JHA Public Testimony for the House Appropriations-Public Safety Committee Hearing

For over 116 years, the John Howard Association (JHA), Illinois’ only independent, non-partisan, not for profit prison watch dog organization, has been monitoring the State’s prisons. JHA’s monitoring visits provide a window into the closed system of corrections, we tour the prisons to observe conditions of confinement, and speak with those who are incarcerated and those who work inside our prisons about their day to day realities. Hearing directly from inmates and staff about their lived experiences, what is working and what is problematic inside our prisons, gives JHA unique insight and perspective on our system. We believe that having a prison system that is fair, humane and effective means implementing policies and practices that will leave incarcerated individuals better not worse off upon their release, which requires prisons to educate, treat, train and care for people who have frequently struggled with leading a productive law-abiding life due to myriad factors prior to incarceration. In order to have a prison system that provides humane treatment and rehabilitative programming, the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) and the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) must prioritize a culture that focuses on these areas, which requires demonstration of this mission by the entire agency beginning with leadership and including clear communication of these goals and education of new techniques for correctional staff.

In order to achieve the changes demanded through settlement agreement compliance in litigation and with increased evidence and pressure from stakeholders who believe reform is more important than retribution, practices need to change in order to manage the financial and human impact of imprisonment. These changes cannot be made without correctional staff recognizing the shift, contributing to discussions of policy and implementation, and being trained effectively to do their job in a fair, safe and policy compliant way. To achieve these system-wide perspective and practice changes, other institutional shifts must occur as well. Both IDOC and IDJJ must publicly share more data and information about what is happening inside their prisons, including information about staffing levels, disciplinary incidents and consequences, and specific population profiles. Data transparency is fundamental to our ability to see progress, spot issues, and hold government agencies accountable. Along with changes in policy, practice, training, physical custodial conditions, treatment and available mechanisms for documenting a concern or problem, regular ongoing independent oversight of every prison is critical to this pursuit. Without a check on custodial control, abuse occurs. Watchdog organizations provide a line of open communication for those who see, hear or experience unfair or dangerous behavior, and they also provide an opportunity for information sharing and export of positive programming and treatment modalities. Throughout our history, JHA has uncovered problems and unfortunate situations, and we have also identified good work and positive impacts, which we are able to broadcast to a larger audience in order to expand these programs, policies or practices.

Prison safety is obtained and maintained by establishing a culture that universally respects human dignity while taking into account operational realities. In addressing prison safety, it is important to establish base line data to know whether violent or dangerous behavior has in fact increased, what the behavior is, what recent changes have occurred, where the problems are occurring, and what responses were both available to and used by staff. We can look to other states that have achieved greater reform and reductions in their prison populations through fundamental policy and practice shifts that put education, job training, and encouragement of family relationships so that people have a support network to return to upon release, ahead of punitive responses. As other states that have undergone large scale reform evidence, these changes don’t happen overnight Change is not without some negative repercussions, but successful change was brought about with the steady commitment of leadership, supported by an educated and informed citizenry and staff that are included as agents of change, not the objects of it.

In order for Illinois’ prisons to be safe for adults and youth in its custody, as well as the staff and administrators that work inside them, immediate improvements in conditions, treatment, accountability, communication, and structural changes must be made. Noting that IDOC and IDJJ are different in size, scope and where each system is on a continuum of change, JHA offers the following recommendations to achieve a safer system that will produce better individual outcomes and increased public safety:

Information and data must be collected and shared publicly so that problems can be identified, understood and addressed, and outside stakeholders are able to hold corrections agencies accountable for policies and practices. For example, making classification decision information available will increase understanding and clarify criteria and guidelines used in designation decisions which may help explain population, facility and staffing needs. The lack of transparency undercuts problem solving and needed collaboration between all stakeholders.

Addressing the needs of inmates with mental illness, adult and juvenile, is not only mandated by ongoing litigation, it is one of the keys to reducing institutional assaults. As currently designed the system is reactive to illness, not proactive in treating mental health issues which can lessen incidents of decompensation that can lead to dangerous behaviors and outcomes. Facilities must have higher staffing levels of both mental health professionals and security officers to ensure that situations can be dealt with swiftly and safely, policy changes often dictate a change in the number of staff needed to do something, these increases must be considered in determining staffing needs.

People in prison with serious mental illness (SMI) require specialized care including placement in mental health facilities like Joliet and Elgin Hospital. Taken together these two facilities offer roughly around 350 beds for SMI inmates, not nearly enough to address the needs of the thousands of mentally ill individuals in state custody. the State must provide more in-patient beds to treat people whose mental health needs cannot be met in prison. Through both litigation and reform efforts there is recognition that many inmates need a therapeutic environment rather than one that is punitive, but the unfortunate reality is that our prisons were not designed to be rehabilitative and would require huge amounts of resources to make the facilities conducive to and able to provide the necessary treatment and programming to make them into therapeutic environments.

Providing video-based training and sharing information in short meetings, such as Roll Calls, is not sufficient or productive training for all staff. JHA encourages agency management to move forward swiftly with plans to provide on-the-job training for security and mental health staff that includes the opportunity to collaborate and directly experience the job from a different vantage point to better understand the challenges and needed responses to problems from the perspective of other personnel.

Implementation at system entry of a validated Risk and Needs Assessment, as was mandated by legislation in 2009, would provide information that would allow IDOC to make more informed initial decisions on security designations and treatment and program needs. Increased transparency and communication between staff and administrators will also enhance the efficacy of IDOC’s classification system. Security designations, including risk factors and escape risk, should be determined by an improved evaluation tool along with input from people that work with the inmate regularly. Best correctional practice is for lower security beds to be filled so that the greatest number of people benefit from programs that will support successful reentry. Where a person is designated should be a consideration of many factors, risks, needs, safety concerns, and programmatic and treatment opportunities.

In order to encourage positive behavior there should be increased opportunities for inmates to work their way into lower security facilities, beneficial transfers based on sustained positive behavior is often a powerful incentive. This was once routine practice but now only occurs in rare instances.

IDOC and IDJJ staff should regularly check that equipment is available and in good working condition, management should address any safety related deficiencies immediately, and communicate with legislators and executive branch personnel as necessary regarding lack of resources.

Prison overcrowding stretches already scarce resources, personnel, programmatic and facility, far too thin and creates unsafe conditions. In order to best use current resources, people who are sentenced to a year in prison should not be in state custody because given system wide programming shortages they will not receive any programming. Without any available treatment or programming opportunities these individuals are likely to be made worse off in prison; alternatives to incarceration should be utilized for this population.

Programming shortages hurt incarcerated individuals as well as staff and administrators – when there are limited or no opportunities for education, job skill acquisition, positive change, behavior declines. When there is a lack of activities and stimulation staff ‘s jobs harder and less safe. Lack of institutional jobs for inmates and shortages in available assignments take away meaningful opportunity for engaged activity which also reduces safety concerns and increases positive behavior.

A functional grievance system that provides a meaningful feedback loop for incarcerated individuals will provide an avenue to clear up confusion and work through problems in a way that can alleviate frustration that leads to institutional tension and ultimately violence. JHA understands that a new grievance process is being piloted, we look forward to seeing the data and results from it.

Individualized treatment of youth must be firm, fair and consistent, and the treatment, rewards and consequences for specific behavior must also be consistent. Increased transparency of the incentives system to ensure fairness is critical. Staff must not be undercut by management when using positive reinforcement to encourage youth behavior, this sends a confusing message and diminishes staff effectiveness in providing rewards. As the juvenile system has increased authority for release decisions and seeks to use less punitive behavioral consequences, there is a need for increased collaboration and communication between staff and management, particularly in managing the toughest youth in custody.

Large Illinois Youth Centers are unsafe and not rehabilitative for youth. The environment is not and cannot be made conducive to treatment, change and rehabilitation. These facilities often leave youth worse off than they were before they were in state custody. Isolation has been shown to negatively impact mental health, particularly for youth, and at some facilities there is very little programming – including lack of constitutionally mandated education. At one of the large youth facilities, IYC Harrisburg, staff have sought criminal charges against youth for behavior that is negative but not dangerous, leading several of these juveniles directly into the adult system for long periods of time. Staff must have a range of safe and fair consequence options, without reverting to old and unacceptable punishments such as the use of confinement for punitive purposes.

Large juvenile prisons are also not safe for staff who feel they do not have useful mechanisms available to them to manage negative behavior. This underscores the fact that these institutions cannot be made safe from a staff or youth perspective and rehabilitative at the same time. When there are large numbers of youth, in a prison setting, the environment is that of punishment, not rehabilitation and positive growth. The best that can be done in a large penal institution is to contain chaos and control behavior through harsh punitive sanctions. The kids in these facilities are often difficult, they are Illinois’ highest risk and needs youth, in order to engage them in rehabilitation, trust must be established which can be hard to gain, engagement in therapy and treatment has to happen, and meaningful academic and vocational programming must be provided – all of which for youth only happens in smaller environments that allow for individualized approaches and supports.


For more information please contact:

Jennifer Vollen-Katz



Gary Ricke2017