Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed 2013 budget includes the closing of prisons and other correction facilities. This has brought attention to the problem of prison overcrowding, which has been prevalent in Illinois.
According to the Department of Corrections, the most recent report states there are 48,620 inmates in the system. They are living in space designed for 33,704 people. Quinn’s chief of staff, Jack Lavin, claimed the prison population is declining. However, statistics from the DOC show the population has risen in the past decade. There was a drop of 725 prisoners from September to February. That was only a 1.5 percent drop.
The operational capacity of the prisons is not based on how many inmates the prison was designed to hold, but how many inmates the prison can accommodate given how many staff, services, beds, etc. are available. Even based on that standard, the majority of prison populations in the state are listed as almost reaching capacity, while some are listed as being over the operational capacity.
The conditions in overcrowded prisons are dangerous for inmates and guards. This can lead to many other problems that are faced by the correctional system.
According to Illinois Progressive, inmates have been sleeping with as many as four to a cell and being housed on cots no more than two feet apart in basements. With so many people, correctional officers have fewer options to discipline prisoners, check for contraband weapons and substances, or even protect prisoners who are targets of violence or assassination attempts. Violence increases when spaces are overcrowded, and it can fuel gang activity. The inmates who need health care or mental health care have lower chances of receiving it.
Overcrowding creates an environment that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for prisoners to work on rehabilitating themselves.
This is especially problematic for non-violent offenders who were sent to prison on minor charges.
The John Howard Association of Illinois claims almost 70 percent of all Illinois inmates are in prison for non-violent crimes, while nearly 50 percent of all offenders serve six months or less. Research has shown these non-violent offenders are more likely to commit new crimes after leaving prison instead of if they had been given some sort of supervised release.
Closing facilities won’t help the problem of overcrowding, because those prisoners will be moved to other institutions, making them more crowded. The conditions inside the prisons will still be dangerous for guards and inmates. It is highly unlikely, even impossible, for the prison population to drop enough on its own for the problem of overcrowding to be solved.
Sources: IDOC, John Howard Association of Illinois, Progress Illinois, and Special Problems in Corrections by Jeffrey Ian Ross