The Current State of Corrections in Illinois

The State of Illinois is financially broke. It has proportionately the worst finances of any state in the Union. The Illinois Department of Corrections is broke and has been for some time. The IDOC system is intended to hold about 34,000 prisoners, yet its population now is close to 49,000. Few prisons have any meaningful education, job-training or rehabilitation programs. Many prisoners leave our prisons every day with no preparation for rejoining a vastly changed world. Most prisoners average 22-plus hours a day in their cells because there is no place else for them to go. Health care is inadequate; the food is questionable. Because of very long sentences, the population is aging, requiring expensive, long-term health care.

The First Step in Making Illinois Corrections More Effective 

The initial step toward a solution is obvious: reduce the prison population, starting with the men serving natural life or virtual life sentences who have already served many years and are in their 40’s and up and are, according to excellent statistical studies, no risk to anyone if released. On the contrary, these men can be positive contributors to their communities, starting with at-risk youth who do respond to the maturity of these men.

The Nature of the Opposition to Prison Population Reduction

Right now the chances of getting legislation passed to release prisoners who have already served long sentences and have shown they have matured while in prison are almost nil. There are many groups that oppose sentence reduction, including the correctional officers union; police officers unions; legislators fearful of being labeled soft on crime; so-called victims’ rights groups; and others.
These groups are very well organized, financed and good at delivering their message to legislators. They don’t wait to lobby legislators until the Legislature is in session in Springfield. Rather, working with constituents in the home districts of legislators, they reach out to them all year around.  Their strategies are very effective in getting legislators on their side.

What “The Changing Minds Campaign” is About

We who advocate prison population reduction and other reforms lack the resources to bring home our message on a state-wide basis to the public, and, more importantly, to the Illinois legislators who pass the laws. Some Chicago-area activists try to convince legislators to enact corrections reform, but legislators outside of the Chicagoland area are not persuaded unless they hear from their constituents — the voters in their legislative districts. Thus, we need a state-wide network of individuals and organizations who will push their local elected officials as well as their neighbors to insist that the State improve our corrections system.

That’s exactly what the Campaign has been doing for the last three years: working with groups and individuals that share our vision. We have a) set up an interactive website (www.illinoisinstitute.net);  b) developed a data base (almost 1000 now) of persons and organizations who have joined the Campaign; c) sent out special messages via email and Facebook (where we have pages) to alert our constituents to critical issues and how they can take action;  d) worked with groups around the state to hold special meetings or events to spread the word of the Campaign.

We have had such events in Waukegan and McHenry, north and northwest of Chicago, Champaign-Urbana, and all over the Chicagoland area.  We are in talks for events in Rockford, East St. Louis, Kankakee and Peoria, and Carbondale (July 17, 2013)It’s a long, slow process to develop an effective state-wide network but unless we do it, we’ll be having the same conversation years from now.

The most effective and cost-efficient highlight of these meetings is the reading of  “A Day at Stateville,” a drama presentation created by men doing natural and virtual life in the weekly communications class  taught for several years at Stateville Correctional Center.  “A Day” has been read by formerly incarcerated men who served lengthy terms, and is followed by dialogue between the readers and the audience. These men are revealed as intelligent and purposeful human beings in the eyes of the audience, which is now educated “from the horse’s mouth” about what’s happening in our prisons. Members of the audience are then urged to join the Changing Minds Campaign; and many do.

“A Day” has been performed over 60 times in a wide range of venues: churches, prison activist groups like Jail Brakers in Woodstock, neighborhood organizations, and universities and high schools, even to youth at risk as young as 8 years of age.

Helping the Changing Minds Campaign Grow

The Campaign is a community-wide, grass-roots effort to petition our government for real change in a faltering – many believed failed — system. But we need the help of all incarcerated persons and their families and friends. Share this document with others inside and outside of prison.

Send us the names and contact information of prisoners and people in the communities who you think might be interested in the Campaign and we will contact them. And we will keep you informed as the Campaign grows.

Thank you for your attention and help. We look forward to working with you.

– James P. Chapman, President, Illinois Institute for Community Law and Affairs