Western Illinois Correctional Center
Western Illinois Correctional Center
Western Illinois Correctional Center (Western) is a medium-security male facility within the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). It is located approximately a four-hour drive southwest of Chicago, and an hour and a half northwest of Springfield, in Mt. Sterling, Illinois. Western also operates the minimum-security Clayton Work Camp (Clayton), located 11 miles from the facility.
Administrators at the time of the July 2017 JHA visit reported that they were “hurting” for programming, healthcare, and clinical services staff. The Assistant Warden of Programs (AWP) position, overseeing programming and healthcare, had been vacant more than four months. As discussed further below, at the time of the visit, Western had no mental health staff assigned to the facility and was functioning with staffing coverage from other facilities. Additionally, medical healthcare staffing, alongside mental health staffing, was also short. Lack of correctional counseling staff was reportedly increasing inmate anxiety about their inability to get issues addressed. JHA also noted concerns regarding several other vacancies, including needed maintenance positions. Since the visit several positions have been filled; notably the AWP position was filled in September and three mental health staff had been hired by mid-October.
In the prior year, Western had an influx of inmates from maximum-security facilities as some inmates with demonstrated good behavior were permitted to transfer to medium-security facilities, generally, if they had less than 30 years left to serve. Some staff and inmates at Western reported that this made them uncomfortable, but most did not see much difference in the characteristics of the population given that some men at medium-security prisons previously could have been serving more than 20 years or even life. Nonetheless, more than one third of the population at Western will still return to the community in less than a year. Some inmates serving short-term sentences felt uneasy because that they did not expect to be incarcerated with others serving lengthy sentences. Likewise, an inmate who had served a longer sentence opined that the minimum-security population or those with shorter incarceration terms do not “understand the mentality of a person who has been locked up a long time.”
As one long-term inmate stated, coming from many years incarcerated at a maximum-security facility, he felt the biggest areas of concern at Western were “mental health, staff conduct, and cell assignments.” This comment matched JHA’s observations and review of data collected. Staff conduct and attitude were major areas of concern and had been for several years at this facility. During the 2017 visit, JHA used an anonymous and voluntary survey tool to collect more peoples’ impressions than we had been able to capture via face-to-face communications on visits or through correspondence. Over half of the incarcerated population, over 1,000 men, voluntarily completed the survey. Unfortunately, only thirty-three staff completed surveys, which is less than 10% of those employed at the facility, and these results are less likely to be representative.
JHA’s survey responses at Western reflected only two percent of the inmate survey respondents felt that staff at Western treat the incarcerated population with respect, which mirrored the complaints that we commonly received. One staff member shared that some staff at the facility believe in making an inmate's time as difficult as possible. Inmates echoed this report and expressed that there are staff at Western who subscribe to a punitive philosophy. While this anti-rehabilitative attitude is not acceptable generally, it is particularly problematic given the fact that, despite being a higher security medium facility, nearly half of the men incarcerated at Western have less than two years left to serve. Research suggests that staff attitudes toward prisoners have implications for programming and reentry success.
Although JHA visitors felt that some staff and agency leadership acknowledged staff conduct issues at Western, at the time of the visit, it was not clear what was being done at the facility to resource and help support the creation of a healthier culture. Over the past few years, efforts have been underway at the agency level to increase staff training and morale. Some staff at Western reported that with leadership setting a positive example, other staff were adopting a more rehabilitative and communicative approach. A few inmates also noted that there had been some recent more promising developments. While this was encouraging, there was definitely need for greater accountability.
Since the 2017 JHA visit, supervisors at Western have received Core Correctional Practices (CCP) training, which has been shown to benefit prison environments and outcomes. Administrators further noted that all staff have received National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) training as required in relation to the Rasho mental health litigation settlement agreement, counselors have received training in CCP and Cognitive Behavioral Programming, and there are plans to certify some staff to teach CCP and verbal judo, which is another tactic for using communication to deescalate conflict, so that all Western staff will be able to receive a two-day training on these subjects during annual training sessions at the facility.
JHA received numerous complaints from inmates regarding lack of movement and rehabilitative opportunities at Western. Men housed at the facility would typically be double-celled and if unassigned (more than half the population) could expect only to be out of their cells for three daily meals and about 20 hours total of dayroom and recreation in yard or the gym per week. This is on average less than three hours out-of-cell for some recreation daily plus movement to dietary. JHA has continually advocated against warehousing incarcerated people and in favor of increasing out-of-cell time throughout IDOC and adopting greater presumptive out-of-cell time requirements.
We note that, in general, lack of out-of-cell time exacerbates other problems. For example, confining inmates without programming can erode their mental health, and cellmate issues are intensified by excessive time in cell. JHA has continually advocated for increasing time out-of-cell across the board in IDOC facilities and has found over the last few years the lack of time out-of-cell in some medium-security, non-disciplinary settings, particularly concerning. More than one inmate told JHA that they felt the locked-down environment made some people “worse,” or even more dramatically, “monsters.” One inmate commented, “The toughest challenge is staying focused while coping with all the unnecessary deprivations;” while another inmate more hopefully acknowledged “[Western] is nearly intolerable in many ways, but does have its good points.”
Some of the good points include programming and skill-building opportunities to the extent these are available. Inmates also mentioned some particularly good staff, including outstanding teachers and a security staff member who reportedly responded quickly to an inmate’s medical emergency. As a survey comment explained, “[t]here are a lot of good officers but are being overshadowed by the bad ones.” However, some people also shared that they felt that staff who treat inmates well are themselves sometimes treated poorly. At Western, JHA spoke to many dedicated staff members who welcomed our perspective, were forthcoming with information about the facility and their challenges, and appreciated the value of productive inmate activity, lamenting staffing and budget issues16 that inhibited improvements at the facility.
However, overall tensions at the facility resulted in about half, 49%, of the inmates who completed JHA’s surveys, reporting that they did not feel safe, and a slightly higher percentage, 58%, felt that the facility in general was not safe for inmates.17 Some staff also reported that they did not feel safe.
JHA believes with proper staffing, resourcing, and leadership initiative, Western can demonstrate improvement. Many experts in corrections acknowledge that the success of security and programming are intertwined and that inmate idleness and lack of productive activity, and other quality of life issues, present safety issues and other unacceptable costs. Some issues may be inexpensively or naturally improved by improved communication and proper staffing. Given the numerous staffing and resourcing deficits, it was not surprising to hear many issues persist at Western during the 2017 visit.