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WHAT are prisons for?

WHAT are prisons for? Are they places where wrongdoers are corrected and rehabilitated, or are they designed only to "pen" and punish criminals? The consensus among corrections personnel seems to be that Illinois prisons are primarily functioning for the purpose of confinement: "I don't think any rational person can indicate that anything but punishment is the main reason for prisons," Illinois Department of corrections Director Charles J. Rowe says. But he adds, "It's not the sole reason. We're trying to return offenders to society as constructive citizens.""

Such reform is mandated by the state Constitution, which says in Article I, Section 11, "All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship." But what kind of job are they doing?

Secondly, who are prisons for? Before they existed, criminals were fined if they were too rich to be whipped, and whipped if they were too poor to be fined. Is economic status now a barrier to equal justice?

Since prisons are so largely ignored, they develop huge, grotesque excesses from time to time. The press, or other reformers, find out and tell us about the filth or overt cruelty going on and we click our tongues (it's just what we had always suspected).

Incremental reforms are forever forthcoming; some actually improve conditions behind bars, most only complicate matters for awhile. It is probably not demonstrable that generations of penal reform have brought any absolute progress toward relieving human suffering in average American prisons.

Overcrowding in prisons
Illinois is no special case. Our state prisons are desperately overcrowded, with 10,450 convicts packed into facilities that should hold no more than 7,500, by federal government standards.

But, nationwide, 40 states are experiencing similar critical prison overcrowding, according to Corrections Magazine (March 1977).

Conditions in Illinois prisons are not very good. A study prepared for the Illinois Department of Corrections last May recommended that the four largest prisons in the state should be abandoned, since they are dilapidated and dangerous to inmates and staff. It also called the Menard Branch of the Illinois State Penitentiary "one of the worst prisons in the United States." That report, issued by the National Clearinghouse for Criminal Justice Planning and Architecture, was almost immediately suppressed, disputed and repudiated by the state corrections department. Director Charles J. Rowe said, "The report lost touch with reality in terms of what this state can afford. Philosophically I'm not in disagreement with the plan, but I'm afraid there were too many very bright young people, just out of college, writing this thing and the results were not very practical." Rowe claims that

March 1978/ Illinois Issues/ 7

enacting the plan put forward by the Clearinghouse would result in only 6,000 beds for prisoners in Illinois at a cost of $850 million.

Building new prisons
Illinois has built only one new prison in the last 40 years and operates three facilities that are at least 100 years old (Joliet was built in 1860, Pontiac in 1871 and Menard in 1878). Yet the state legislature approved, in last year's November special session, the construction tion of two new medium-security prisons in the next two years, at a cost of $58 million.

The two new pens will both be located downstate, at Hillsboro and Centralia, despite calls from prison reform groups like the John Howard Association and the American Civil Liberties Union asking that at least one new prison be built in the Chicago area. Since Chicago is the place where most of the prisoners in Illinois come from, there was pressure to build a prison nearby so that relatives could more easily visit inmates, and so that the guards and staff of the prison would have more in common with the prisoners.

But the selection process, aimed at finding acceptable sites as quickly as possible, dismissed upstate locations.

The Thompson administration called for counties and communities to submit survey forms if they were interested in having a prison located nearby. No Chicago-area communities applied. There were 20-odd applicants. All those north of Springfield were rejected after public hearings held in the 17 places that seemed to qualify as sites. In some cases the promoters of the sites simply changed their minds. In other cases the

Inside Menard State Prison: How will Class X effect prison life?

"There are people in our society who should be discarded."
Spiro T. Agnew

MENARD State Prison is a place where people are discarded. It is well-designed for the purpose. Located in a remote corner of southwest Illinois, it lies like a fat gray rat at the bottom of a hill overlooking the Mississippi River.

Menard is 100 years old and was built at a time when the idea of fortress prisons was becoming popular. It is a maximum security prison and, like others around the nation, is desperately overcrowded.

Last year Menard was called "one of the worst prisons in the United States." Yet it costs more money to send a prisoner to Menard for one year than to send a student to the University of Illinois. The average low-income family in Chicago makes less than it costs to keep a prisoner here for a year. Fortunately the state pays for it. Otherwise who would go?

We recently went to Menard to talk with prisoners and administrators about the new Class X felony policy which went into effect February 1 (P.A. 80-1099). The first man interviewed was Assistant Warden Ken McGuiness.

"Prisoners have several reactions [to Class X]," McGuiness said. "They welcome the determinative aspect of it [in sentencing]. But they would prefer no parole board; they don't like the option [of choosing a new, fixed release date or sticking with their present sentence, with hopes of parole]. But they see it as a definite crackdown, with stronger, lengthier sentences." McGuiness said that the concept of day-for-day good time is already an accepted practice. He said Class X would not have much effect upon the way prisoners are treated. "A guy in here presently will go to the parole board and be given an option of taking a determinate sentence release date [or sticking with the present sentence]." What they choose will depend on which method they think will get them out the soonest, McGuiness said. "Most of these guys already have that figured out, down to the day," he added.

Critics of Class X say that it will worsen the problem of overcrowding in Illinois prisons. When asked if Menard is overcrowded now, McGuiness first smiled broadly, then leaned back in his chair and laughed loud and heartily to himself. "I've got a desk drawer full of lawsuits saying we're overcrowded," he said. "And you ask if we're overcrowded? It's a stupid question."

But McGuiness refused to speculate on the effects of Class X. He did say, however, that since a study was released last year condemning Menard for poor sanitary conditions, lack of adequate medical care and insufficient space, conditions have improved tremendously. "Since then we have opened an annex; we obtained the Chester mental health center, and with substantial capital development renovation we've opened a 400-bed living unit there." He said a new multi-purpose building with recreational facilities was being built, the prison medical unit had been rennovated, and the cell house had been divided into units. "We've improved the sanitation and plumbing, and we can't do much else but expand," McGuiness said.

What do prisoners think of Class X? We talked to four members of "Lifers Incorporated" to find out. "Lifers Incorporated," they explained, is an organization for prisoners serving at least a 20-year minimum sentence. Its goal is to improve the image of prisoners, as well as the quality of life behind bars. The prisoners interviewed all appeared proud of the accomplishments of the organization. They said it had been largely responsible for getting recreational facilities built, a snack bar opened, stereo in the dining room and air-conditioning installed in the visitors area at Menard.

The four prisoners interviewed were: Jack Stevens, Charles Williams, James Hyde and Robert Stock. "We don't know the true story of it [Class X]," said (continued on page 9)

8 /March 1978 / Illinois Issues

public reaction was so strong against building a prison in the area that it seemed hopeless to press on. Opponents of a proposed prison site in East St. Louis included many inmates at Menard Correctional Center from the East St. Louis area. "I would detest a flock of hardened criminals around my family or even closer to them," said one inmate in a letter to a local newspaper. "I cannot believe that my fellow citizens would consign the future of their children to such a fate," said another. But the sites have now been chosen and new prisons will be built and filled: two 750-bed prisons.

The new prisons will probably be filled to overcrowding as soon as they are completed. It is a rule of prisons that no space is ever left vacant. Illinois already has enough prisoners to assure that the rule won't be broken soon. Yet the state may generate more prisoners, and keep them behind bars longer, under the new "Class X" sentencing law (P.A. 80-1099) which took effect February 1.

According to Jeanette Musengo, associate director of the Illinois Prisons and Jails Project (a privately-funded reform group), "Initially Class X won't have any effect. We'll have to wait and see how judges use it, especially the discretionary powers they'll have to double the maximum sentence for heinous crimes and repeat offenders." Some prisoners, of course, will be released early if they opt for a fixed sentence and get day-for-day good time.

Growing problems
But regardless of the effect of Class X, the prison population in Illinois is

Inside Menard State Prison (continued from page 8.)

Photos by Jerry Mennenga

Stevens. Stock agreed, saying he didn't that the press had done a very good job of reporting about it. "It's damned important," Stock said. "It will affect us by atmosphere. It will create a policy of longer sentences that will hurt the lifer's chances of ever getting out."

What about those serving short terms? "The average short-termer likes it," said Jack Stevens. "lt will let some of them get out early. My cell mate, for instance, has been driving me crazy telling me how he's gonna get out in a couple of months." "It will help the burglars the most," added Stock. "It's also going to help the Prison Review Board," he said with a laugh. "Its members all get a $5,000 a year raise."

What about overcrowding? Present conditions are "terrible," according to Stevens. "There should be one man to a cell. The prison is set up for one." There are two and three men in most cells at Menard.

Charles Williams agreed the crowding is "pretty bad" and that Class X will most likely make it worse. "It's already hard on morale," he said.

As for Class X's day-for-day good time provision, Williams' immediate reaction cannot be politely quoted. "We get more than that now," he said. "You get about a day-and-a-half for good time now."

James Hyde, who arrived at the Warden's office late, agreed with his fellow inmates about the effect of Class X. "It will be worse," he said, shrugging off jokes about his new haircut, which had apparently delayed his arrival.

What do prisoners think should be done to improve the prisons? "Invest more in the penitentiary," Hyde suggested. "Give guys doing long terms some consideration."

"Revamp the whole criminal justice system," suggested Stevens. "For crimes against property, make people pay back the victim. It's pretty cruel to put a guy away for years for that."

Williams disagreed with the concept of financial restitution as a solution to crime. "Do something about the causes of crime," he said, naming unemployment as an example.

"When are they going to stop talking about professional criminals?" asked Hyde. Stevens agreed, "There aren't many of those. Most lifers are in for crimes of passion," he said. "Professional criminals are the lying, roguish-assed politicians," Hyde added.

"Class X makes people in prison more desperate," concluded Stock. "It won't stop crime, because when people commit crimes they naturally assume they'll get away with it."

Walking down a row of crowded cells later, one could easily believe that none of the occupants had ever expected to end up there. Most were languishing in their bunks watching game shows on small television sets. Others were playing cards or looking at magazines. A few simply sat, staring at the floor or the bars of their small, numbered cages.

At Menard there are 2,600 men in facilities designed for about half that many. It is typical of the kind of place that most Illinois prisoners are kept in. It looks crowded. The prisoners think it is going to get worse.

March 1978/ Illinois Issues/9

expected to grow by several thousand by 1980, with up to 17,000 inmates by 1985. Even to relieve present overcrowded conditions and meet federal standards would cost the state "at least a billion dollars," estimates Musengo.

Conditions in Illinois prisons are such that at Stateville, near Joliet, prisoners live three to a cell in an eight-by-five foot cell designed for one prisoner. "You can't guarantee anybody's safety in a place like this," says Warden Ernest E. Morris of Stateville. Reports of extortion, gang rule, homosexual rape, heatings and stabbings are not uncommon in Stateville, or in any other maximum-security prison.

If one is locked up at Joliet, Stateville, Menard or Pontiac, the state is no longer really in charge. The state will only guarantee food and clothing, and the food will not always be good tasting and the clothing may not always be clean. The state apparently cannot guarantee a prisoner a regular shower, decent medical care, working toilets or physical protection. Some prisoners have jobs inside and some outside, some have exercise programs or sports. There are psychiatric specialists, counselors and chaplains. There are prison newspapers, movies, art classes, vocational courses, prison libraries and transactional analysis sessions, but there are no vacations. The deadening boredom and paradoxical threat of violence are constants of life behind bars.

Reducing prison size
In Illinois, prison conditions vary remarkably. First there are the so-called model correctional facilities, like Vienna, which has no walls. It has cottage-like living quarters beside a lake and gives its exemplary inmates a tight schedule of work, study and recreation (including tennis and fishing). On the other extreme there are the four ancient, crumbling maximum-security prisons. These have hundreds of men, who are locked up in tiny cells for as much as 20 hours a day because the prison has nothing for them to do. According to a federal government suit, filed in late 1976 against the state corrections department, some of these places have inadequate ventilation, lighting and heat, and are infested with cockroaches, rats and mice. The same suit charges that black prisoners are assigned to cellblocks on the basis of race and denied equal access to various prison programs.

These are the prisons that the national clearinghouse recommended be torn down or radically altered. Unfortunately, these are the four prisons that house the most prisoners more than 80 per cent of the state's 10,450. The clearinghouse report was also critical of all the medium-security prisons in the state, finding the only "satisfactory" prisons were the small ones: Vienna (with 579 prisoners), Sheridan (325), Dwight women's prison (269) and Vandalia (an "honor farm" with 643 inmates).

Unfortunately, these small prisons are also the most expensive ones. The annual cost per inmate at Vienna is $10, 346, at Sheridan $12, 062, at Dwight $13, 317; whereas at Stateville the annual cost per prisoner is only $5, 575, and at Menard only $5, 094, and so on.

Expanding further
As mentioned, the federal government has brought suit against the state Department of Corrections, charging overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in Illinois prisons. At the time the suit was filed, Ira Schwartz, then executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison reform group (more involved with case-and-case reform than the Prisons and Jails Project), said that Illinois may have the worst state prisons in the United States. Such a change is hard to support in view of the fact that Alabama, for instance, had such bad conditions in its prisons that the federal government in the person of U.S. District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson took over the management of the state system there, imposing new standards on treatment and facilities for prisoners.

Yet, Stateville and Menard come nowhere near meeting the standards for safety, cleanliness and roominess imposed by federal judges in Alabama and elsewhere. Thus, prison officials here think it likely that the courts may order a large transfer of prisoners from the four big, bad maximum-security prisons. Others have suggested the likelihood of federal court intervention in the running of the system itself.

The question may then arise as to whether the two new 750-bed prisons will have to hold more people than planned, and whether there will be enough room elsewhere. The corrections department has already begun to solve the second problem. It is converting ing a developmental center at Lincoln into a 700-bed medium-security prison. Another 350 beds will also be made available from expansions at Sheridan, Dwight and Pontiac. Construction of a medium-security prison at Eddyville in Pope County may also come next year, according to Gov. James R. Thompson, if funds are available.

Prisoner's cell at Menard

Deterring crime
Meanwhile crime goes on. It remains to be seen whether Class X will have any effect on the crime rate in Illinois. "If we doubled the number of people in prison," criminologist David Fogel says, "the crime rate might improve a couple of percentage points, but not much more." Fogel explains this by saying that only about one or two people go to prison for every 100 reported crimes, and only one of every three crimes is reported.

Still, there is value in prisons as places of punishment, according to Harvard professor James Q. Wilson. Wilson believes that the higher the probability there is of punishment, the greater will be the reduction in the crime rate. Wilson also says that juvenile offenders

10/ March 1978/ Illinos Issues

should be imprisoned more often, since they show the highest rate of recidivism to crime.

Others have different views. Reform groups say that alternatives should be found to imprisonment for most offenders those who are not already "hardened" to a life of crime. They say that probation, work-release and community help programs are more effective than the pen. "I've been a prison warden and I don't know whether rehabilitation is any panacea, but one thing's for sure. You can't have people sitting on their asses from three to five years," says William Nagel, director of the American Foundation's Institute of Corrections. "You're preparing them for nothingness," he says. Michael Mahoney of the John Howard Association believes that up to half of those in prison in Illinois now could be released without menacing society. Probation and community alternatives are favored by his organization, as well as by the President's Crime Commission, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice and Goals, the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Looking at inmates
Just what kind of person is currently going to prison in Illinois? The typical inmate is a black male, 27 years old. He has been sent away for a 10-year maximum, but he will get out after serving 2.5 years (before Class X). Figures released in a U.S. Justice Department census also show that only 9 per cent of Illinois prisoners have been in the pen for six years or more. Just 25 per cent have been there for over three years.

The same study also showed that 58 per cent of all prisoners in this state are black, while blacks make up only 13 per cent of the total population. Robbery is the most common crime that puts a man or woman in an Illinois prison; robbery accounts for 28 per cent of prisoners' sentences. The second most common crime is burglary, which brings 16 per cent of all sentences in Illinois. Moreover, black prisoners are given longer sentences and serve more time than whites. Asked why this was, state Corrections Director Rowe said, "I honestly don't know what that indicates. The percentage is going down [the last survey showed that only 53 per cent of prisoners were black]. I suppose that it's because a lot of our cases come out of Cook, and many can't afford a top-notch legal defense."

Figures indicate that blacks are more likely to be imprisoned for crimes of violence than whites, who are typically sentenced for property crimes, like burglary. Robbery is the most common crime for which black people are incarcerated.

Armed robbery is one of the Class X crimes for which lawbreakers will be put away an average of nine years (if they keep all their day-for-day good time). This is an increase of 5.2 years from the average number of years that used to be served for Class X-type crimes.

The prison population in Illinois is expected to grow by several thousand by 1980, with up to 17, 000 inmates by 1985

Underlying the problem of unequal sentencing of minorities are economic inequities. Prime among these is joblessness, which traditionally runs three times higher among blacks than among whites, and even higher among young blacks. "Underemployment" in low-paying jobs is also a problem.

Another underlying cause of crime is undereducation. Illinois does not have complete figures on such things, but data from other states indicates that the typical inmate is a high school dropout with little more than two years of secondary education.

Improving prison life
A recent report by the Academy for Contemporary Problems asserts that prisons do nothing to reduce crime on the streets. "Society must seek changes outside the criminal justice system if street crime is to be significantly reduced," the report says.

But how can prisons themselves be improved? The solutions all seem to be expensive. Building many new prisons or improving existing ones so that inmates have room to breathe, or increasing the size and quality of treatment programs would cost the state money it apparently does not have. Funding may even be an obstacle to the institution of private conjugal visits or family visits for unmarried prisoners. Such concepts are continually before the Illinois legislature, and money is always an argument against them, as is the fear of being "soft" on criminals. Proponents say conjugal visits would assuage the problem of marriages that dissolve when one spouse is imprisoned for a long period of time. Others ask why sexual privileges are denied prisoners at all, since sex is a recognized human need. But advocates admit that it would cost several thousand dollars at each prison to set up rooms or trailers where any visits could take place.

"If it comes down to a choice between funding prisons or funding schools, I'd have a hard time picking prisons," admits state Corrections Director Rowe.

Inmate Robert Russo offered an alternative last December in a Menard (prison) Time column. Russo wrote: "A few years back Holland proclaimed to the world (though few listened) that it had dropped by over one-half the number of people confined within its prison system. It seems the judges . . . decided they would give out 'short,' not long, sentences. No one got over four years not matter what they did and most walked the streets again within a year. Careful and detailed studies of the consequences to the community revealed that there were no increases in crime; no rise in murder, rape or other heinous crimes; no skyrocketing burglaries, robberies and the like. The underlying secret of Holland's success was providing the prisoners with 'employable skills' and a good transitional program that put them in the natural environment as quickly as possible .... Just as a by-product, millions and millions of taxpayer dollars were saved."

Of course, most people would not sympathize with such a 'mollycoddling' approach to crime. "The public," says John Grider, deputy director of the Oklahoma corrections system, "would like you to dig holes in the ground, lower the inmates into the hole on a rope ladder and then pull up the ladder." 

March 1978 / Illinois Issues/ 11

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