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Illinois: Scathing Study on Solitary Buried by Politics

by Adam Klasfeld, Courthouse News

Reeling from the criticism of its last effort at prison reform, Illinois buried its study of the ineffectiveness of long-term solitary confinement.

As Gov. Pat Quinn struggled to hold onto the seat he acquired from the ousted Rod Blagojevich, his office drew fire for measures such as “Meritorious Good Time” (MGT), which revoked a requirement calling for prisoners to spend at least 60 days in prison.

Reform advocates had long contended that the old policy made “61-day wonders” out of low-level offenders, but the Associated Press reported that the so-called “MGT Push” put dangerous criminals back on the streets.

As Quinn stepped back and inched through the 2010 election, his then-corrections chief Michael Randle bore the brunt of the blame for the program and resigned months later, ostensibly to revisit his old job as Ohio’s prison chief.

Although the AP story created political shockwaves, a program director at Northwestern University School of Law later decried the report as shoddy and sensational journalism.

“Contrary to media reports, MGT-Push has not been responsible for an illegal or premature release of a dangerous criminal or for the commission of additional violent crime,” Malcolm Young said. “MGT-Push did not cut prison sentences by months or years. It did not add to the public risk or endanger public safety. And it was not ‘secret.’”

Between the re-election and his resignation, Randle signed a May 11, 2010 “memorandum of understanding” obligating the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice to conduct a study of solitary confinement in Illinois prisons, under strict terms of confidentiality.

The memo begins by noting the documented mental health risks of long-term isolation, and says solitary cells can cost 50 percent more to operate than those in the general population.

“For these reasons, many states such as Illinois have begun to consider alternatives to housing large numbers of prisoners in segregation units,” the memo states.

Two pages later, eight paragraphs on the “protection of confidentiality” describe elaborate screening, storage and training processes to keep the study under wraps.

Apparently upholding that secrecy, Vera never disclosed the findings on its website, and did not respond to a request for comment.

Courthouse News obtained access to the state-commissioned study through a Freedom of Information Act request, 1½ years after its unannounced publication.

Researchers Suzanne Agha, James Austin and Angela Browne published the study, titled “Qualitative Findings on the Use and Outcomes of Segregation in IL DOC,” on September 28, 2011.

They analyzed all Illinois prisoners released from segregated cells in 2008 and followed them for a year in their transition to the general population. Those who finished their terms before that year ended were excluded from the study.

The remaining subset included 10,219 prisoners, who spent roughly two months in isolation on average.

The study concluded: “Prisoners who spent less time in segregation were not more likely to commit new violations during the first 12 months of release into general population.... In addition, prisoners who committed more serious incoming violations were not more likely to commit new violations during the first 12 months of release into general population” (emphasis in original).

Researchers found that 85 percent of the population committed 300- to 400-class violations, using Corrections Department terminology for less serious offenses. These include unauthorized movement, insolence, violation of rules, disobeying of a direct order and failure to report.

“Contraband property,” another 300-class violation, accounted for 8 percent of all segregation offenses. The report distinguishes this infraction from “dangerous contraband,” a 100-class offense cited in only 1 percent of cases.

Despite its stated goal to reform prison segregation, the Illinois Department of Corrections never published these results, though the study was brought up at a public meeting in a prison in early 2012.

The minutes of that meeting were tucked away in a quiet corner of the department’s website.

John Maki, director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a nonprofit advocacy group, declined to speculate about whether politics is responsible for the secrecy surrounding the study.

Still, he noted that the “MGT fallout” created a “toxic” environment that marginalized reformers.

“Nobody wanted to talk about changing the system,” he said. “It made all reforms more necessary but also more difficult.”

He lamented that the Vera study took so long to see the light of day.

“I think it would have added fuel to [the reformers’] fire to make the argument against long-term segregation,” he said.

Most discussion about reforming solitary confinement centered on politically safe austerity arguments, rather than public policy debate, he added.

Illinois tried to cut costs recently by shutting down the Tamms Correctional Center, a supermax prison filled with solitary cells; Dwight Correctional Center, home of the state’s only “death row” for women; and two post-release transition centers in Chicago and Peoria.

While the John Howard Association welcomed shuttering Tamms on humanitarian grounds, the nonprofit opposed the other closures on the grounds that they would worsen prison overcrowding.

“The answer to this can’t be to pack up more people into less space,” Maki said.
Another state-commissioned report, written by University of Illinois Professor Geoffrey Hewings, investigated how closing the facilities affected local economies. The impact statement was dated February 2012, five months after the completion of the Vera study.

According to the impact statement, the state would lose tens of millions of dollars in direct wages and incur indirect ripple effects if employees laid off from their jobs at the facilities were not relocated.

The next month, Illinois Corrections Department director Salvador “Tony” Godinez projected that the approximately 796 staffers left unemployed by prison closings could fill 594 vacancies in the state’s prison system.

Godinez had rosy projections about the ability of the remaining state prisons to relocate the Tamms prisoners.

“There will be sufficient space to establish elevated-security wings and safely house and accommodate the 186 existing Tamms Correctional Center C-Max inmates at Pontiac and Menard Correctional Centers,” he wrote.

But the John Howard Association says overcrowding remains a problem.

The group’s most recent estimates from February 2013 place the state’s prison population at 49,255. Before the closures, the Illinois prison system was designed to hold 34,000 people.

With the election pressure behind him in 2012, Gov. Quinn has also reinstated an amended version of the MGT Push policies.

Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Prisons recently announced that it would start studying how to reform solitary confinement nationwide. The American Civil Liberties Union signaled that the study would draw from the lessons learned by states around the country.

Besides Illinois, Vera has conducted similar investigations in Ohio, Mississippi and Maryland.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman told Courthouse News that a contractor has not yet been selected for the nationwide study.

This article was originally published by Courthouse News ( on March 13, 2013, and is reprinted with permission.

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