any good. They argue it is illogical to believe isolating fewer prisoners than are held in many county jails can have any real effect on reducing violence in a large, highly transient prison system….
The way Tamms officials handle inmates sent to the lockup, especially mentally ill prisoners, by locking them in solitary with little or no social contact, is far different than the policy at what is arguably the largest lockup in the United Sates: the 10,000 prisoner Cook County Jail.
The newspaper’s Tamms series reported that mentally ill inmates reacted to being held for as long as more than a decade in solitary by mutilating themselves to the point of needing hospitalization, and by throwing feces and urine at guards and smearing bodily wastes on themselves.
Randle repeatedly said Tamms is reserved for the “worst of the worst,” although the newspaper’s findings challenged that assumption. The series reported that more than half of Tamms inmates had committed no crimes inside prison and that others were seriously mentally ill and did not receive treatment.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said during a November interview that about 250 mentally ill prisoners, including 50 who are seriously mentally ill, are treated in a special unit at the sprawling jail. There is no Hannibal Lecter treatment, he said. The jail isolates only actively psychotic inmates and even then, only for a few hours or a few days at a time. All but a few mentally ill Cook County inmates are out of their cells all day and mingle with other prisoners and staff.

As for long-term solitary confinement, Dart said, “That stuff doesn’t really work.”