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Ill. lawmakers urged to act on crowded prisons

CHICAGO – Illinois’ prisons are bursting at the seams and action is needed to reverse worsening violence and conditions for inmates and guards, a panel of experts warned in testimony Wednesday at a state legislative hearing.

The House Judiciary Committee session in Chicago focused on legislation that would revive a controversial program of early release for inmates who’ve demonstrated good behavior, but an aide to Gov. Pat Quinn said he will not reverse his suspension of that program in its current form.

Quinn shut down the early-release program after The Associated Press reported in 2009 that prison officials had implemented an unpublicized, accelerated version of it that was freeing criminals in as few as eight days.

Adding to the urgency of the matter is the governor’s separate plan to shut 14 state juvenile prisons, adult transition centers and the state’s only supermax prison to save money as the state tries to dig its way out of an enormous budget crisis.

Critics argue closing the facilities will only add to the overcrowding problem in the state’s other prisons.

“The picture we have is of a system that because of the sheer number of individual prisoners jammed into facilities designed for far fewer – sometimes by half – it’s beyond the capacity financially or in terms of personnel to deliver the services to maintain the facilities,” said Malcolm Young of the Northwestern University School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic.

He described for the committee members the findings of a prison watchdog, the John Howard Association, after a September visit to the minimum security Vienna Correctional Center in southern Illinois.

“Hundreds of inmates with nothing to do except pace around the room or huddle around a small television. Inmates complained of mice and cockroaches,” he said. “... Inmates left to lie in their beds for hours in the dark, despondent and dejected.”

Monitoring visits to other prisons by the group in the past year have revealed inmates housed in gymnasiums and standing water in living quarters.

As of November, there were 48,620 people imprisoned in Illinois, 144 percent more than the 33,700 for which space was designed, according to the Corrections Department.

The ballooning population has contributed to a rise in tuberculosis and other disease, severely limited inmates’ access to health care and educational programs and made it so hard to maintain discipline that some prisons go into lockdown for long stretches of time, attorney James Chapman told the committee.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Art Turner, a Chicago Democrat, aims to restore Illinois’ early-release program for low-risk, nonviolent offenders as a safety valve to help limit dangerous levels of overcrowding.

A state senator is crafting a similar bill.

For 30 years, the “meritorious good time” program allowed the director of the Corrections Department to cut imprisonment by up to six months for an inmate who displayed good behavior.

But Quinn abandoned the practice in December 2009 after the AP reported the agency secretly dropped an informal requirement that all incoming inmates serve 60 days behind bars before getting good-time credit in a plan dubbed “MGT Push.” More than 1,700 inmates were released under that program, and some went on to commit more crimes.

Before the governor would consider reviving it, the measure would need changes, including a new list of the types of nonviolent offenders who would be eligible, said Toni Irving, a deputy chief of staff for Quinn who appeared before the committee.

“In 1970, when the statute came, people didn’t consider DUI or domestic battery violent offenses,” she said in an interview afterward. “So now we would not want those in there, but you can’t cherry pick. So that in and of itself makes that statute untenable.”

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