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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011 03:27 pm

State’s new definition makes crowded prisons sound OK

AFSCME: “Operational capacity” is number of warm bodies that can be crammed in

State prisons are not overcrowded if you ask the Illinois Department of Corrections.

“We are currently below capacity,” says Sharyn Elman, IDOC spokeswoman.

Others disagree.

“Overcrowding has been a longstanding problem in the state’s prisons,” says Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents guards.

John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group, also says that prisons are full.

“We think there are too many people in our present system,” Maki says. “We’re reaching a point where we’re running out of space.”

The difference lies in how prison space is calculated.

In the summer of last year, corrections officials created a new category in quarterly reports to the legislature. First called “bed space” and more recently dubbed “operational capacity,” the category states the percentage of available beds occupied by inmates. Previously, the department had stated the design capacity of prisons and calculated whether facilities were at, below or above capacity based on the design figure.

The difference can be dramatic.

Consider Taylorville Correctional Center. According to the most recent quarterly report issued in July, there is room for more inmates, given that the prison is at 99 percent of “operational capacity.” However, with a design capacity of 600 inmates and more than 1,200 prisoners bunking down as of May 31, the prison is overstuffed by a factor of two.

Statewide, the state’s 34 lockups are at 95 percent of operational capacity and at 145 percent of design capacity, according to the July report. The state’s prisons are designed to hold 33,700 inmates. Nearly 48,800 inmates were confined as of May 31.

How IDOC calculates capacity is akin to someone stating that a dozen people can live in a three-bedroom home because that’s how many people can stay there, sleeping on couches and floors, for Thanksgiving weekend, Lindall says.

“This is an invented metric,” Lindall says. “Operational capacity is an Illinois Department of Corrections creation, which appears to represent the number of warm bodies that can be crammed into available space.”

Bottom line, Lindall said, state prisons are housing 15,000 more inmates than they were designed to hold, and 3,000 more prisoners than the lockups have ever held.

“It’s a crisis,” Lindall said. “It’s irresponsible. It’s not sustainable. It’s dangerous.”

Maki blames part of the problem on the end of meritorious good time, a program in which inmates received sentence reductions of as much as 180 days after serving at least 60 days. Gov. Pat Quinn stopped the program in 2009, after prison officials accelerated the practice that had been in place for decades, freeing some inmates after less than two weeks in prison, and drawing fire when the media reported that violent inmates had been released early.

Although a report published a year ago criticized the accelerated program, it did not recommend ending meritorious good time. Nonetheless, Elman said that there are no plans to reinstitute the program.

Lindall said the program should be resurrected.

“The union believes that a responsible program of good-time credits is a critical tool of any safe and well-managed prison system,” Lindall.

Reinstituting some form of meritorious good time won’t solve the union’s concerns, Lindall said. While the state has hired some new guards after years of union complaints that prisons had too many inmates and too few guards under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, there has not been a new class of cadets trained to work in prisons since the last class graduated last spring, Lindall said.

Elman said the department isn’t sure when the next class will begin.

“We have some on the books, but we have to see what happens with the budget,” she said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at