SPRINGFIELD — The Quinn administration’s decision to continue cramming more inmates into already overcrowded prisons could put the state on the road to a lawsuit, legal observers say.
After packing its own prisons too tightly for decades, California officials were ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court in May to slash the inmate population to 137 percent of what the overall system was designed to hold. That has left the state scrambling to dump more than 30,000 prisoners into county-level jails or privately operated lock-ups over the next two years.
Illinois’ overall prison population has been hovering significantly above the 137 percent level in recent months, after Gov. Pat Quinn’s politically charged cancellation of an early release program.
An Aug. 11 population report shows the prison system with nearly 49,000 inmates, which is about 147 percent over its rated capacity of 33,373 inmates and about 4,000 inmates more than were in the system before the early release program was shut down.
In recent months, officials changed the way they calculate capacity.
Instead of using an industry standard based on the number of cells, the state is now measuring capacity based on how many beds can fit in a facility. The new capacity for Illinois’ prisons is listed at 51,000 inmates.
A key attorney in the California lawsuit says Illinois’ revamped measuring stick is similar to claiming a three-bedroom home can actually sleep 25 people if beds are placed in living rooms, laundry rooms and storage spaces.
“Technically, they can stack triple bunks in every room,” said Rebekah Evenson, a Berkeley-based attorney who helped shepherd the California lawsuit through the legal system.
John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, said that bureaucratic maneuver could land the state in hot water.
“That’s what California got in trouble for,” Maki said. “We’re seeing the same kind of stuff.“
The Chicago-based organization recently toured the Vandalia Correctional Center, which is listed as 192 percent over its rated capacity. While there, inspectors found significant problems due to overcrowding, including inmates being housed in basement dormitories with insufficient electricity and water leaks.
“Based on what we saw at Vandalia, Illinois better fix this,” Maki said.
Corrections’ spokeswoman Sharyn Elman said the new capacity number reflects changes that have been made to the original design of the prisons, allowing the agency to say the state is operating at 95 percent capacity.
“Here in (Illinois) our prison population is not at the over-capacity level,” Elman noted.
Elman, however, said an attempt by the department to gain national accreditation was dropped after the inmate population began to grow. As part of the American Correctional Association accreditation process, prisons must meet certain specifications for square footage per inmate — a standard that may not be possible for Illinois, given the additional prisoners.
Evenson said recalculating capacity based on bed space is “very, very irresponsible” because it could lead to numerous problems.
Crowding typically results in more violence behind bars. It also likely means fewer educational opportunities, which already had been reduced because of Illinois’ on-going budget woes.
“Mentally ill people become sicker,” Evenson said.
The increase in prisoners also has raised concerns about flat or reduced staffing levels of prison guards.
Two Republican state senators are planning a news conference today designed to spotlight staffing levels within the Department of Corrections. Sens. John Jones of Mount Vernon and Shane Cultra of Onarga represent districts that have a number of overcrowded prisons within their boundaries.
For now, however, it doesn’t appear the Quinn administration has a solution in sight.
There are no plans on the books to build more prisons to help ease overcrowding. In fact, Illinois is in the process of selling its unused maximum-security prison at Thomson to the federal government.
The department also has not made any public announcements about whether it will reinstate an early release program.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which represents corrections workers, said overcrowding has made the state’s prison system more dangerous than usual.
“Ignoring the problem is unacceptable,” noted AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall. “The state must hire staff to ensure safety and provide rehabilitative programs, and it must develop and implement a responsible good-time policy.”