Reforming Illinois' Prison System from the Inside Out

Illinois has two public safety problems. It has one of the most crowded adult prison systems in the United States, and despite spending $1.3 billion annually on the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), there are not enough resources to effectively house, supervise, and provide rehabilitative programming to the approximately 49,000 men and women who are in state prisons or the additional 25,000 who are on Mandatory Supervised Release under IDOC’s Parole Division.

These problems have led to an increasingly dangerous situation for inmates and correctional staff, with prisoners being housed in prison gymnasiums and reports of increased violence inside facilities. This makes for hazardous conditions not only inside prisons, but also for Illinois’ communities. Every year, Illinois releases more than 30,000 people from its prisons. While there is no evidence to suggest that exposure to harsh and overcrowded conditions makes inmates less likely to commit new crimes, research has shown that these kinds of environments can make inmates worse and more likely to reoffend when they are released. Given these conditions, coupled with the Parole Division's chronically low resources and the multiple barriers former prisoners face returning home, it should come as no surprise that almost half of the inmates who leave the IDOC return to prison within three years of their release, creating a vicious and costly cycle.

To address these problems, Illinois needs to safely decrease the number of people under state correctional supervision. This will require an on-going commitment to comprehensive criminal justice reform, including investing in crime prevention programming to strengthen communities, expanding alternatives to incarceration for lowlevel inmates, reforming overly punitive criminal sentences, and removing unfair obstacles to reentry. Just as importantly, Illinois must ensure that IDOC has the capacity it needs to make the most effective use possible of its limited resources both inside and outside of its facilities, so that when inmates are released they are less likely to return to custody because they are re-integrated safely and successfully back into their communities.

Allie Kelly2013