SPRINGFIELD – When Rob Jeffreys became the new director of the Illinois Department of Corrections on June 1, he inherited a system plagued by overcrowding, crumbling infrastructure and other problems.
Among those problems were what the ACLU calls “clearly preventable” deaths resulting from poor inmate health care. On top of that, the Department of Corrections faces numerous lawsuits.
Two of those involve what advocates say are a lack of physical, dental health care and mental health care.
“Federal courts are finding now that these deficits amount to cruel and unusual punishment,” which is why the Illinois ACLU is involved in the lawsuits, senior staff attorney Camille Bennett of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois said.
She noted that nationally, the median state expenditure is $5,700 per inmate per year on medical care; Illinois spends $3,600. Across the nation, an average of 40 health care workers attend to every 1,000 inmates; in Illinois, it is 20 to 25 health care workers per 1,000 inmates.
Experts studying the system found significant problems, Bennett said, including poor health care services. In addition, the ACLU said 30 percent of inmate deaths were “clearly preventable” and another 30 percent were “probably preventable.”
Scabies, MRSA, norovirus and other contagious conditions “are always a risk in these environments,” she added, noting that Illinois prisons were also significantly overcrowded.
The overcrowding is also a problem simply because the prison infrastructure is not equipped to handle so many inmates, and buildings and equipment have been neglected for a long time.
All of the state’s maximum-security prisons were built in the 19th century, Bennett said, and none of Illinois’ correctional facilities are new. She cited conditions such as cracked floors in geriatric wards, where prisoners are likely to slip, and infestations of pests such as cockroaches, mice and more.
In Statesville, she said, birds were found to be flying around and relieving themselves in the dining area.
“There is a litany of physical problems that the new director is going to confront,” she said.
Bennett said that money is tight in Illinois, but she said that for humanitarian and legal reasons the problems must be addressed, either by coming up with funding or reducing the number of people who are incarcerated.