Frequently Asked Questions

Prison Response Project

The goal for the Prison Response Project is to gain information about prison and inmate issues that can be shared with the John Howard Association (JHA) program directors, stakeholders and policy makers. This process includes evaluating and quantifying data collected from those with whom we communicate and providing timely assessments of IDOC operations. This perspective helps decision makers make informed decisions regarding criminal justice and the safety of the community.

Knowledge gained from the project also helps people to navigate their way through the multilayered and complex bureaucracies that are part of the criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system in Illinois is comprised of thousands of people working for hundreds of entities, spanning three branches of government.  It is directed by a complex tangle of laws, court rulings, contracts, traditions, and administrative directives. Given the nature and scope of issues raised by concerned individuals who contact the JHA, it is rare that there are simple answers to the questions asked. Challenging as it may be, JHA responds to all queries received to the best of our ability. 

To view annual data describing the letters we receive/respond to, please click here.

For a glossary of commonly used terms, please click here.

Relationship between the John Howard Association and the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC)

The JHA is not a state agency, and the Association is not funded by the state or federal governments. We maintain a relationship with IDOC that is founded upon mutual respect. Our goal is to improve the corrections system in ways that will benefit the general public, staff, administrators, and individuals who are incarcerated, as well as their families and the communities to which they return. IDOC allows JHA into facilities to conduct monitoring tours, and we are afforded “privileged mail status,” which provides greater confidentiality to those in the corrections system.

Sentencing Guidelines

There are three parts to how a sentence is calculated:

  • Time credited for days in pre-trial custody (county time)
  • Statutory good time that determines if a person will serve half, most, or all of the sentence handed down by the judge
  • Discretionary credits (credits IDOC may give in certain circumstances) that allow an inmate to earn time off of a sentence

IDOC calculates sentences according to the law. How this is done depends on the type of sentencing credits (see below).

Time served prior to incarceration in IDOC (county time, police custody, etc.)

Generally speaking, a person is entitled to have the days they spent in pre-trial custody applied to their sentence. This most often is referred to as county time.

The most commonly reported problem JHA receives about pre-trial credit results from consecutive sentences and concurrent sentences. As these situations tend to be complicated, we recommend that an inmate writes JHA and provides a concise account of why the individual feels his/her sentence(s) has/have not been calculated correctly. Please include a copy of relevant documents, such as the Sentencing Order and IDOC Calculation Sheet. As always, JHA recommends that an inmate attempt to resolve the matter with the records office of their parent facility first.

To determine how many days the inmate is to be credited for time spent in the county jail, IDOC uses the records from the Sherriff’s office, not just the number of days written on the Sentencing Order (also known as Mittimus). If the number of days credited on the sentencing order does not match Sheriff records, this matter should be addressed as soon as possible. The inmate may send a request slip to the correctional counselor to start this process.

Additional credit toward time served in pre-trial detention

The courts may “give credit to the defendant for time spent in home detention…psychiatric or substance abuse treatment prior to judgment, if the court finds that the detention or confinement was custodial” (West 2011). Credit for time spent in pre-trial custody is something that needs to be determined during the sentencing phase, before a person arrives in IDOC. A person does not automatically receive credit if they were in a court appointed program prior to being sentenced to IDOC. During the sentencing process, the sentencing judge should indicate if a person is to receive this credit on the sentence order.

Statutory Good Time / Calculation of Sentence

Statutory good time is how IDOC will calculate if an inmate will serve 100%, 85%, or 50% of the term of imprisonment set by the judge. IDOC will determine how much of the sentence an inmate must serve based upon the type of offense for which the person was convicted. 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3 is the statute that IDOC uses when calculating the time an individual must serve.

When the inmate was sentenced also matters. The current rules for statutory good time differ from the rules that were in effect in 1990. Law determines statutory good time. It is not discretionary. How a term of imprisonment will be calculated is information available at the time a person is sentenced.

IDOC may revoke some statutory good time from inmates if they are found guilty of violating major rules. These rules are listed in the orientation manual each inmate receives when they arrive at a facility. Time may also be taken away if a court determines that an inmate filed a lawsuit that it deemed to be frivolous (lacking in merit and/or was technically incorrect).

Although this form of sentencing credit is called “good time,” it is really a formula for calculating how long a person will serve of a sentence. This is not something that IDOC awards for good behavior (although this time may be taken away, as explained above).

Discretionary Good Time / Supplemental Sentencing Credits (SSC)

SSC is a form of “good conduct” credits. An individual puts himself or herself into the position to receive SSC if he or she takes advantage of programming and follows IDOC rules. Receiving good conduct credits is not automatic. It is discretionary. The criteria used to determine whether or not a person is eligible for SSC is listed in 20 Ill. Adm. Code 107.210.

After the previous Meritorious Good Time was suspended by IDOC, the JHA successfully lobbied for the current law that enables IDOC to grant up to six months of sentencing credits for select people. Whether or not a person is eligible for SSC is determined by several factors (offense, criminal history, etc.). If a person is eligible per statute, his/her name is placed on a list to be considered at the facility level. The facility will grant SSC to an inmate who is on this list on a case-by-case basis.

Even if a person is eligible for SSC, he/she should not expect to receive it. This may take some time off of a person’s sentence. It is not something that one should use to calculate one's release date unless he/she receives documentation declaring that he/she has been awarded SSC.

While it may be appealing to do so, JHA recommends that people do NOT call facilities on behalf of individual inmates. IDOC is processing hundreds of people for SSC at any given time, and it is a labor-intensive process. If an individual is interested in advocating for an inmate, he/she should ask the inmate to talk with his/her counselor as to how best present the information. Eligible inmates most likely to succeed on the outside will be the ones who get SSC. Thus, try to provide information regarding stable housing, employment and programming that will be available upon inmate release. Complaints as to fairness and speculation as to other inmates who received SSC will most likely be counterproductive.

Earned Good Time / Program Sentence Credit

If an inmate is eligible by law (was not convicted of certain offenses, also determined by 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3), he/she may enroll in programming that will allow him/her to earn time off his/her sentence by participating in programming (education and drug treatment). After an inmate has been accepted into such a program, he/she will sign a contract that lists all rules and expectations of the program, along with sanctions that may result from violations of the rules. There is a limit to how many days an inmate may earn via some good time contracts.

If the inmate did not sign a contract, he/she should not expect to receive this type of good time. A person may participate in programming and not receive credit towards his/her sentence for it. The law states that programming opportunities are subject to the availability of resources. Improving access and quality to programming is a major priority of JHA.

Detailed information regarding how a sentence may be calculated may be found on the IDOC website at www2.illinois.gov/idoc/pages/default.aspx under “Frequently Asked Questions.”

Reentry

JHA tracks issues raised by people concerning reentry. While knowledge of individual circumstances informs our efforts, the project is not able to provide material assistance to individuals or to resolve problems that parolees may have with IDOC.

Mandatory Supervised Release (MSR) and Parole

The difference between Mandatory Supervised Release (MSR) and parole is a matter of semantics. Although the term of supervised released is officially called MSR, the term parole is often used to describe the same thing.

If possible, IDOC will send a person back to the county from which he/she came. Before an inmate is released, he/she will be asked where he/she would like to live. IDOC will verify the address that the inmate provided and make sure that it is appropriate for the person to live there (this too is discretionary). An inmate will be notified as to whether or not the address he/she provided was approved. If an individual cannot provide IDOC with an address, he/she will be placed in a halfway house. If IDOC cannot locate a bed for this person at a halfway house, there is a chance that IDOC will hold the individual for the duration of his/her MSR term as a "door violator."

MSR rules will be explained in writing to every person who is released from IDOC. While some rules are standard (like the prohibition from breaking laws), many rules are crafted on a case-by-case basis depending upon the person. How long a person must serve on MSR is determined by the offense for which he/she was convicted. The length of MSR ranges from one year to four years depending upon why the person was sentenced to prison.

Health Care

Since a person in custody is unable to procure outside medical services, the state is responsible for providing, at a minimum, adequate care. The JHA encourages the state to surpass this minimum by improving preventive care and by implementing systemic changes that will establish continuity of care between facilities and service providers in the community, which will most likely improve outcomes for inmates and the communities to which they return.

The JHA has long advocated for improved medical care for inmates. JHA supports the resolution introduced by Rep. Greg Harris that will direct the Auditor General to conduct a management audit of IDOC’s medical and mental health services. An audit of health care in IDOC will provide oversight of one of the most challenging facets of prison administration.

JHA collects data concerning health care in facilities that is furnished by people involved with or impacted by health care provided in IDOC. The information collected enables JHA to advocate for change.

Access to Health Care

The first step a person in prison should take when he/she requires medical care is to request assistance by following the process as explained in the orientation manual for his/her respective facility. There should be medical request slips available to all inmates. When an inmate receives non-emergency medical care, he/she will be charged $5 for a copay (unless the appointment is directly related to chronic care, etc.). An inmate will not be denied care if he/she does not have money in his/her account for a copay. Feel free to contact JHA with questions about state pay.

If a person does not believe that he/she is receiving necessary care, he/she may file a grievance. If the matter is pressing, the inmate may mark the grievance form as an emergency. After exhausting the grievance process in the facility, an inmate may appeal the grievance as directed on the grievance form.

Due to privacy regulations, IDOC will not disclose information regarding an inmate’s medical condition or care to people outside of prison, unless an Offender Medical Health form has been completed and processed. The inmate must sign this form in advance. This form may be downloaded from www2.illinois.gov and it should be available to inmates upon request.

IDOC is not compelled to notify family and friends if there is a medical emergency. If an inmate is transported to on outside hospital for care, IDOC may restrict access to this person for security reasons.

Legal Issues

JHA's Prison Response Organizer provides information regarding laws and the rights a person is entitled to while incarcerated or serving his/her parole (MSR) term. The Prison Response Organizer is not an attorney. He may answer basic questions concerning criminal justice related issues, but any information provided should not be considered as a substitute for counsel from a licensed attorney.

The JHA cannot provide legal representation for individual inmates and the Association is prohibited from providing legal advice. JHA may be able to provide the contact information for an entity that can assist a person, depending upon the nature of the assistance sought.

The Grievance Process

IDOC’s grievance process is a procedure that inmates can use to address problems he/she may be experiencing within IDOC. The inmate initiates the grievance processes via submission of a grievance form. These forms should be readily available to all inmates. If possible, an individual should attempt to resolve his/her problem with the counselor (or the office with jurisdiction over the subject) before filing a grievance.

The grievance form allows an individual to provide details about the issue being grieved. The information provided should be clear, complete, and concise. It should list who, what, where, and when.

After an inmate submits the grievance form (either by institutional mail or a grievance box), the facility should provide an answer within two months (unless there is a valid reason the grievance form cannot be responded to in that time frame). IDOC staff at the facility level will determine if a grievance has merit and what will be done to fix the problem reported.

If the inmate checks the “emergency” box located on the form, administrators should respond to the grievance as soon as possible. Emergency grievances should be limited to pressing matters (e.g. is being harmed and/or is in imminent danger).

If the inmate is not satisfied with how the facility resolved the grievance, he/she may appeal the decision to the Administrative Review Board (ARB). The instructions to do this are on the form. The ARB should reply to an inmate’s appeal within six months in most cases.

There is a time limit for filing grievances. An inmate must submit a grievance within 60 days after the event in question took place. Duplicate grievances will not be considered. It may be wise to file a separate grievance per issue whenever possible.

Glossary

For a glossary of commonly used terms, please click here.