Decatur Correctional Center

Decatur Correctional Center


Decatur Correctional Center is a minimum-security prison that housed 501 adult female inmateson the day of JHA’s monitoring visit. JHA collected 273 surveys from inmates (54.5% of the population) during our monitoring visit of this prison.

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Monitoring Reports

Executive Summary

Decatur benefits from dedicated staff, numerous volunteer programs, and a positive relationship with the local community. Administrators stated that it is humbling how Decatur inmates give back to the community despite their limited means, for example, raising $1,500 for the American Cancer Society through a Relay for Life event and collecting food donations following Hurricane Sandy. With the recent closure of the Decatur Adult Transition Center (ATC), which had provided work crews in the community, administrators hope to someday run work crews from their facility.

Decatur is to be continually commended for offering many services to promote family connectedness, as detailed in prior JHA reports. In addition to the Moms & Babies and Family Reunification programs, JHA particularly commends Decatur for its use of video conferencing. Although JHA believes such services should not fully replace contact visits, as a supplemental service, they offer a great convenience and enable connections that would not otherwise occur because of distance, cost, and other factors. Inmates interviewed were grateful for this. JHA believes that such respect for strong family and community connections is vital, as it gives hope, aids in institutional adjustment, and promotes reentry success.

While Decatur offers substantially more programming than most IDOC facilities, women at Decatur expressed a desire for more programming to assist with successful reentry and complained of waitlists for the facility’s current programs. As stated in prior reports, IDOC should ensure that female inmates receive gender-based programming grounded in evidence- based best practices. However, relatively short stays at the facility can limit opportunities due to the time needed for adequate interventions. Administrators report that the average length of stay at Decatur is just eight months.

When inmates cannot receive needed or court-mandated programming, this calls into question the utility of having them serve relatively short terms of incarceration within the IDOC system. Nonetheless, Decatur administrators stressed that they are committed to offering women an opportunity to improve themselves for successful reentry.

At the time of JHA’s 2012 visit, 120 inmates participated in Decatur’s residential substance abuse treatment program while 314 were on the waitlist. In the past year, Decatur lost this program due to lack of funding. A great need exists for such programming at the facility— research shows that female inmates have a higher incidence than male inmates of substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health disorders.

There are currently only 156 substance abuse treatment beds for women in IDOC, located at Logan Correctional Center, and a waitlist of 215 women. For 2012, 1,049 women were identified at IDOC intake to be eligible for treatment. Several women at Decatur expressed feeling trapped in cycles of addiction and crime that they wanted help to overcome.

In JHA’s 2012 Decatur monitoring report we particularly commended Decatur’s use of quarterly “Quality of Life” meetings. However, over the past year we have heard repeatedly that some women at the facility do not feel empowered to voice concerns. In fact, women commonly reported feeling intimidation from staff and other inmates, disincentives for expressing grievances, incentives to not complain, and that the formal grievance process is ineffective. Such issues are particularly concerning in the healthcare context. Administrators stressed that they continue to hold the “Quality of Life” meetings and hold weekly call lines, where women can let them know if they do not feel safe. Decatur administrators and JHA continue to encourage inmates to communicate their issues.

This report addresses the following: Healthcare, Staffing, Programming, and Grievances.

Executive Summary

On February 8, 2012, the John Howard Association (JHA) visited Decatur Correctional Center (Decatur), a Minimum Security Adult Female facility located in Decatur, Illinois, about three hours southwest of Chicago. The facility is comprised of eight housing wings that are all located under one roof. Decatur is one of the facilities in the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) designated to house inmates under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Decatur opened as a prison in 2000, after being converted from a mental health facility. In design, architecture, and atmosphere, the facility retains the feel of residential treatment center. It is filled with large windows and has outside patios and extensive gardens. Decatur’s administrators likewise speak of the facility as a treatment community, not a prison. In line with this philosophy, their stated goal is to foster an environment that encourages inmates to be active participants in their own rehabilitation, by building healthy relationships with their families, children, and each other. Meeting this goal is often challenging given limited space, staffing and resources. As an administrator expressed, “If you want to empower people to become better citizens, and not just warehouse them, there has to be an investment in the facility.”

Despite limited resources, Decatur’s administration has done a remarkable job in fostering a supportive environment that encourages community-building and open dialogue between inmates and administrators. The respect and high value placed on inmate’s opinions and input by Decatur’s administration is exemplified by the “Quality of Life” meetings and reports that are held quarterly at the facility. At these meetings, inmates are invited to meet with administration and staff to candidly voice concerns, identify unmet needs, ask questions, and offer suggestions to improve the facility, programming, and rehabilitative services. In staff-directed focus groups, inmates are asked to give their honest opinions on issues impacting inmates’ quality of life at the facility, including healthcare services, food service, sanitation, safety, grievance procedures, and programming. Based on inmate feedback at the meeting, reports are subsequently issued that identify and list inmates’ concerns and suggestions, as well as follow up actions to be taken by staff and administration to address these issues.

In line with best practices, JHA strongly supports correctional management using inmate feedback and focus groups to improve facility functioning and relations, and advocates that quarterly “Quality of Life” meetings and reports be utilized at every IDOC facility. Studies indicate that the facilitating dialogue and feedback between inmates and administrators not only improves institutional security, by acting as a safety valve for potential tensions, but positively impacts rehabilitation by empowering inmates to act as valuable citizens in a community, despite their incarceration.

Decatur’s general population inmates live in multi-occupancy rooms that house four to eight inmates. The facility also contains a 16-bed segregation unit and a nine-bed healthcare unit, which each housed two inmates on the date of JHA’s visit. The facility does not contain a separate mental health unit. However, inmates with acute mental health issues requiring special observation and care can be temporarily housed in the infirmary. Two of the nine beds in Decatur’s infirmary are designated as crisis/suicide watch cells. There has not been a single suicide at the facility in its 13 years of operation.

On the date of JHA’s visit, Decatur housed 691 inmates, making it roughly 140 percent over its design/rated capacity of 500 inmates. Given that Decatur is already full beyond capacity, it is questionable that additional inmates can be safely housed here in the event that Dwight Correctional Center (Illinois’ largest and only Maximum Security Female facility) closes, as has been proposed by Governor Quinn.

The prospect of increased population is of particular concern to Decatur because it is home to several innovative, highly successful special housing and treatment programs that require adequate space, staffing, and resources to continue to thrive. Most notably, Decatur houses the acclaimed “Moms and Babies” prison nursery program, which allows non-violent inmates who meet certain screening criteria to bond and live with their infant children in a special housing unit while going to school and receiving rehabilitative programming in the facility. The program, which has a capacity to house ten mothers and children, was at capacity at the time of JHA’s visit, housing eight mothers and their infants, in addition to two pregnant inmates. Twenty trained inmate caretakers also work and reside in the unit to assist with childcare while mothers attend classes. In addition, Decatur houses a Reunification Program that allows 20 eligible inmates to live together in a separate housing unit where they can regularly visit and nurture their children in a home-like environment.

Both the prison nursery program and the family reunification program, although small in size, have proven to dramatically reduce recidivism and improve outcomes for inmates and their children. However, the threat of increased crowding invariably threatens such programs by necessitating that scarce resources be redirected to meet the population’s most basic needs. As it stands, Decatur already lacks sufficient resources and staffing to satisfy the general population’s needs for medical, mental health, and dental care.

To illustrate, while authorized for ten fulltime nurses (40 hours each per week), two nursing positions were vacant leaving Decatur staffed with only eight nurses. Administration indicated that to maintain minimal nursing coverage, nurses were required to perform a substantial amount of overtime. These conditions raise serious concerns. Nursing shortages, longer shifts and overtime are linked to greater stress and burnout for nursing staff and increased safety risks and medical errors for patients. A healthcare staff member that JHA spoke with admitted that Decatur’s nursing staff levels were insufficient to meet the population’s needs. Unsurprisingly, given medical staff shortages, the most frequent reports JHA heard from Decatur’s inmates pertained to a lack of access to and quality of healthcare.

One longtime IDOC healthcare staff member observed to JHA that there seemed to be an inverse relationship between medical staffing levels and increased population, in that medical staffing decreased as IDOC’s population had grown. To illustrate, this staff noted that Decatur previously employed 12 fulltime nurses when its population was 370 inmates. Today, with a population approaching 700, this same facility is now budgeted for only ten nurses.

JHA has observed similar staffing trends at other IDOC facilities. In Illinois and across the country, state budgetary shortfalls have prompted increased scrutiny of correctional facility staffing requirements because staffing makes up the largest portion of correctional operating budgets. When states have to reduce budgets, correctional staff positions and services are often prime target for budget cuts, particularly given the general lack of public sympathy for prisoners.

While JHA supports increasing staff efficiency and controlling costs, there is a dangerous incentive to underestimate correctional facilities’ service and staffing needs in a time of fiscal crisis. As dramatically illustrated by the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision, Brown v. Plata, detailing the collapse of California’s prison system, reducing prison staffing and services, without likewise reducing population, comes at a high cost to the safety and welfare of inmates, staff, and the public.9 From a purely economic and public health perspective, decreasing medical staff and services, without decreasing population, at facilities like Decatur is counterproductive because it increases the risk of disease transmission and escalates public healthcare costs when untreated inmates return to the community.

Executive Summary

On April 12, 2011, the John Howard Association visited Decatur Correctional Center, Illinois’ Minimum-Security women’s prison.

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