Pontiac Correctional Center

Pontiac Correctional Center


Pontiac Correctional Center is composed of a male maximum-security facility and medium-security unit. The maximum side houses administrative detention, disciplinary segregation, protective custody, and mental health populations. Pontiac is designated within the Illinois Department of Corrections to house hundreds of IDOC inmates with more than six months of disciplinary segregation.

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Monitoring Reports

Executive Summary

JHA noted improvements during our 2015 visits. Pontiac staffing had improved dramatically from the time of JHA’s 2013 visit, with 754 out of 761 authorized employee positions filled in March 2015. In JHA’s 2013 report we pointed out that mental health staffing was chronically inadequate and recommended that mental health staffing and programming at this facility be prioritized. In 2015, importantly, mental health staffing and programming had increased and JHA observed quality-of-life improvements attributable to this and other requirements put in place in relation to ongoing litigation regarding mental healthcare in IDOC, Rasho v. Walker (Rasho).

At the time of JHA’s March 2015 visit to Pontiac, almost a third of the population were in disciplinary segregation (656 inmates), a quarter of were in Protective Custody (PC) (522 inmates), six percent were in Administrative Detention (AD) (125), and three percent were in the Mental Health Unit (MHU) (65). A quarter of the population were in the Medium Security Unit (MSU) (494 inmates). Positively, administrators noted in September 2015 that the total population at Pontiac had dropped about 70 inmates since March.

As observed in prior JHA Pontiac reports, this is a well-managed facility with many dedicated and experienced staff. Administrators stated a facility strength has been its ability to manage its charge of housing so many distinct populations and adapting to evolutions in correctional practice. Strong leadership, staff training, and support are critical to the continued success of this facility because staff must continue to adapt to contemporary standards that challenge the facility to work rehabilitative ideals into a harsh, punitive environment without having all the space, staff, or tools required for necessary reforms.

Pontiac opened in 1871 when Ulysses S. Grant was the United States President. Many concerns with this facility relate to intractable physical plant issues, such as lack of appropriate space to provide programming or more humane housing. Double-cells measure less than 65 square feet. Inmates ask about the legality of being double-celled in segregation and some particularly comment on the difficulty of being so closely housed with others who are experiencing mental health issues.

There are obvious challenges to implementing modern correctional best practices in a crowded, antiquated facility. There are additional challenges to improving facilities when management of statewide finances creates serious uncertainty about everything from staffing, to major construction projects, to adequate supply of basic goods, like paper, as remarked upon by staff during the September 2015 revisit. Nonetheless, Pontiac administrators commented on the steadfast morale and professionalism of the facility staff, and JHA commends the facility for this and for advances made since 2013. During both visits, JHA observed that Pontiac’s common areas were generally very clean. Administrators indicated that despite the challenges posed by Pontiac’s aging physical plant, maintaining cleanliness is a facility priority because it has an

important impact on the well-being of staff and inmates. JHA was pleased to hear that grant funding made several physical plant facility improvements possible since our 2013 monitoring report, including lighting replacement and new boilers that increased efficiency. To illustrate, in March, the facility reportedly had already saved $100,000 on heating. Moreover, the facility has taken some positive steps to increase programming for isolated populations as JHA has repeatedly recommended.

Pontiac has been a locus for the debate regarding use of long-term isolation in Illinois since the closure of the supermax prison, Tamms Correctional Center, in 2013. At the time of JHA’s March 2015 visit to Pontiac, administrators reported that there were 125 individuals in Administrative Detention, and about 656 individuals housed in disciplinary segregation with an average term of 3.83 years. However, most Pontiac inmates reportedly have disciplinary segregation terms between one and two years. Twenty-four men had “indeterminate” segregation terms, which administrators stated are periodically reviewed and reserved for inmates who commit serious violent acts while imprisoned, such as killing a cellmate.

JHA has continually recommended that the use of isolation be strictly circumscribed with all prisoners. Consistent with best practices, isolation should be used cautiously, for minimal periods of time, and only when required to preserve safety. Further, long-term isolation should be prohibited with inmates who have a history of mental illness, and inmates held in isolated conditions must be monitored for developing mental health issues. Over the last two years, the issues of mental health and isolation have come to the forefront of prison reform consciousness.

Executive Summary

At the time of JHA’s visit in February 2013, Pontiac was in a period of transition, newly managing the absorption of inmates transferred at the time of closure from the supermax Tamms Correctional Center (Tamms), while waiting to inherit nearly 150 staff members from the impending closure of Dwight Correctional Center (Dwight). Nonetheless, Pontiac’s administration welcomed our visit, acknowledging that outsiders may see things that they do not.

As Pontiac is designated to house IDOC inmates with more than six months of segregation, it provides an opportunity to examine IDOC’s use of long-term segregation. JHA advocates that long-term isolation not be used with inmates who have a history of mental illness, given the evidence that it tends to severely exacerbate mental illness. JHA also recommends that facilities strictly circumscribe the use of isolation with all inmates and use isolation cautiously and for minimal periods of time, and only when absolutely required to preserve inmate and staff safety. This recommendation is supported by evidence that prolonged isolation can cause serious mental and physical illness in otherwise healthy individuals.

JHA commends IDOC and Pontiac for their continued work on segregation reduction, including the use of alternative sanctions and incentives to promote positive behavior. Yet, on the day of JHA’s visit, Pontiac housed more than 800 inmates in either administrative detention or long-term disciplinary segregation, indicating there is still far to go. Further, almost all of these inmates, as well as another 500 protective custody inmates at Pontiac, had little or no programming.

Pontiac’s physical plant issues remain serious concerns, as addressed at length in JHA’s 2012 report. Conditions such as extreme temperatures, poor ventilation, and significant plumbing issues at Pontiac remain largely the same for the nearly 150-year-old maximum-security facility. During the visit, inmates in cells with fronts covered with Plexiglas expressed anxiety about the coming summer heat and JHA observed plumbing problems, including standing pools of water in cells, water spraying from the wall when a toilet was flushed, and debris that staff indicated was dissolved insulation displaced by cell flooding. Physical plant improvements require authorized funds from the Capital Development Board. JHA reiterates our recommendation that such issues be addressed and will continue to monitor these issues.

This report addresses the following issues: Segregation (Long Term Segregation Incentive Program), Living Conditions (Grievances, Hunger Strikes, Property Issues, Cleanliness and Supply Issues, and Visitation), Staffing, Healthcare, Programming, and Demographics.

Executive Summary

On October 25, 2011, JHA visited Pontiac Correctional Center (Pontiac), located in Pontiac, Illinois, about two hours southwest of Chicago. Pontiac, which opened in 1871, is the oldest prison in Illinois and the eighth oldest prison in the country. The facility is comprised of a maximum security adult male unit and a medium security adult male unit. The medium security facility contains 250 double cells (with a capacity to house 500 inmates), while the maximum security facility contains 543 single cells and 531 double cells. Together, the two facilities have a combined design/rated capacity of 1,800 inmates. On the date of JHA’s visit the two facilities together housed at total of 1,750 inmates, out of which 486 inmates were housed in the medium security unit. Thus, unlike most Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) facilities, Pontiac’s population does not exceed its design/rated capacity. As recognized by the federal courts, however, “[a] prison system’s capacity is not defined by square footage alone; it is also determined by the system’s resources and its ability to provide inmates with essential services such as food, air, and temperature and noise control.”

Pontiac is known as a “long-term segregation facility” because it houses inmates who have six months or more segregation time to serve. JHA found Pontiac’s common areas to be exceptionally clean on the date of our visit, and the facility, on the whole, to be one of the cleanest we have visited. This is due in large part to the resolve of the Warden and administration to maintain a clean environment, despite extremely limited resources. Some inmates reported infestations of insects and pests in some units and of being given disciplinary tickets for covering air vents with paper in an attempt to keep pests out of their cells. Pontiac’s administrators were surprised by these reports, and indicated that they personally tour all housing galleries no less than twice a month and, unlike other older facilities, they have not found pest control to be a significant problem Pontiac. While budget constraints and chronic repair issues often exacerbate pest control in older facilities, JHA did not itself independently see physical evidence of pest infestation at the time of our visit.

Despite exemplary efforts by Pontiac administrators to maintain a sanitary environment, however, the reality is that they lack adequate funds to maintain the repair and upkeep of a facility that is approaching 150-years old. Unsurprisingly, given its advanced age, Pontiac struggles with some serious physical plant problems. Indeed, in 2008, the Illinois Capital Development Board estimated that Pontiac had over $108 million in deferred structural maintenance needs, exclusive of the additional costs needed to maintain essentials like roads, exterior walls and lighting, and gas, sewage and electrical lines. A Pontiac administrator reflected that with state budget cuts, it is difficult to obtain funding for even small-scale projects like repainting interior walls that were peeling and degenerating.

A number of inmates also reported to JHA that it is a struggle to maintain themselves and their cells in a clean condition because cleaning supplies and soap are very limited. Many Pontiac inmates likewise reported serious problems with lack of ventilation and excessively hot and cold temperatures, particularly in the segregation cells that are covered with perforated steel and Plexiglass. As one inmate expressed, “The heat messes all of us up. The guards can’t work in it, and we can’t live in it.”

JHA also received multiple reports of the sinks and toilets flooding and malfunctioning. On the date of our visit, we ourselves observed a Pontiac inmate call out for help when the toilet in his cell began gushing water onto the floor. The inmate was quickly moved to another cell, but staff and inmates informed JHA that the incident was not unusual, as plumbing issues are a recurrent problem. In another unoccupied cell, JHA also observed water pooling on the floor.

Best correctional practices dictate that temperatures in indoor living and work areas should be maintained at appropriate comfort levels. Minimum standards mandate that the physical plant of a correctional facility should be adequate “[t]o protect and promote the health and safety of prisoners and staff” and allow unrestricted access for prisoners “[t]o adequate, clean, reasonably private, and functioning toilets and washbasins.” Although the constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons, it does mandate that conditions of confinement be humane, and include adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, sanitation and reasonable measures to guarantee the health and safety of the inmates. JHA has found that meeting these minimal constitutional standards can be especially difficult at antiquated facilities like Pontiac, Menard and Stateville Correctional Centers that were built without the benefit of modern construction and insulation.

Executive Summary

On Feb. 16 a group of six John Howard Association personnel and volunteers conducted a monitoring tour of Pontiac Correctional Center. Pontiac consists primarily of a maximum security unit which includes prisoners in disciplinary-related segregation or protective custody and Death Row. There is an adjoining medium security unit.

Pontiac’s maximum security segregation inmates, most serving long or life-term sentences, include some of the most disruptive individuals in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections. Among them are inmates believed to present a serious threat to staff and other inmates. They typically come from other prisons where they committed serious offenses and are held for months or years in segregation at Pontiac.

Of the approximately 1,200 maximum security inmates, 580 are held in disciplinary-related segregation status. They receive virtually nothing in the way of education, vocational training or other rehabilitative programs. Most of the remaining maximum security inmates are in Protective Custody and they, like the approximately 490 medium security inmates, have some access to education and other programs but no vocational training.

The inmates segregated for disciplinary reasons are treated to a more restrictive regime than inmates in general population at other prisons. For example, they are not allowed to purchase food from the commissary and must subsist exclusively on the soy-based diet fed to state inmates. During the tour several inmates complained of being underfed and said they were losing weight.

Pontiac Warden Guy Pierce said the inmate’s diets are approved in advance by a state nutritionist.

Segregated inmates’ time out of cell is more limited than general population inmates and they may be allowed to shower only three times a week. Other than a small GED program which can accommodate about 30 inmates at a time, there are no educational programs for segregated inmates.

A consistent complaint among maximum security segregation inmates was the absence of educational and rehabilitative programs.

For example, Pontiac’s segregated inmates include many with a history of violence. Despite this, there is no anger management program for them. Inmates are instead given a booklet which offers tips on anger management.

Prison management said lack of staff and money prevent them from offering programs to segregated inmates. Many of Pontiac’s inmates are deeply problematic and access to programs would require extensive security staffing.

In any case such inmates are not among the highest priority for educational programs, prison management said.

“Why would we spend money on something they will never use because they will never get out,” said one senior manager at Pontiac.

Although also held in maximum security, inmates in protective custody are offered GED Programming and Adult Basic Education as well as Substance Abuse Education, Anger Management Groups, Criminal Thinking Patterns, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, Warden Pierce said.

Prison management has plans to expand programs offered at the medium security unit at Pontiac. Medium security inmates are serving sentences of no more than 20 years.

A single teacher conducts GED and adult basic education and can teach about 60 medium security inmates at a time. There previously were two teachers. Currently there is a two-month waiting list for GED schooling and a six-month waiting list for adult basic education.

Warden Pierce said medium security inmates are offered programs such as Job Preparation, Substance Abuse Education, Anger Management, Criminal Thinking Patterns, Lifestyle Redirection, Parole School, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Inmates enrolled in Narcotics Anonymous said they found the program to be effective at rehabilitation.

The John Howard Association interviewed numerous medium security inmates. Nearly all said they would like vocational training to help them obtain a job upon release. They cited a desire for training in carpentry, auto mechanics, culinary arts and similar skills.

Pontiac senior staff said they would like to see such programs offered to medium security inmates. Staff said they hope to offer culinary arts training using the existing kitchen. There are also plans for a fatherhood program.

Senior staff also said there is a plan to make college classes available to medium security inmates, although there is no timetable for accomplishing this goal. No effort is underway to obtain college course work for maximum security inmates as such education for them is prohibited by state law.

The management of Pontiac Correctional Center clearly would like to make more programs available for all inmates but is constrained by budget and staffing limitations beyond their control. The disruptive behavior of some inmates further complicates management’s efforts to improve conditions.

Nevertheless, the John Howard Association believes the absence of programs for maximum security inmates in disciplinary-related segregation is a false economy in that it gives individuals little opportunity to improve themselves. That they are denied access to Anger Management and other rehabilitative classes simply means they are less likely to change their behavior.

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