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IL Prison Conditions Report Poses Tough Questions of Costs, Closings

Stories of dire conditions in Illinois prisons have been trickling out for years, but a new report from a consulting company hired by the state of Illinois to assess its prison infrastructure shows the situation might be even worse than previously revealed, WBEZ reports. In the report, obtained by WBEZ, consultants rated three of the department’s 27 facilities as approaching “inoperable” and estimated the prison system has at least $2.5 billion of “deferred maintenance,” the highest of any state agency. That number is expected to double in five years if unaddressed. At one women's prison, Logan Correctional Center, a 1930s coal plant powers the prison, the tap water runs brown and slimy, and the place is filled with mold, said one inmate, Rhonda Thompson. “Our environment is toxic,” she said. “All of us have sinus, throat, breathing or lung and fatigue issues.”

The report encourages major repairs and fixes. But in light of a dramatically decreased prison population over the last decade, it also recommends closing one prison and shrinking another. That’s a recommendation that is likely to be controversial — unions and communities surrounding prisons have historically fought to keep facilities from shrinking. While the state-commissioned report focused on infrastructure issues, it also highlighted other problems that make the situation even more urgent — an elderly prison population and extreme short staffing, with around a quarter of positions vacant. According to the report, the staffing crisis can be blamed in part on the remote, rural location of some prisons. While Illinois prison buildings have deteriorated and the staff has been shrinking, the needs of the people locked up in the prisons are only becoming greater. People who were incarcerated in the “tough on crime” era of the ’80s and ’90s are starting to become elderly. About 32% of the IDOC population is now over 55 and the harsh conditions in prison mean people age faster, and so are more likely to be sick or disabled. Properly accommodating this aging and ailing population will require major repairs and updates. But civil rights lawyer Alan Mills, executive director at Uptown People’s Law Center, said that “before spending such huge sums, the state needs to carefully rethink who is in prison, and how long they need to be there.”


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