Vandalia Correctional Center
Vandalia Correctional Center
Vandalia Correctional Center is a male minimum-security prison. It is located in Vandalia, Illinois about four and a half hours south of Chicago and one and a half hours southeast of Springfield.
Crowding, understaffing, and physical conditions remain serious concerns at the 90-year-old Vandalia facility. JHA continues to receive significant numbers of letters and calls about water in lower level housing units after heavy rains. However, administrators report that sump pump repairs have resolved these problems.
There have been some notable physical plant improvements. For instance, at the time of the 2012 visit, Vandalia’s reroofing project, which began that summer, neared completion. However, during this project in September 2012, a partial ceiling collapse in one housing unit and significant water damage in another displaced 90 inmates to the gym for three months.
Since the visit, housing inmates in gyms has become an official departmental response to system overcrowding. Since February 2013, almost 100 inmates awaiting placement in boot camps have been housed in the Vandalia gym. While new discretionary supplemental sentencing credits (SSC) will enable some prisoners to earn up to 180 days off their sentences, it is clear that this program will not by itself solve Illinois’ prison overcrowding crisis.
Since JHA’s 2011 visit, Vandalia is to be commended for increasing programming and adding 200 inmate work assignments. In April 2012, Vandalia began recycling and gardening projects as part of the facility’s sustainability efforts. Administrators reported that the institutional garden had produced 9,000 pounds of food donated to a local food pantry, as well as produce incorporated into inmates’ diet.
Administrators were also excited at the time of the visit to announce the planned Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation “Second Chances Ranch,” which will house 30-40 horses and employ a maximum of 15 inmates.6 This program will not be dependent on state funding. Since the visit, the Equine Director has started work.
JHA hopes that programming opportunities will continue to expand at Vandalia, as currently only 25 percent of the minimum-security population participates in educational or vocational classes. Nonetheless, given physical plant issues, a chronic lack of resources, and overcrowding, what Vandalia and the rest of Illinois’ prisons need more than increased programming is to reduce the state’s overall inmate population through safe and comprehensive prison reform.
This report addresses the following: Living Conditions, Inmate Grievances, Staffing, Healthcare, and Programming.
On June 20, 2011, the John Howard Association (JHA) visited Vandalia Correctional Center (Vandalia). Vandalia is a Level Six minimum-security adult male facility that is located 85 miles southeast of Springfield and houses mostly low-level inmates in barracks-style dormitories. It has 113 buildings totaling 412,000 square feet and a surrounding acreage of 1,520, with eight acres contained within the perimeter fence. Vandalia first opened in 1921 and was originally designed as a prison farm, where inmates worked raising livestock and growing crops during the day, and slept at night in the dormitories. Staff and administration showed JHA historic photos of the farm and recounted how “old-timers,” both inmates and guards, who were at Vandalia when it was a working prison farm remembered it as a positive place that helped many men turn their lives around.
Much has changed. Today, the farm is no longer operating, the facility’s crop acres have largely been leased to surrounding farms, and the cows have all been sold. Whatever rehabilitative spirit once animated Vandalia, the facility now serves primarily as a vehicle for warehousing low-level inmates in crowded dormitories and basements. In contrast to Vandalia’s past, these low-level inmates today have few opportunities to obtain the rehabilitative treatment, education, vocational training, and job skills needed for safe, successful reentry into the community.
Portions of the 90-year-old prison showed every bit of their age on the date of JHA’s visit. Vandalia’s most obvious issue is the deteriorating physical state of some of its buildings. The upper-levels of the dormitories JHA visited have declined with age, neglect and general lack of maintenance. Further, the basements of the dorms used to house the additional inmate population are in exceptionally poor condition and in need of repair and renovation to house inmates safely and humanely.
Indeed, JHA found the floor of one of the basement dorms flooded with approximately a quarter to a half of an inch of water at the time of its visit. In some recessed spots of the floor, JHA measured three-fourths of an inch of stagnant, dirty water pooling in the inmates’ living areas.
The administration reported that such flooding was an anomaly and an isolated incident resulting from an excessive, unprecedented amount of rainfall. The administration further indicated that the dorms are cleaned daily by assigned dormitory porters, who also assist in cleaning up the water. Inmates and staff reported, however, that such flooding is not an anomaly, but a recurrent problem in the basement dorms. At any given time, roughly 60 to 100 inmates are housed in each of four dormitory basements – which are referred to as the “lower-level dormitories” by the administration.
JHA found the conditions in these lower-level, dormitory basements to be unsafe, unsanitary, and unacceptable. The blame lies not with Vandalia’s administration, however, but with the Illinois governor and legislature, who created this deplorable situation. The suspension of Meritorious Good Time credit (MGT) in December 2010, by the Illinois governor has greatly exacerbated prison overcrowding – particularly in minimum security facilities like Vandalia, whose low-level, non-violent inmate populations are most affected by MGT’s suspension. Despite this crisis in overcrowding, the governor and legislature have refused to address the issue or take prudent action to replace MGT.
As a direct result of MGT’s suspension, Vandalia was forced to absorb more than 300 additional inmates into a facility already bursting at its seams with a population that far exceeds its design capacity. Consequently, the only place to house the additional inmates is in dormitory basements which JHA found to be neither safe nor suitable as living quarters. At the same time, while dramatically increasing the prison population, the legislature has slashed the budget of the Department of Corrections (DOC), allocating the DOC $110 million less than requested. In disregard of the emergent physical plant issues at Vandalia and other DOC facilities, the legislature further cut the DOC’s repair and maintenance budget by nearly 25 percent. Following JHA’s visit, the administration moved 90 inmates from the basement levels of dorms J, K, and L dorms to the gym, which is now being used temporarily as a dorm.
Recently, in Brown v. Plata, 131 S. Ct. 1910 (2011), the United States Supreme Court held that conditions in California prisons caused by overcrowding violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered the state to drastically reduce its prison population to remedy this. The court observed that cramming inmates “into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates” is “incompatible with the concept of human dignity” and has no place in a “civilized society.” The court reasoned that “as a consequence of their own actions, prisoners may be deprived of rights that are fundamental to liberty,” but they still “retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons.”
Vandalia dramatically illustrates that if the Illinois governor and legislature do not act quickly to replace MGT, reduce the population, and provide the funding, resources, and staffing needed to meet the population’s basic needs, a lawsuit cannot be far behind.