JHA's Statement on Quinn's Prison Closure Plan

Prison Closures Must be Supported by Comprehensive Prison Reform

In an attempt to address the state's hemorrhaging finances, Governor Pat Quinn has rejected the General Assembly's decision to fully fund the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and instead close seven correctional facilities as part of the fiscal year 2013 budget. The closings include five adult facilities (Tamms Correctional Center, Dwight Correctional Center, and three Adult Transition Centers) and two juvenile facilities (IYC-Murphysboro and IYC-Joliet).

As the state's only non-partisan prison watchdog, the John Howard Association (JHA) believes that Illinois should use our prison system to treat violent offenders and reduce our costly overreliance on incarceration by employing alternative sanctions for the low-level offenders who swell our state’s juvenile and adult correctional facilities. Achieving these goals will do far more than save taxpayer money and balance the state’s budget. Diverting low-level offenders from prison through alternatives to incarceration and providing inmates with evidence-based programs designed to reduce recidivism, will lead to a safer more cost-effective justice system that produces positive outcomes for everyone.

For these reasons, JHA commends the Governor's decision to close two DJJ youth centers. Both Murphysboro and Joliet are expensive to operate and hold far fewer youth than they were designed to house. Murphysboro, for instance, holds about 30 youth, though it was designed to incarcerate almost 160. Joliet houses around 220 youth, though it was designed for 344. Closing these facilities will save taxpayers almost $20 million a year. The decline in the juvenile crime rate and successful shift towards providing community-based treatment in lieu of commitment have resulted in a steady decrease in DJJ’s population over the last six years, leaving DJJ facilities half-empty and well below their design capacity. Closing Murphysboro and Joliet is a rational, prudent choice because their populations can be safely and cost-effectively absorbed into DJJ’s remaining six facilities.

JHA also believes that the Governor has made the right decision in closing Tamms, the state’s only supermax facility. Tamms holds less than 200 prisoners in longterm isolation and another 180 in an adjacent minimum-security unit at extraordinary expense. It costs more than $64,000 per year to house an inmate at Tamms—the highest cost of any facility in the state. Defenders of Tamms argue that the facility’s regimen of longterm isolation is necessary to protect prisoners and staff from DOC's most dangerous inmates. JHA recognizes that isolation is needed in some instances to ensure the safety of inmates and staff. However, we believe that isolation should be used sparingly and only as a short-term procedure until order and security are established. In line with the experiences of other states and a growing, overwhelming body of objective evidence, we agree that longterm isolation destroys inmates mentally and physiologically, goes beyond the legitimate purposes of punishment, and is ineffective at controlling institutional violence. We also agree with DOC Director Godinez's plan which shows that dangerous and disruptive inmates currently housed at Tamms can be safely housed in the state's other maximum-security prisons.

The Governor’s proposed closure of Tamms is an important first step on the road to criminal justice reform because it means that Illinois is getting out of the supermax business. However, Tamms’ proposed closure, coupled with the simultaneous closure of five other adult facilities, does not address Illinois’ crisis in prison crowding. Currently DOC houses more than 48,000 inmates in a system designed to hold about 34,000. While every adult prison struggles with the state's record high inmate population, medium and minimum-security prisons, which overwhelmingly incarcerate low-level offenders serving short sentences, face the most severely crowded conditions. All facilities face serious problems with understaffing and lack of resources, including mental health and drug abuse treatment and rehabilitative programming. This kind of crowding and lack of adequate staffing and resources not only creates a dangerous environment for inmates and staff, it compromises public safety by making offenders worse off and more likely to commit new crimes upon release.

While the recently enacted Senate Bill 2621 will help relieve some of this crowding by authorizing DOC to award low-level offenders up 180 days off their sentences, it is not a silver-bullet solution to prison crowding. That is why it is critical that as DOC prepares to close and consolidate facilities, administration and staff sustain existing programs and expertise that are proven to reduce recidivism. This includes preserving initiatives and capacities at facilities slated for closure, like gender-specific programs at Dwight, the state’s only female maximum-security prison, and community-based correctional approaches of Southern, Decatur, and Westside Transitional Centers.

Ultimately, DOC staff and administration cannot control prison overcrowding on their own. Having decided to close these adult correctional facilities, Governor Quinn must partner with state legislators to safely decrease Illinois' prisoner population. Together they must work together to execute on-going reform efforts and implement measures that have been used successfully to reduce prison populations in other states.

JHA is committed to promoting community safety through cost-effective prison reform and will continue to bring to light the challenges facing our state's correctional facilities through visits to DOC and DJJ facilities and marshaling input and information from staff, administrators, inmates and key stakeholders in the system.

John Maki
Executive Director
John Howard Association of Illinois