(The Center Square) – A new report from a state-hired consulting company has found dire conditions and costly repair bills at Illinois’ 27 state prisons.
The consultants from CGL Companies found deferred maintenance, including bad roofs, black mold, broken toilets, crumbling walls and poor ventilation in Illinois’ state correctional facilities. The report estimates that more than $2.5 billion in repairs is needed.
“Twenty percent of the prisons in Illinois opened their doors before 1926,” Jenny Vollen-Katz, executive director of the prison watchdog group the John Howard Association of Illinois, said. The correctional facility in Pontiac, for example, has been in operation since the 1870s, she said.
“There are facilities that are overrun with vermin,” Vollen-Katz said. “It is unconscionable to keep people living and working inside some of these facilities,” she said.
Part of the mission of the John Howard Association is to go into the prisons and monitor the conditions, she said. “We do our best to alert the public about the realities inside our prisons,” she said.
Changing demographics and the astronomical cost of repairs makes this an opportune time to reevaluate the facilities, Vollen-Katz said. “The report issued by CGL is a really important tool that we need to rely on,” she said.
Two factors are driving the need for change at state prisons, Vollen-Katz said. Number one: There has been a dramatic drop in Illinois’ prison population. Since 2012, Illinois has had a close to 40% drop in the number of inmates in Illinois prisons, WBEZ reported.
“Even if we shut down prisons, we will still have excess capacity,” Vollen-Katz said.
The second factor that should drive a reevaluation of state prison facilities is dangerous understaffing, Vollen-Katz said. “Illinois prisons are woefully short-staffed,” she said. “That makes working and living in Illinois prisons more difficult for everybody.”
Guards complain of being forced to work mandatory overtime. Sixteen-hour shifts are common. The prison workers union reports that workers are experiencing mental and physical trauma as a result of long hours and the stress from understaffing. At one facility, WBEZ found that 40% of its guard positions were unfilled.
Vollen-Katz hopes the CGL report will be a wake-up call for legislators, policymakers and agency administrators. The report is a very thorough assessment of the physical infrastructure of the Illinois prison system. The issues are documented. “We need to heed the recommendations,” she said. “We can do things more humanely. We can do things more cost-effectively. We can get better outcomes and treat people better while getting better results,” she said.