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Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015 12:01 am

Imprisoned for poverty

For lack of housing, many parolees stuck in prison

 Johnny Cordrey did his time.

He spent 18 years at Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois, but when his release date came in April 2012, Cordrey was instead sent back to prison. He hadn’t committed any new offense, however. His attorney says the only crime Cordrey committed this time around was being poor.

Cordrey is one of thousands of parolees each year who are denied release from prison because they can’t find housing. The situation is known as “violating at the door” because inmates are deemed to have violated their parole the instant they walk out of prison. Chicago attorney King Poor believes the situation violates the Constitution and costs the state millions of dollars each year.

Cordrey, now 66, was sentenced in October 1993 to 36 years in prison for aggravated criminal sexual assault, plus a separate 30-year sentence for aggravated kidnapping. With credits for good conduct reducing his sentence, Cordrey was due for release in April 2012. The terms of his parole – called “mandatory supervised release” in Illinois – required him to register as a sex offender, attend three different types of counseling, have no contact with his victim, check in with his parole officer twice a week and wear an electronic tracking device at a suitable home.

As his release date approached, it became clear that Cordrey – who Poor says has no family or friends outside prison – wouldn’t be able to find a place to live during his parole. The Illinois Department of Corrections attempted to place Cordrey in transitional housing paid for by the state, but no facility could accept him, mainly because of his sex offender status. On April 12, 2012, instead of being released, Cordrey was informed he would stay in Menard Correctional Facility to serve his three-year parole term.

Cordrey sent a handwritten appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, asking the justices to free him on the legal theory that confining people past their prison terms violates the state and federal constitutions. If Cordrey had been a rich man, he reasoned, he could have easily obtained housing and would have been released sooner. Cordrey claimed keeping poor inmates confined longer creates a second-class status for them, in violation of the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection.

The Supreme Court accepted the case – a rarity for inmates who file appeals without an attorney’s help – and attorney King Poor was appointed to represent Cordrey. The court ultimately ruled unanimously against Cordrey in November 2014, saying IDOC tried to place him at a suitable facility but is not ultimately responsible for an inmate’s housing. Poor says the decision was disappointing because it failed to reaffirm the principle that people can’t be imprisoned for poverty.

A handful of other lawsuits challenging IDOC’s policy have failed, as well. In a case similar to Cordrey’s, U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin called the situation “Kafkaesque,” referencing Franz Kafka, the famous German author whose work was characterized by alienation and domination at the hands of bureaucracy. Still, Durkin sided with IDOC.

In a brief supporting Cordrey before the Supreme Court, Chicago attorney Alan Mills and law professor Alexa Van Brunt at Northwestern University School of Law wrote that the average yearly cost of incarcerating an inmate in Illinois was more than $21,000 as recently as 2010, while the cost of parole was about $2,000.

Van Brunt says there is little standard for what IDOC considers “suitable” housing, and the transitional housing offered by the state is in very short supply, with only 26 such facilities statewide. She adds that making parolees serve their parole in prison essentially means they have no adjustment period from being incarcerated to being a normal citizen again.

“They’re under no kind of supervision by the state whatsoever after release,” Van Brunt said.

Cordrey is currently being held in the Peoria County jail. After he served his additional three years of parole in prison, he was released and picked up by police in late October 2014 while walking on a highway near Peoria. Because Cordrey is homeless, he was deemed to have violated the terms of his sex offender registration, which means he will likely be sent back to prison.

Poor says even though Cordrey and other parolees have committed crimes, they still deserve the protection of the law.

“We’re judged by how we respect our Constitution,” he said. “These prisoners have completed their terms. To deny them release just because they’re too poor to afford housing violates the most fundamental principles of our government.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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