Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Conditons at prisons could lead to lawsuits

By Jamey Dunn

A prison watchdog group predicts that if Illinois cannot change the overcrowding and other serious conditions in its corrections system, it may face a court ordered solution in the future.

The Chicago-based John Howard Association’s assessment of the maximum security Menard Correctional Center in Chester found that overcrowding and understaffing at the facility led to strenuous conditions for both inmates and guards. “In the past year, Menard has had an alarming number of reported staff and inmate assaults,” Maya Szilak, director of the Prison Monitoring Project for the John Howard Association, wrote in her report. Members of the association visited the facility, which is the largest maximum security prison in the state, in June 2011.

The report said that lockdowns and disciplinary segregation were overused during efforts to keep order at the prison, which was designed to house 3,098 inmates but as of June has 3,618. The prison was on full or partial lockdown more than half of the time during the last year and a half. “During lockdowns, inmates are subject to severely restrictive living conditions. Inmates are confined to their cells for 24 hours a day; visiting hours with family are suspended; showers, phone calls, yard and recreation time, commissary, and access to the library and legal services are restricted or suspended; participation in educational, vocational and rehabilitative programs is restricted or suspended entirely; and access to mental and physical health care services is greatly restricted. Inmates who depend on prison wages cannot work. Friends, family members and the children of inmates, who have often traveled long distances, expended significant funds and taken time off from work or school to visit are simply turned away,” the report said .

When John Howard Association representatives visited the prison, 414 inmates were confined in disciplinary segregation. Inmates in segregation eat their meals in their cells and are allowed two showers a week and five hours a week out of their cells for recreation. More than half of those in segregation were receiving medications for mental illness. “This number is extremely disturbing and, yet, wholly unsurprising given the evidence that segregation greatly exacerbates existing mental illness and can independently induce acute mental illness and traumatic disorders in otherwise healthy persons,” the report said. However, the report commends Menard’s administrators for making progress, such as increasing the number of showers allowed for segregated prisoners from one to two per week. “The administration is to be greatly commended for instituting a small but substantial measure to improve the quality of life for segregation inmates.

Inmates who were not segregated for disciplinary reasons spent most of their time in their cells. “In the absence of sufficient space, staffing and resources, the vast majority of Menard’s inmates do not have educational, vocational or job assignments. Consequently, the average inmate at Menard spends roughly 21 to 22 hours a day locked in cells idle, with little or no activity or opportunity for normal social and human interaction,” Szilak wrote. The association also found that inmates lacked reliable water sources and contended with high temperatures and little airflow during summer months. “Reliable delivery of water is critical at Menard because of high temperatures in housing units in summer. This is a serious concern, particularly in the segregation unit where the cells do not have access to an outside window and are closed off from any airflow by a solid metal door. In the past seven years, two inmates have died due to extreme body temperatures caused in part by cell conditions.”

John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, said assaults at Menard demonstrate the consequences of “warehousing” prisoners. He said leaving inmates in cramped cells for long periods of time with nothing to do often results in violent behavior. Maki added that prisoners who spend most of their time in cells — especially those serving long sentences in maximum security prisons, such as Menard — are not prepared to transition back into society. However, Maki said, the Department of Corrections focuses its education and rehabilitation programs on lower security prisons where the inmates will presumably be serving shorter sentences. “A good chunk of [Menard’s prisoners] are eventually getting out. … It comes down to a public safety issue.”

Maki said the problems at Menard are “illustrative” of the conditions caused by overcrowding throughout Illinois’ prisons. “There’s really two options given the kind of numbers we have. One, we could build a prison or open new prisons. Or two, we can figure out a way to avoid sending as many people to prison or get more guys out,” he said. But under the current budget climate, which Gov. Pat Quinn said is forcing him to push a plan to close seven state facilities including a medium security prison and a youth prison, Maki said the second option is the only viable one. The report warns that if it doesn’t do something to bring down the number of inmates, a lawsuit may cause the courts to step in. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ordered California to reduce its prison population by 33,000 inmates over the next two years. “The Illinois governor and General Assembly must reduce the prison population through sentencing reform, enacting a safe replacement for Meritorious Good Time, and providing Menard and other DOC facilities with the funding and staffing needed to meet the population’s basic physical and mental health needs. If such actions are not taken, it is all but inevitable that this issue will end up being litigated in the courts,” the report says.

Stacey Solano, a spokesperson for the DOC, said the state is working to lower its numbers through alternative programs, such as drug courts and an Adult Redeploy Illinois, that allow nonviolent offenders to avoid prison time. However, she said that lawmakers must be part of the solution. “The management of Illinois’ prison population is an ongoing issue that must be dealt with both legislatively and administratively. This spring, the governor’s office convened meetings with members of all the caucuses to discuss potential policies that address population, inmate reintegration and alternatives to incarceration. This issue must be addressed from both a policy and budgetary perspective, and we will continue to work with members of the General Assembly to find long-term solutions to maintain safe, sustainable prisons. While the administration is working toward the goal of policy reforms in areas such as inmate re-integration and alternatives to incarceration, such policy is best accomplished with the help of the legislature,” Solano said in a written statement.

Maki agrees that most of the responsibility for addressing overcrowding falls on lawmakers and Quinn. The report is relatively positive about Menard’s administrators, and Maki said that generally prison administrators are doing the best they can with very limited resources. “They’re really tasked with almost an impossible mission.” Maki said he hopes that Illinois can change its prison conditions without a judge forcing it to. “What happened in California is horrible. We don’t want the courts to have to step in.”

But he said if Quinn and lawmakers do not tackle the problem, a judge would likely order them to. “I think it’s almost inevitable that some one is going to come in there and start the litigation process.” Maki said a court battle could take years and result in the state scrambling to reduce its population, much as California is doing now. Among other measures, the state is moving many prisoners back to city and county jails. “It’s not a quick fix, and it’s not going to lead to an ideal solution.”

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