JHA's Statement on Dwight's Proposed Closure

Without a Plan to Safely Reduce Illinois’ Prison Population, Closing Dwight Will Make a Bad Problem Worse

As the state’s only non-partisan prison watchdog, the John Howard Association (JHA) supported Governor Quinn’s decision to close Tamms Correctional Center, IYC-Murphysboro, and IYC-Joliet. These closures will help Illinois save taxpayer money and encourage the state’s juvenile and adult criminal justice systems to pursue policies that promote public safety and reduce our state’s costly overreliance on incarceration.

While JHA believes that Illinois should be dedicated to safely creating a smaller juvenile and adult prison system, we question the wisdom of Governor Quinn’s other proposed prison closures, in particular Dwight Correctional Center in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).

Dwight is Illinois’ only female maximum-security prison, housing almost 1,000 inmates. It is also one of the state’s most successful facilities. Over the years, Dwight has trained its staff, hired larger numbers of female correction officers, and created a culture to address the unique needs of female inmates, most of whom come from backgrounds of serious trauma and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. If Dwight closes, Illinois risks losing the significant investment we have made in creating this rehabilitative environment that protects public safety.

A significant part of Dwight’s success stems from the fact that it is about 80 miles from Chicago, which is where most of Dwight’s inmates lived before they were incarcerated. As the majority of Dwight’s inmates are also mothers, Dwight’s proximity to Chicago allows inmates to stay in close contact with their children. Research shows that when inmates are able to maintain relationships with their families, they are less likely to commit new crimes when they are released. Governor Quinn’s plan to close Dwight calls for moving its inmates to a facility that is 180 miles away from Chicago. This distance will make it more difficult for female inmates to see their families. Damaged and weakened family ties increase the likelihood that these women will reoffend when they are released.

Closing Dwight could also cause harmful effects throughout Illinois’ adult prisons. Illinois has one of the most crowded adult prison systems in the country. At present, Illinois holds almost 49,000 adults in a system designed for about 34,000. Closing Dwight will not only mean that Illinois will lose about 1,000 prison beds, but it will also put into action a complex re-organization of Illinois’ prison population. IDOC’s closure plans call for the inmates at Dwight and Lincoln Correctional Center, a female medium security prison that houses about 1,000 women, to be transferred to Logan Correctional Center, which currently houses almost 1,600 men. As the women from Dwight and Lincoln are moved into Logan, the men from Logan will then be transferred to other prisons throughout the state. This plan will consolidate more people into less space, creating an even more stressful and dangerous environment for inmates and staff. It will also push Illinois closer to the kind of overcrowding that recently led the United State’s Supreme Court to find that California’s prison system violated the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, ordering the state to decrease its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates in two years.

Governor Quinn is right to look to corrections to save taxpayer money, but he cannot accomplish this goal by simply closing prisons in the face of unprecedented overcrowding. The answer to prison overcrowding and the crippling costs of corrections must begin with a comprehensive plan to safely reduce Illinois’ prison population.

Fortunately, Illinois has several homegrown initiatives that can serve as the building blocks for this kind of smart policy making. Illinois’ adult criminal justice system can learn a lot from recent reforms that have transformed the state’s juvenile justice system. As Illinois’ adult prison system faces historic overcrowding, Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice’s population is near an all-time low, shrinking from 1,400 youth in 2005 to fewer than 900 today. This remarkable reduction has occurred through partnerships between state and local government officials, who share a growing commitment to use programs like Redeploy Illinois that divert low-level juvenile delinquents into more cost-effective alternatives to incarceration.

In the adult system, similar efforts are gaining traction. In 2012, Governor Quinn signed a bi-partisan bill into law that will enable IDOC to award up to 180 days of sentence credits to low-level offenders who participate in programming and demonstrate good behavior. Adult Redeploy Illinois is a state program that funds counties to create programs that divert low-level offenders from IDOC into community-based programs that are cheaper and more effective at rehabilitation than the state’s prison system. IDOC also plans soon to implement a new risk assessment tool that promises to reduce recidivism by helping prison officials make wiser and more effective use of their programming resources. And finally, the Sentence Policy Advisory Council is a recently created governmental organization that is looking at how sentencing policies and practices impact the criminal justice system, the outcomes we get for our corrections dollars, and the best practices that actually work to reduce recidivism and deter crime. The work of these initiatives will be essential to any meaningful attempt to safely reduce Illinois’ prison population.

JHA asks Governor Quinn to let these reforms take effect before closing Dwight or any other large adult prison. Just as importantly, Illinois needs to engage in strategic thinking about the purpose we want our prison system to serve. The problem with our prison system and the reason why it is so overcrowded is that we have let it become the default response to some of society’s most difficult problems. Consequently, our prisons are not just places we hold offenders, but they also serve as de facto hospitals, asylums, drug treatment facilities, and retirement homes.

JHA believes that the best way to safely reduce our overcrowded prison population and also save taxpayer money is to stop overusing our prisons and do what states like Texas, New York, Georgia, and Kansas have begun to do: to task our prison system with the distinct goals of incapacitating and rehabilitating offenders who pose a violent risk to public safety. In the words of a Texas legislator, we need to “use the prisons for the ones we’re scared of and use other things for the ones we’re just mad at.”

Through strategic thinking, smart policy-making, and strengthening current initiatives, JHA is confident that Illinois can find safe ways to deter crime, reduce the prison population, and save taxpayer money. As Illinois’ oldest prison reform organization, JHA is committed to helping the state achieve these goals and looks forward to working with elected officials, IDOC, policymakers, and stakeholders to create a more cost-effective criminal justice system.

John Maki
Executive Director
John Howard Association