Illinois prison overcrowding is dangerous for everyone

Illinois prisons have a worsening problem, with a ratio of inmates to guards that is producing conditions dangerous to guards, inmates and the citizens outside of prison. The “John Howard Association” is reporting that Menard prison is experiencing a growing number of assaults and serious injuries as a direct result of this trend. Menard has the worst prisoner-to-guard ratio for maximum security facilities, and is the second oldest prison in Illinois. The prison is currently at 117% of capacity, with prisoners spending 21 to 22 hours a day in their cells with little to no access to rehabilitative, medical or psychiatric services. State budget constraints and problems with the state budget are causing continuing difficulties in keeping the prison adequately staffed. Menard has been on lockdown for roughly half of this year.

Menard prison has a larger than average number of inmates who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses, but there is little to no access to psychiatric assistance. Instead, pre-existing conditions are being aggravated through prolonged isolation from normal human interactivity and exposure to situations likely to cause further trauma. With 3,614 inmates, there are less than six full-time mental health professionals at Menard prison.

The psychiatric damage to the prisoners is aggravated by the stress placed on the understaffed guards, who must attempt to manage the situation. Inmates and their families report that guards assault prisoners with little or no provocation. Although the administration attempts to maintain proper discipline among the guards, the inability to find replacements in a timely manner aggravates the problem.

The problems at Menard are indicative of the statewide problem with prisons that began after Governor Quinn ended an early release program for political reasons. Much was made during the last gubernatorial elections of early release being “soft on crime.” The Governor made the political calculation that continuing early release programs would put his political future in jeopardy and therefore ended not just the new program that caused the problem, but also an early release program that had been operating for more than 30 years. This move resulted in prison populations jumping, as inmates continue to enter the system at much the same rate, but are now staying in the system longer.

As state budgets are being slashed in apparently vain attempts to balance them, prisons represent the second greatest increaser of expenditures after Medicaid. There is little evidence that holding prisoners for longer periods makes the general public safer, with 69% of prisoners being incarcerated for drug related and other non-violent crimes. In 2003. the cost to incarcerate an individual in the prison system was $22,000. This works out to $246 million each year to lock up non-violent offenders in the Illinois prison system. State prisons offer very little in the way of substance abuse treatment, a known effective measure at reducing recidivism, so the expenditure is basically to warehouse people until their time is up and then release them unchanged (other than trauma, etc. caused by the prison experience) into the same environment with no new coping mechanisms. It is no surprise that recidivism rates are in excess of 51%. In fact, it is surprising they are not even higher.

In comparison, substance abuse treatment for an individual costs $2,900,  which is calculated to produce an average savings to the taxpayer of $9,100 per person. This leads to the conclusion that throwing people in prison for prolonged periods is not just morally questionable (jailing people for harming themselves) but downright wasteful also.

Some Illinois counties are experimenting with sentencing alternatives, such as Madison County’s drug court.  Charges are dropped if an individual successfully completes substance abuse treatment and a period of court supervision under, relieving pressure from the legal system and prisons. Other states are successfully making use of halfway houses, electronic monitoring and intensive probation to relieve pressure on state prisons.

Illinois is witnessing a buildup in pressure at the prisons due to political posturing by both political parties wishing to either to play “gotcha” or to avoid being “got.” This situation is resulting in physical harm to prisoners and guards, as well as huge expenditures to support the misguided political maneuvering. The state is currently looking at extreme slashes to social safety net programs (35% to TANF alone), while sentencing people to prison terms that destroy future ability to get jobs, pay taxes and lift themselves and their families out of poverty. The cost of the prisons is just the starting point; the long range costs to the state are enormous.