Time to put politics aside and fix our prison system

The political campaign season is the worst time to make good policy. Now that Illinois’ elections are over, Governor Quinn and legislators need to fix a growing problem in the state’s prison system.

In December 2009, during the final weeks of a fiercely contested gubernatorial primary, the Associated Press reported that Illinois Department of Corrections was secretly releasing violent offenders. The story was inaccurate. The “secret” program was actually based on a 30 year-old law called Meritorious Good Time, often referred to as MGT.

Although untrue, the story that the Governor had released some violent offenders early became a fixture in the gubernatorial campaign. Reacting to negative press and accusations that he was soft on crime, Governor Quinn suspended MGT. Almost one year later, the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) is still dealing with the unintended consequences of that decision.

Similar to many programs throughout the country, MGT helped ensure that Illinois’s prison system would not exceed its capacity.

Since MGT was suspended, Illinois’ prison population has leaped by almost 4,000 inmates with a current total population of almost 49,000, a record high.

This population increase comes at a particularly challenging time. Due to the state’s fiscal crisis, IDOC, like all state agencies, has operated under onerous budget cuts. More recently, the state comptroller has been unable to pay for goods and services, leaving prison administrators scrambling to secure essentials like clothing and ammunition.

With the prison system at 97 percent of bed-space capacity and an estimated annual cost of $25 thousand an inmate, the state cannot afford for this trend to continue.

While every facility has been affected by the suspension of MGT and the state’s fiscal crisis, the Northern Reception and Classification Center (NRC) has been hit particularly hard and provides a powerful example of Illinois’ need for significant prison reform.

Located next to Stateville Correctional Center, the NRC has a vital role in Illinois’ prison system. It is the state’s largest reception and classification unit for adult male prisoners, admitting and processing new inmates sentenced in Cook and the northern counties, which is where most inmates in IDOC custody originate. The NRC also receives parole violators and holds a significant number of prisoners who are scheduled to appear in court in the northern counties.

On the day inmates arrive at the NRC for processing, they are subject to a rigorous screening that evaluates their physical and mental health and determines their security classification. After they are processed, most inmates are double-celled at the NRC until they can be transferred to their designated facility.

To ensure that the NRC does not exceed its capacity of 1876 inmates, it should receive about as many inmates as it transfers.

However, since MGT was suspended, the NRC has frequently received more inmates than it can transfer because the states’ prisons are full. As a result, the NRC’s population has recently exceeded its capacity. With no available cells, NRC staff has occasionally been forced to house inmates on cots in the infirmary.

As the population has increased, so have the concerns of staff and inmates interviewed by the John Howard Association (JHA).

Security staff is stretched thin, according to both management and American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees representatives, Illinois’ correctional officers’ union.

Inmates have described spending several months in the NRC and complained of significant problems with cockroaches in their cells and a complete lack of educational and rehabilitative programming.

Many of these problems stem from the fact that the NRC is not equipped to hold inmates for long periods of time. For instance, the facility lacks a designated place to receive visitors, which is a standard feature in prisons. As a result, most NRC inmates are held in what amounts to disciplinary segregation, restricted to one shower a week and no visitation privileges.

NRC administrators are aware of these issues and doing what they can to address them.

The problem is that Illinois has tasked the NRC—and the IDOC as a whole—to do something it was neither designed nor funded to do.

And with the suspension of MGT, an overcrowded prison system, and a lack of adequate resources, the state’s prison conditions are going to remain problematic, despite the best efforts of prison administrators.

Many people, including policy makers, would question why we should care about prison conditions, particularly when the state’s finances have jeopardized so many programs for law-abiding citizens.

More than 90 percent of people who are sent to prison will eventually be released, about half of them after serving six months or less. Prisons are not just places where offenders are sent. They are also places from where people leave before returning to our neighborhoods. We should care about prison conditions, if for no other reason, because we care about the well-being of our communities.

Governor Quinn and the General Assembly need to put politics aside and ensure that Illinois has a cost-effective prison system that lives up to the mission of IDOC: to protect public safety and maintain programs that help offenders re-enter society. This effort must begin with a responsible replacement for MGT.