Our History

John Howard Association (JHA) was founded in 1901 to provide critical citizen oversight of the state’s adult and juvenile correctional facilities. We are completely independent and receive no state or local government funding, remaining the only non-partisan organization monitoring our prisons in our state.

Brief organizational history

JHA was founded in 1901 as the Central Howard Association, named after John Howard (see below for more on Howard).  This was the beginning of the organization's relationship with the correctional system in Illinois.  The relationship between JHA and the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), and the role JHA has played as watchdog, has evolved and changed over the years.  JHA was not so much chosen to be a watchdog, but became one, based on what the organization along with Illinois stakeholders thought was needed inside our prison system.  JHA is not a legislatively mandated state prison watchdog, monitor or inspection agency - we rely upon our relationship with IDOC to enter prisons.

In 1946, the organization changed its name to the current John Howard Association.

History of John Howard, father of prison reform

The John Howard Association takes its name from John Howard (1726-1790), an 18th century humanitarian from England who is largely considered to be the father of prison reform.    

1789 portrait of John Howard by Mather Brown (Public Domain in the US)

In 1773, John Howard was named High Sheriff of Bedfordshire. After inquiring into the state of the prisons under his charge, he was shocked at the cruelties and abuses he found.  This, combined with his own brief experience as a prisoner of war during a tour of Portugal in 1756, served as motivation for what would be his life's work in prison reform.  After having visited several hundred prisons across England, Scotland, Wales and wider Europe, Howard published the first edition (of three) of The State of the Prisons in 1777. It included very detailed accounts of the prisons he had visited, including plans and maps, together with detailed instructions on the necessary improvements. It is this work that has been credited as establishing the practice of single-celling in the United Kingdom and, by extension, in the United States.

Although unrelated to JHA of Illinois, several other prison reform organizations also utilize John Howard's name:

Prison population of Illinois

The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) was established in 1970 to oversee both adult and juvenile corrections in the state.  In 2006, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ) split from the IDOC, recognizing that youth offenders have different needs than adults which needed to be addressed with the goal of helping them turn their lives around.

As of October 2016, the Illinois prison population is comprised of approximately 44,000 adults and 400 juveniles. Historically, Illinois has had a costly overreliance on prison which has grown exponentially in the last four decades, from 6,000 inmates in 1974 to where we are today. This has created a situation of severe overcrowding, for today's prison system was designed to hold only 32,000 inmates.  

Year Prison Population*
1974 6,000
1977 10,000
1983 14,000
1991 29,000
1993 32,000
1999 47,000
mid 2000s 45,000
2009 48,000
2013 49,000+
2016 44,500

In 2015, Governor Bruce Rauner issued Executive Order 14, which established the Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform.  This body has the goal of reducing the State’s current prison population by 25% by 2025.  This Executive Order was issued in part due to the work of the John Howard Association, which is named specifically in the order as a reason (amongst others) for its creation:  "WHEREAS, the John Howard Association and other outside entities have demonstrated that the Department of Corrections is experiencing severe overcrowding, which threatens the safety of inmates and staff and undermines the Department’s rehabilitative efforts."  

*Data sources:  IDOC, IDJJ, Illinois State Commission on Criminal Justice & Sentencing Reform.  All figures rounded.