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Illinois Facing Prison Crisis

The Illinois prison system is rapidly becoming one of the nations most severely overcrowded, and the states prisons are becoming increasingly dangerous places for both inmates and staff, according to a task force established by Gov. Jim Edgar. The crowding could reach a crisis level as early as next April, the task force warned, and solutions will not be easy to find, because the state already has taken advantage of stopgap measures such as double celling and early release policies.

Even though its interim recommendations focused on opening new prisons, the panel said its final report will address a wide range of issues. "The task force rejects the notion that the problem of prison crowding can be solved merely by building more prisons," the report said.

Between 1978 and 1991, the state spent $408 million to build 14 new prisons with more than 11,000 additional bed spaces. "But even the unprecedented--and expensive--building program did not keep pace with the surging inmate population," the task force said. The state currently houses more than 30,000 inmates in a system designed to hold about 20,000.

The inmate population is nearly five times what it was in 1973, the task force noted, and more than twice the level of a decade ago. Despite the intensive campaign of putting more offenders behind bars, "most citizens do not feel any safer--and a majority probably feels less safe--than they did a decade ago. Even with record numbers of criminals behind bars, crime rates are at an all time high."

There is clear evidence that overcrowding is contributing to increased tensions inside prisons, the panel said. In the 1991 fiscal year, three inmates were murdered, 3,578 weapons were confiscated, 109 shots were fired, and 588 inmates were assaulted. There also were 1,075 assaults on prison staff members, up nearly 35 per cent from three years earlier. "In medium security prisons, which have taken the brunt of recent crowding through extensive double celling, assaults on staff increased 85 percent between fiscal years 1990 and 1991, and assaults on inmates increased 41 percent," the task force said.

Projections for the future are ominous, the task force said. The state's prison system is expected to reach nearly 38,000 by June 1996, and that is a conservative estimate based on the assumptions that law enforcement activity, criminal activity, and current sentencing practices will not change. In fact, demographic factors, including the number of people in "crime prone" age groups, suggest that the strain on the prison system could be worse than projected. For further information contact: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, 120 S. Riverside Plaza, Chicago, IL, 60606-3997.
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