It’s not every day that you can look to a prison for a sign of hope.
But that’s how it appeared earlier this month when Gov. Bruce Rauner announced that his administration would close down Stateville Correctional Center’s decrepit and dehumanizing F House in Crest Hill. It was a sensitive and forward-looking decision by the governor, who has set a goal of reducing the incarceration of nonviolent offenders.
Also encouraging were announcements by Rauner and the Illinois Department of Corrections that closed juvenile prisons in Kewanee and Murphysboro would be repurposed to facilities aimed at rehabilitation and helping inmates transition back to their communities.
Putting its maximum-security F House in mothballs over the next six to eight weeks is an important sign that Illinois is turning away from its reliance on incarceration and long mandatory prison sentences. F House, which was built in 1922, has an antiquated “roundhouse” design that is hazardous both for inmates and workers. No other prisons in the United States have kept roundhouses, in which cells circle a watchtower in the middle. Shutting it down was a goal of the John Howard Association, a prison reform group.
And repurposing Kewanee and Murphysboro is a sign the state is regaining its long-neglected interest in giving offenders the skills and training they need to successfully re-integrate into society, which can reduce the amount of recidivism.
Rauner has been accused of playing politics with this decision, timing it right before the election and re-opening a facility — Murphysboro — in the district of Republican Terri Bryan, who is running for election and who joined Rauner at his announcement. The re-opening of Kewanee and Murphysboro means jobs for the local communities and a political boost for local Republicans.
Rauner also upset AFSCME Local 1866, whose members work in F House, for deciding to quickly close it without talking to the union.
Rauner no doubt did weigh the politics of it all. We can’t think of a politician who would not. But these were smart moves — humane and enlightened moves — all the same.
Next, lawmakers, judges and prosecutors must re-visit the outmoded idea of long mandatory prison sentences for some crimes and excessively stiff penalties for others. Repeat gun offenders should not get light sentences. But keeping nonviolent inmates behind bars unnecessarily is bad public policy.
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