Stateville Northern Reception and Classification Center
Stateville Northern Reception and Classification Center
Stateville Northern Reception and Classification center is the largest intake facility within the Illinois Department of Corrections. Nearly 2,000 male inmates cycle in and out of the facility each month. NRC is located 45 minutes outside of Chicago in Joliet, adjacent to maximum-security Stateville Correctional Center. In addition to handling intake, NRC manages court and medical writ inmates, and contains a Minimum Security Unit.
NRC administrators repeatedly stress that the facility’s mission is different than other IDOC prisons, as NRC’s responsibility is merely to process inmates and to conduct “triage.” As an intake center, NRC was designed for short term housing, meaning less than 10 days. However, many inmates will stay far longer.
Due to overcrowding throughout IDOC, transferring inmates from NRC to parent facilities can take much longer than intended, while other inmates housed at NRC on court or medical writs may stay upwards of years. Due to overcrowding at NRC in 2014, not all intake inmates could be celled and they continued to commonly be housed in non-standard overflow locations, including sleeping in the intake area, classrooms, the infirmary, a gym, and in parts of the area designed to operate as Stateville’s Minimum Security Unit (MSU). Most of the population crowding the facility are low-level offenders.
NRC’s cells lack outside windows or any direct natural light. Inmates may expect to leave their cells for a maximum five hours of yard and one shower a week. Such conditions are akin to IDOC disciplinary segregation and arguably may meet the United Nations' definition of solitary confinement, i.e. physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells more than 22 hours a day, except that almost all NRC inmates have a cellmate. Harsh conditions have been shown to increase recidivism, while solitary confinement can cause mental health deterioration, not to mention that these conditions serve no rehabilitative purpose. At the time of the March 2014 JHA visit, 673 inmates, almost a third of the population, had been housed for more than 60 days in NRC’s reception conditions. While in custody at NRC, inmates in reception or on writs do not have access to programming or work, nor do they have access to property permitted at parent facilities within IDOC or receive “state pay.”10 A few unlucky inmates have stayed at NRC for years.
Although JHA credits administrators for efforts on some of our prior recommendations and we observed some improvements over the course of our 2014 visits, NRC again demonstrated there was far to go, as the facility struggled to meet basic needs of its population while over capacity.
Nonetheless, JHA staff who had visited the facility over several years felt that there had been some positive developments over the past few years. The most notable improvements were observed in mental health screening and boot camp wait times. These advances coupled with the recent significant decrease in population at NRC, wherein NRC houses upwards of 500 inmates fewer than during 2014 peaks, should permit leadership to focus efforts on appropriate intake screening, enhanced cooperation with other state actors, and improvements to quality of life related issues. We again stress the importance of this facility, as improvements here will radiate throughout IDOC. Greater data collection and sharing between counties and IDOC, as well as within IDOC, is still needed, particularly for healthcare needs.15 Prison presents a critical public health opportunity to provide diagnosis, disease management, education and treatment. Without reliable information collection and sharing, costs will be needlessly duplicated and returns on investment cannot be measured.
This report updates JHA’s 2011 monitoring visit to NRC. Based on JHA’s 2012 visit and on-going communications, we found that overcrowding and a lack of resources and staffing remains problematic, impacting all aspects of NRC’s operations. NRC is designed to house inmates only for a reception period of about 10 days, yet numerous inmates stay for months because there is not enough room at other IDOC facilities. Further, staff reported that space at appropriate facilities is not always available for inmates with special needs, including healthcare issues. Therefore, inmates are left longer at NRC, a facility that is one of the least equipped to deal with giving inmates proper attention since it was designed solely for processing.
NRC’s operations are complicated by the fact that the facility is part of Stateville Correctional Center. Stateville operates a maximum-security facility and a Minimum Security Unit (MSU), in addition to playing several other disparate roles, including managing court and medical writ inmates, parole violators, and housing low-level inmates waiting for months for space in boot camp programs.
While NRC appeared clean and orderly, it is a place of high stress, and most inmates endure near lockdown conditions. Inmates who have been incarcerated throughout IDOC, even in maximum-security facilities, commonly state that their time at NRC is some of the hardest time they have served. Intake cells at NRC lack windows or access to natural light. Inmates must adapt to sleeping in an environment of constant noise and artificial lighting. Inmates must also abide reception conditions with limited access to commissary, writing instruments, and phones. Conditions in MSU dorm housing at NRC were not much better. Adding to difficulty in resolving issues, NRC suffers from chronic understaffing. For instance, the facility has just three correctional counselors assigned to housing units for the over 2,000 inmates.
NRC has arguably the most important and challenging mission of all Illinois correctional facilities. It serves as the first point of contact for the majority of male prisoners in the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC), receiving and classifying approximately 4,000 new inmates each month. The information gathered through NRC’s screening and classification process determines where many of these inmates will serve their sentences and the services and treatment they will receive. In addition to processing new inmates, NRC also holds offenders who have violated the conditions of their release and inmates who are scheduled to appear in court in the state’s northern counties.
As NRC must address the disparate needs of a diverse a population of inmates of all ages, backgrounds, maturity levels, security levels, degrees of mental and physical health and functioning, aggression levels and English language skills, it has diverse and arguably greater staffing and resources than any other Illinois facility. Yet, it makes due with much less. In particular, the facility is in need of additional security, support and clerical staff and medical and mental health staff.
The process of receiving and classifying inmates at NRC is complex and multi-faceted. Inmates must be searched, identified, matched with their prior criminal histories, photographed, fingerprinted, checked for outstanding warrants, and issued correctional photo identification, clothing, and numbers. Inmates’ personal property must be inventoried and processed. Inmates must be screened to determine their physical, dental and mental health conditions and medication/treatment needs; the nature of their convictions, length of sentence, and time left to serve; educational and vocational aptitude; programming and rehabilitation needs; security threat group affiliation, enemies and aggression level; substance abuse issues; social history; escape history; immigration status; security risk level, and disciplinary history. All these factors are relevant to determining an inmate’s security classification, the proper correctional facility to send him, and an appropriate housing assignment at NRC. Once an available bed is located in a facility, NRC must further coordinate the inmate’s transfer and transportation to the destination facility.
Ideally, the screening and classification process is meant to generate an objective, reliable, but also individualized assessment of each inmate’s risks and needs that the NRC can rely upon to predict the inmate’s future behavior and place him in a facility that has appropriate security and medical and mental health treatment and rehabilitative services. As explained by the administration, screening must be thorough enough to allow DOC a degree of confidence in predicting inmates’ future behavior, dangerousness, and capacity to adapt to a particular facility.
Recognizing the vital importance of NRC’s mission, DOC administration created positions for an Assistant Warden of Programming and Assistant Warden of Operations at NRC for the first time this past year. Prior to NRC’s current Assistant Wardens coming on board, there was extremely high turnover in these demanding positions, as three Assistant Wardens of Operations and three Assistant Wardens of Programming came and went in the year prior. The facility’s functioning has since been greatly enhanced under the leadership of NRC’s current administration, who are extremely knowledgeable, experienced, and aware of every aspect of NRC’s operations. Considering limited bed space, understaffing, lack of resources and severe overcrowding at NRC and correctional facilities across Illinois, JHA was struck by how remarkably orderly and efficiently NRC is run.
In spite of these efforts, the reality is that severe overcrowding and lack of bed space across the state mean that NRC has limited options in determining when and where to place inmates. As one NRC administrator expressed: “Everything we do at this point is bed-space responsive.”
One of the more dangerous systemic effects of overcrowding is its tendency to distort classification criteria to meet the needs of overcrowded facilities, rather than to address the realities of inmates’ actual needs and risks.1 When there is not bed space at a facility with an appropriate security level, services and programs, there is a powerful incentive to classify an inmate as not needing these things. As a result, inmates can be under-classified and placed at facilities that do not have sufficient security. Alternatively, vulnerable inmates can be over-classified or misplaced at facilities where they are at risk of being victimized, or at facilities that do not have medical or mental health services available to address their needs.
Indeed, administrators at several medium and minimum-security facilities independently reported to JHA that, with the increased population, they have received a substantial influx of inmates poorly suited to be housed at their facilities because they present too great a security risk or have too severe mental health problems and treatment needs that the facilities are not designed to handle.