Backlash over Quinn’s early-release program plays role

By Andy Grimm, Tribune reporter
November 22, 2010

Hard time has gotten even harder in Illinois prisons.

The state’s prison system is bursting at the seams with a record high of nearly 49,000 inmates, some 3,000 more than just a year ago. The surge, combined with the state’s multibillion-dollar budget crisis, has led to conditions that watchdog groups and veteran correctional officers say they haven’t seen since a population crisis in the 1980s prompted the state to build three new prisons.

Confronted with putting more offenders in the same amount of space, administrators are doubling up every available cell. As many as four inmates are bunked in slightly larger cells intended for two handicapped prisoners. At the intake facility at Stateville near Joliet, incoming inmates regularly sleep on cots in a gymnasium or prison hospital.

Guards say overcrowding provides fewer disciplinary options — some prisons have been pressed into holding problem inmates in “segregation” in the same areas as regular inmates. Overcrowding also leads to more inmate assaults on staff, guards say.

With the Illinois Department of Corrections about $95 million behind on its bills, many prison vendors haven’t been paid for months. In some cases, fed-up contractors have stopped extending credit to prisons, causing shortages that have led wardens to barter among themselves to stay stocked with essential items like paper goods and soap.

It’s a marked change for Illinois, which a year ago saw its prison population drop, a trend seen in about half of the country as cash-strapped states looked to alternatives to incarceration to reduce spending, according to a Pew Center report.

Three years ago, thinking that the number of inmates statewide would stabilize or even fall, prison officials in Illinois considered closing Vandalia Correctional Center to cut costs. But in just the last year, the population at the downstate minimum-security prison nearly doubled, rising to 1,700 this fall from 950 last November. Now, nearly 100 inmates sleep dormitory-style in a basement area previously closed off by prison officials, said Russ Stunkel, president of the union representing staff at Vandalia. The bunks are only about 2 feet apart — rear end to elbow, as he put it.

“We’re beyond our capacity, and I don’t think we can handle any more,” Stunkel said.

The reason for the rising numbers of inmates over the last year has nothing to do with more offenders entering the system — it has to do with fewer getting out as the result of a backlash against a policy change by Gov. Pat Quinn that allowed the early release of about 1,700 inmates over four months.

Under fire by an opponent in a heated primary fight, Quinn in January suspended the controversial program, called Meritorious Good Time Push, after news media reports that some prisoners sentenced to short terms of incarceration were freed after as little as a few days in state prison under the program. At the same time, Quinn also suspended the state’s regular Meritorious Good Time program, which had been in place for three decades and reduced the prison time of nearly two-thirds of the state’s inmates by an average of a few months.

As a result, the prison population began rising immediately and has gone up every month since, reaching a peak of 48,731 last week.

Gladyse Taylor, the third person to head the Department of Corrections in Quinn’s nearly two years in office, said her staff has answered the challenge of managing more inmates with less money. To trim a massive overtime budget, Taylor said the department hired about 500 more correctional officers, in the process actually saving about $21 million.

Taylor said the department can do nothing to control the number of inmates who enter the system. She said lawmakers would have to come up with a solution to the overcrowding.

“Now that we’ve gotten past (the election), people will be willing to do what they need to do,” she said in a telephone interview. “I know the agency is going to manage to the best of its ability.”

The state’s prisons were at 97 percent of their bed-space capacity, according to the department’s latest quarterly report to the legislature with data through August. Taylor said prison capacity figures are outdated, as most of the state’s prisons were outfitted years ago to double-bunk inmates in cells designed for one prisoner.

The same corrections report predicted that the number of inmates would climb to more than 49,500 by early next year. However, Taylor said the agency now expects the population to level off or drop this winter.

The crowding hasn’t just made prison time more difficult, it’s made it less safe, correctional officers said. With less cell space for solitary confinement, fewer inmates can be isolated as punishment or for protection from other inmates — the fastest way to control fighting, block transfer of contraband and other dangerous behavior, guards said.

For the first six months of 2010, inmate assaults on staff have increased by an average of five per month across all facilities over the same year-earlier period, though inmate-on-inmate assaults declined.

“You have to have room if there’s a big fight and you have to segregate out 50 or 100 inmates,” said Rick Bard, a 30-year corrections veteran who retired in March as the department’s director of operations. “That’s how you control situations before they get out of hand.”

The additional 500 correctional officers hired statewide since January have helped maintain control, but Vandalia, for instance, still remains understaffed, said Stunkel, the union president.

“We’ve had more serious incidents here (at the minimum-security prison) than we’ve had in the last 10 years,” he said. “And it’s because we’re busting at the seams. … There’s more fights. More fights over food, fights over laundry. They don’t like being crowded.”

Stunkel said the budget and staffing pressure has all but eliminated the inmate road crews that used to be sent out to work at state parks and other jobs.

“It’s cheaper to put one officer with 100 inmates in a dorm than to have two officers go out in a van with a dozen inmates in a crew,” he said.

John Maki, coordinating director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group based in Chicago, said the state has two options to reduce the overcrowding: build more prisons or release inmates early. The state’s massive budget woes make prison construction projects unlikely, he said.

The state hasn’t even been able to open its most recently built prison — the Thomson Correctional Center — because of its budget woes.

But even if the state could afford to operate the maximum-security Thomson prison, it wouldn’t much help with the overcrowding because the crunch has come from keeping low- and medium-security inmates locked up longer than in the past because of the suspension of the early-release programs, Maki said.

Even if the state legislature doesn’t act, the governor has options, said Malcolm Young, a Northwestern University Law School professor and corrections expert.

He could lift his suspension of the original Meritorious Good Time program, allowing prison officials the flexibility to again reduce the prison sentences of nonviolent offenders by up to 180 days each, Young said. But he acknowledges that’s unlikely, based on Quinn’s response to the election-year rhetoric about the dangers of early release.

“They have to do something fast because the population is going to continue to rise,” Young said. The governor “has painted himself into a corner. How can letting out 1,700 prisoners be a bad move before the election, and then after the election, it’s a good idea to let out 3,000?”

Taylor, the department’s director, said staffers have had internal discussions, but the agency has not made a recommendation to Quinn or the legislature about how to deal with the overcrowding.
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