prisons

Stateville Correctional Center
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Last December, the state of Illinois tentatively agreed to settle a class action lawsuit over the treatment of prisoners with mental illness. But changes to mental health at the Department of Corrections have been slow in coming, in part because Illinois has gone more than 9 months without a budget.

Hill Correctional Center
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In January, the Illinois prison population was down by more than 2,500 inmates over a year earlier. But that’s still a long way off from Gov. Bruce Rauner’s goal of cutting the population by 12,000 prisoners over the next decade.

The commission he appointed to make that happen is still figuring out how to meet his goal, and met Monday in Chicago to continue deliberations.

Bruce Rauner
Brian Mackey / WUIS

Gov. Bruce Rauner endorsed the work of his criminal justice commission Thursday. He also made an unusual statement on prisons.

Commissioners are still working to reach Rauner’s goal of reducing Illinois' inmate population by 12,000 men and women over the next decade. They have delivered their first set of recommendations, and Rauner told commissioners he was excited about the report, calling it "excellent."

"What I can guarantee you: I will work tirelessly to make sure this isn't just something that just gathers dust," he said. "I’m going to implement this."

Chicago's million-dollar blocks
chicagosmilliondollarblocks.com

State of the State Podcast:
A New Way To Think About 'High-Crime' Neighborhoods

Bruce Rauner
Brian Mackey / WUIS

Most experts say the governor’s target of a 25 percent reduction in the state's prison population can't be met by simply backing off the war on drugs. Instead, policymakers will have to look beyond the "nons” — nonviolent, nonserious and nonsexual offenders — and in so doing, challenge entrenched attitudes about crime and justice. 

Brian Mackey headshot
mattpenning.com 2015 / WUIS/Illinois Issues

ILLINOIS ISSUES - In state government, there are issues, ideas and talking points that recur through history. Take, for example, this line from a State of the State address: “The sentencing and parole system that we now have in Illinois and throughout the nation is a dismal failure. It does not deter, it does not punish, it does not rehabilitate and it should be scrapped.”

Those comments would not have been out of place in this year’s State of the State, but that was actually the late Gov. Dan Walker, speaking in 1976. Thirty-nine years later — this winter — Gov. Bruce Rauner said something similar: “Our criminal justice system in Illinois needs comprehensive reform.”

Las Vegas in the 1970s
flickr.com/roadsidepictures

The politics of "tough on crime" were born of a culture of fear in the 1960s and '70s. In Illinois, that was exemplified by the public statements of then-Gov. Dan Walker, who both described aspects of Illinois prisons that are still problems today, while at the same time arguing for policies that would leave Illinois’ criminal justice drastically overcrowded.

flickr/dnak

State Rep. Monique Davis wants to give prisoners access to condoms.

Incarceration leads to a greater risk of acquiring and transmitting HIV, so she proposed selling condoms for prisoners to buy with their own money.

"If we can decide we're going to cut the spread of AIDS in Illinois, and we're going to have all different kinds of programs to do this, then that reduces the health care costs that Illinois has to spend," Davis said.

Her proposal failed in committee.

How Can Illinois Stop The Prison Revolving Door?

Marquis Harmon is devoted to helping ex-prisoners find jobs as they transition back into the community. Harmon believes in second chances — because he’s been there. With two felony convictions, he is still struggling to get back on his feet. But with family support, education and a desire to succeed, he’s on the path to regaining some of the ground he’d lost in the correctional system.

Lawmakers are scheduled to consider a new plan introduced by House Speaker Michael Madigan to end weeks of negotiations over plugging a $1.6 billion hole in this year's state budget.

flickr/meeshpants

Xavier McElrath-Bey was arrested when he was 13 years old. The Chicagoan went to prison for first degree murder for a gang-related crime. He left prison on good behavior at the age of 27 with a college degree in hand.

State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie wants to make sentencing for minors more lenient. House Bill 2471 would prohibit judges from sentencing minors to life without parole. House Bill 2470 would allow minors to have their sentence reviewed after serving 15 years.

Bruce Rauner
Brian Mackey / WUIS

Gov. Bruce Rauner on Tuesday named the men and women he's asked to assess crime and punishment in Illinois. The Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform comprises 28 men and women, a significant number of whom are well known as advocates for a more rational approach to criminal justice — that is, basing sentencing decisions on what's most likely to rehabilitate an offender while also protecting the public.

Brian Mackey
mattpenning.com / WUIS/Illinois Issues

News Analysis — Gov. Bruce Rauner made a stunning declaration last month in his State of the State address.

“The conditions in our prisons are unacceptable,” Rauner said. “Inmates and corrections officers alike find themselves in an unsafe environment. It’s wrong.”

State Week logo
Dan LoGrasso / WUIS

This week, Governor Rauner's efforts toward allowing government workers to stop paying union dues and toward revising the state's criminal justice policies.

Bruce Rauner
Brian Mackey/WUIS

Gov. Bruce Rauner visited a state prison Wednesday. It’s the first time a sitting governor has done that in years.

Rauner says an overhaul of Illinois’ criminal justice system a priority for his administration.

"The Department of Corrections is operating at more than 150 percent of its design capacity," Rauner says. "That is unsafe to both inmates and staff."

Bruce Rauner
Brian Mackey / WUIS

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner announced Wednesday he would convene a commission to look at criminal justice policy.

State prisons in Illinois are at 150 percent of the capacity they were built to house. They also cost taxpayers $1.3 billion a year. And many inmates, once released, go on to commit more crimes. Rauner says that’s unacceptable.

"It is a vicious and costly cycle," Rauner says. "We need to make sure we are rehabilitating inmates, so they don’t commit crimes over and over again."

flickr/dnak

Illinois has a clear ambition for what it would like to do with members of its criminal class, and it’s right there in the name of the state agency set up to deal with them: the Department of Corrections. But there is a wide gap between ambition and practice. This is not to blame the department: politicians enacted the policies that have swelled the prison population, and politicians are largely responsible for the dire financial condition of the state that has squeezed agencies like the DOC.

Brian Mackey headshot
mattpenning.com / WUIS

Editor's note: January marks a new phase in our journalism. Following the merger of WUIS and Illinois Issues, we now have enough journalists to enable reporting on a beat model. This allows a reporter to learn events and people more thoroughly than general assignment reporting. Each reporter is focusing on key issues in the state.  We're calling it the "Illinois Issues Initiative."

STATE OF THE STATE
CAN GOOD GOVERNMENT ABIDE GOOD POLITICS?

Not long ago, attempts to raise criminal penalties in Illinois were met with a standing joke. All such legislation had to make it through the Senate Judiciary Committee, where by informal agreement, it could only advance if it satisfied the sole criterion of the Cullerton Rule. On April 20, 2005, Sen. Edward Maloney, a Democrat from Chicago, presented House Bill 2699, a bipartisan measure that sought to raise the penalties for identity theft.

Illinois Department of Corrections

The state agency that oversees prisons does not expect to make significant changes to its operations, following the escape of an inmate last week from a minimum security prison located about an hour east of St. Louis.

Officials issued an alert when 21-year-old Marcus Battice escaped from Vandalia Correctional Center, where he was serving time for stealing a car. Battice turned up the next morning, about three-and-a-half miles away.

flickr/dnak

A watchdog group says whoever wins the race for governor is going to face difficult choices about Illinois’ prisons. The group on Wednesday is laying out what it’s calling a “roadmap” for overhauling crime and punishment — and wants to know where the candidates stand.

The non-partisan John Howard Association says decades of “tough on crime” policies have led Illinois to lock up 49,000 people in a system designed to hold 32,000.

Rahm Emanuel
cityofchicago.org

  Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday called on state lawmakers to reduce penalties for drug possession.

  Two years ago, Chicago began allowing its police to issue tickets for possessing small amounts of pot, rather than immediately making an arrest.

Emanuel says the change is working: "We have seen about 4,100 fewer arrests in that area."

WBEZ

Former Gov. George Ryan has finished a year of supervision following his release from home confinement last summer after a prison sentence for corruption convictions.

Ryan was released from prison in January 2013 and was confined to his home until last July. At the time his lawyer and friend former Gov. Jim Thompson said that Ryan was subject to another year of supervision and some travel restrictions. That ends this week.

flickr/meeshpants

Not long ago, it seemed every time a different type of crime started making the news, members of the Illinois General Assembly would rush to increase the penalty for that offense. But today — with prisons stuffed beyond capacity and state finances ailing — lawmakers have begun taking a more deliberate approach. Brian Mackey reports on a criminal sentencing culture change in the Illinois General Assembly.

WUIS/Illinois Issues

When a September meeting of one of Illinois’ many obscure government oversight commissions turned into a discussion about the proper seasoning blend for making hot dogs, it served as yet another reminder that there are problems with the state’s revamped rules for purchasing goods and services.

Sandi and Jesse Jackson Jr. at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver
WUIS/Illinois Issues

His predecessor in the U.S. House, Mel Reynolds, went to jail in the mid-’90s, being convicted of bank fraud and having sex with a 16-year-old girl. But Jesse Jackson Jr. was the first son of a candidate for president from Illinois to serve time in prison.

In late October, Jackson Jr. reported to a North Carolina prison camp, where he was expected to serve until December 2015. It was the end of what had been a spectacular rise and a hard fall. He was still trying to come up with the cash to cover his restitution.

flickr/katerha

A Republican candidate for governor is once again calling for Illinois to change the way it manages major facilities, like prisons and developmental centers. That includes how the state closes such facilities.

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford says past attempts to close prisons and other big state institutions have been haphazard. He says this has been going on for years, back at least to the administrations of former governors Ryan and Blagojevich. But it's still happening, as with this year's closure of the women's prison in Dwight.

flickr/meeshpants

More and more prisoners in Illinois are being served brunch, eating two meals a day instead of three. Prison officials say it's actually better for many inmates.

Feeding prisoners is a lot of work — not only cooking and cleaning up, but moving inmates from cells or dorms over to the mess hall.

Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer says at some prisons, breakfast is served at 4 a.m., which means moving inmates in the dark.

Gov. Pat Quinn has called for the closing of Tamms Correctional Center.
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Gray, bleak and desensitizing. Hope-draining and soul-crushing. That is how some who have entered the walls of the state’s super-maximum-security prison in Tamms describe it. 

“The doors are like a rust-red color with thousands of perforated holes. And you look outside, and you don’t see nothing but a gray wall,” says Brian Nelson, a former Tamms inmate. “My biggest fear is that this is all happening in my head, and I am going to wake up and I’m in that cell. And that scares the s--- out of me.” Nelson has been paroled and now works as a paralegal in Chicago. 

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

The litany was depressingly familiar: overcrowded, understaffed, with limited access to medical and psychiatric treatment, rehabilitative services, education and jobs for inmates.

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