What Rauner should do about prisons

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In his State of the State address on Wednesday, Gov. Bruce Rauner admitted that the conditions in Illinois’ prison system are “unacceptable.” The governor called for hiring more guards, but that is not a solution. Illinois must dramatically reduce the number of men and women in our prisons.

OPINION

In the meantime, our state has an obligation to reduce the harm being done to the thousands of people who remain behind bars.

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, Illinois has the most overcrowded prisons in the entire country, operating at 173 percent of capacity. This means people are forced to live in basements, warehouses, gyms, and other areas never intended for human habitation. Those who do have cells usually have a cellmate in a cell meant for one person. Most people entering prison are not violent offenders. Revamping the parole system, if done correctly, will result in fewer people being returned to prison, and will provide more intensive help finding jobs and housing for the men and women released on parole. We need to incarcerate fewer people in Illinois.

Illinois’ prison conditions are among the worst in the nation. However, hiring additional correctional officers, as Gov. Rauner called for, is not the solution. The answer to overcrowding is not more guards; it is fewer people in prison. That said, the prison system does desperately need additional resources now. California’s prison system spends seven times what we do on healthcare per prisoner, and medical care provided to prisoners in California was still found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Illinois prisons, people suffering from serious mental illness do not receive treatment. Instead, they are locked in dark airless cells 22-24 hours a day. As with mental health care, education programs, general medical care, vocational training programs have all been cut or eliminated. All of this requires more program staff.

Though the U.S. is home to just 5 percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Most people entering the prison system are nonviolent offenders, who need drug and/or mental health treatment, not punishment. Incarceration, in particular the use of solitary confinement, makes mental illnesses worse. Both New York and California have reduced their prison populations without sacrificing safety. Illinois needs to follow their lead.

Certainly, Gov. Rauner’s call for continued investment in the Adult Redeploy program is a good start. But though Adult Redeploy has diverted nearly 2,000 offenders into community programming since 2011, over 30,000 people enter Illinois’ prisons each and every year, most of whom are nonviolent offenders. We must do better.

Illinois’ new governor has an opportunity to turn around one of the worst prison systems in our country. We need to make big reductions in the number of people in our overcrowded prisons, and to fix the horrid conditions for those who remain behind bars. Governor Rauner must ensure that his yet-to-be-appointed director of the Department of Corrections and Chairman of the Prisoner Review Board vigorously pursue both of these goals. That can and should be his legacy.

Alan Mills is executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center, where he has worked for 30 years fighting for justice for tenants, the disabled, and prisoners in Illinois. Uptown People’s Law Center has 12 pending class-action lawsuits regarding Illinois jail and prison conditions.


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