SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Inside what could be Illinois' most important correctional facility — its main inmate intake center — hundreds of newly convicted prisoners are sleeping in a gym, a health care unit, converted common spaces and "staging areas" next to bus garages after they arrive from county jails, The Associated Press has learned.
While not the most desirable setup, prison officials describe it as a secure scene and the best they can do with limited resources.
The situation has led to the busy classification center at the Stateville prison near Joliet becoming the latest focus in the ongoing dispute between state officials and prison guards over whether Illinois' correctional system is too crowded.
Correctional officers and their union leaders say the fact that scores of inmates are sleeping on mattresses in portable plastic boxes belies recent statements by the Illinois Department of Corrections director who insists the prisons are not overcrowded. Guards and others say the problem is lack of bed space at the state's two dozen prisons, and that it poses safety concerns for inmates who are being introduced to the prison system for the first time.
"If we're not overcrowded, why do we have hundreds of inmates not sleeping in housing units (prison cells)?" asked Ralph Portwood, a Stateville correctional officer and local president for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "It's a disaster waiting to happen."
The debate over prison crowding has reached a fever pitch in recent years. AFSCME — worried about employees being overworked and the potential for inmate violence — is pushing the state to hire more guards and reduce crowding.
State officials, who are trying to manage the problem during tight budget times, say they are taking necessary steps to protect workers and run a safe system.
It's all playing out against a backdrop of Gov. Pat Quinn's closure this year of two major prisons because of the budgetary constraints, something AFSCME filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to oppose.
There are about 49,000 inmates in space originally designed for 32,000 — though the Department of Corrections argues the design was based on one inmate per cell, which is not a common practice anywhere in the U.S. today. Most cells have two inmates each. Meanwhile, there are nearly a quarter fewer employees working for the department today than 10 years ago — about 10,850 compared with 14,250.
"Illinois prisons are crowded but not overcrowded," Corrections Director S.A. "Tony" Godinez said in a written statement he gave the AP this week. "We may not have a lot of extra space, but we have enough space to do our job properly and that includes humanely."
Godinez made the same argument in a November op-ed column in The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, which prompted Portwood, the Stateville union official, to contact the AP and give a response.
Stateville's Northern Reception and Classification Center, which opened in 2004 and has about 2,200 inmates, sees hundreds of prisoners come and go each week. About 100 sleep on beds in the gymnasium, and 35 sleep in five unused health care unit rooms on mattresses placed inside individual, open-topped plastic shells that prison officials call "boats," Portwood said.
Another 80 inmates sleep in bunks in four converted common spaces inside a housing unit, and about 100 are in 10 "staging areas" or "bullpens" — areas where inmates wait for buses to take them to the prisons where they'll serve their sentences.
The John Howard Association, which monitors prisons, notes that the NRC is the intake point for nine of 10 new Illinois prisoners. It also holds inmates who need to be near court for hearings, including in Chicago, as well as those who need specialized medical treatment.
The facility is where inmates first get introduced to the prison system, said John Howard executive director John Maki, adding that a bad first impression can stick with a prisoner throughout his stay in the system.
"It's a complicated facility and it's kind of the canary in the coal mine, telling us there are too many people in our prisons," said Maki, whose organization favors alternative sentencing for low-level offenders to reduce the prison population.
The Department of Corrections declined the AP's request to visit the intake center and take photos of the conditions. Although it has granted three pre-arranged media tours the past year, the department generally maintains tight restrictions on access to the prisons.
Portwood contends that it's more difficult to manage groups of inmates in larger areas at the intake facility. More inmates are moving around, he said, whether it's to nearby toilets or an exercise yard. Problems can escalate quickly in a space such as the bus-transfer area, he said.
"It's like a big garage," Portwood said. "There's no insulation. It wasn't built to house inmates with proper ventilation and light. There's one toilet, no shower, one drinking fountain."
He said there are more officers for group settings but the staffing level is about the same as it was three or four years ago when there were fewer inmates.
Corrections spokesman Tom Shaer said safety has not decreased at the intake center. He said two fights broke out in NRC housing units during the summer, but no weapons were involved and officials took extra precautions afterward.
Inmates in larger groups are screened for their tendency to create problems and the department deploys more security officers trained to handle groups, he said.
Godinez said the alternative would be to send inmates to other prisons more quickly. But that could mean making assessments that are not as precise, he said.
"We are not in the speculation business," Godinez said. "We are in the safety business."
Illinois Department of Corrections: http://www2.illinois.gov/idoc
Contact John O'Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor .