By James Chapman, President, Illinois Institute for Community Law & Affairs

The Illinois Institute joins many in congratulating Salvador “Tony” Godinez on his appointment as the new Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), and we wish him every success in his new post.

At the same time, we cannot help but wonder if he has much of a chance for real success. Although Godinez’s experience is impressive (40 years of corrections experience, most recently the Director of the Cook County Dept. of Corrections), the challenges he faces are daunting at best, and there is little on his record showing significant accomplishments in making the kind of major changes and improvements that are badly needed in Illinois prisons and jails.

He is now the chief of a system that can only be described as broken — a failure by virtually any measure. The term “corrections” is misapplied in Illinois. Our system does not “correct” people, nor help them learn how to redeem themselves. We just “warehouse” them when they are removed from free society by the law-enforcement and judicial systems.

The conditions under which we incarcerate people are sub-standard – some would say sub-human. Medical care is often so delayed that it’s almost non-existent. Staff reductions in many instances have reached levels that put severe stress on officers. Even the most basic education programs have been virtually eliminated in many prisons. All well documented.

While many other states are implementing innovative programs to safely reduce their prison populations (and the costs thereof), Illinois is hell-bent in the opposite direction. The Illinois system has grown from about 10,000 prisoners in 1973, when Godinez began his career, to nearly 50,000. One reason is that although, each year, more than 40 percent of all prisoners are released, more than half of them are returned to prison within three years; the recidivism rate in Illinois is over 52 percent, among the highest in the nation. And while other states are successfully demonstrating the advantages of cost-effective alternatives to incarcerating low-level and non-violent offenders, women and the elderly, Illinois continues to simply lock them away in inadequate, overcrowded, often squalid prison and jail facilities.

Most importantly, with economic and budget pressure only partly to blame, funding for vocational programs that help prepare prisoners for success when they return to the general population have been cut and, more often, eliminated altogether. Legislators who see avoiding the “soft on crime” label as a key to reelection steadfastly refuse to fund programs that help prepare prisoners for life after their release.

Mr. Godinez is obviously aware of these issues, and is doubtless serious about finding and implementing solutions. But he cannot control the number of people being sent to Illinois prisons. He cannot fund the much-needed education programs, or even the most basic repairs to the physical plant. And he cannot create and implement drug treatment programs or the diversion programs such as vocational training, Adult Redeploy, which funds effective, cost-cutting community service programs for non-violent offenders, and Moms and Babes, which allows mothers to deliver and care for their children while they serve their sentences.

He cannot, that is, without lots of help – from the governor and legislature, especially, and from law enforcement, the judicial system, corrections officers and their unions, community- and prison-reform groups, prisoners’ families and friends, and ex-prisoner support groups. They in turn need the cooperation and support of volunteers…at the foundation, people who care, want to see change and are willing to organize, speak out and, above all, take action.

That is what our Changing Minds Campaign is all about. And people at the grass roots, like you, are needed to make it work. With Mr. Godinez armed with little more than his own powers of persuasion, we can help by putting pressure on the people who are in position to make meaningful changes and improvements possible.

More we could not wish for Mr. Godinez. With this kind of support, he could well realize success in his new job. Without it, well…good luck, Mr. Godinez.