On Oct. 5, state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (8th) and a busload of relatives and neighbors of prison incarcerated individuals visited prison officials at the Stateville Development Center in Joliet to push for more humane conditions and better preparation for prisoners returning to society. 

The contingent traveled to Joliet from the West Austin Development Center, 4920 W. Madison St. When they arrived, they met the prison’s warden, Walter Nicholson, and Marcus Hardy, the executive assistant to the state’s Department of Corrections director. 

In 2018, Illinois reduced funding for most programs, but increased its budget for the Department of Corrections, spending almost $1.5 billion annually to incarcerate just over 44,000 inmates at the average cost of $34,000 per inmate. 

“In spite of these resources, we continue to hear of major problems within the Illinois Department of Corrections,” Ford explained in a statement he issued before the trip.  

“If we don’t reform our prisons, the streets in our city will continue to be a problem. Criminal justice reform and reform of the Department of Corrections are needed if we want safer and more vibrant communities. The Illinois Department of Corrections spends too much of our taxpayer money, and it does not help returning citizens to help our communities when they do return back home. We deserve and demand better.”  

Standing on the prison grounds, Rep. Ford told the officials, “We come in peace, but we know you work for the state. We want to open channels to work with you to solve the problems, because we have family here.”

Hardy and Nicholson promised to look into citizens’ complaints, which included over-use of solitary confinement and lack of exercise, cells lacking sinks and toilets, and lack of medical attention. 

Justina Winfrey advocated for the release of Edwin Davila, who was sentenced to 50 years for a murder he didn’t commit after being tortured by a Chicago Police officer whose boss was convicted Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, who died in September.  

Returned prisoner Tyrone Muhammad asked about changes in rules forbidding him to visit his brother in Stateville. Iesha Walker lifted a poster naming Chicago inmates George Johnson and Kevin Murray, who have publicly complained about unsanitary conditions in the prison.

The group urged officials to help prisoners obtain ID’s and prepare for work and housing. Returnees often face confusion and discouragement until they get help from local service agencies like the Westside Health Authority, represented on the bus trip by Joseph Green and George Salter, members of the organizatin’s Community Reentry and Employment program.

In 2016, an estimated 21,000 people returned to Chicago from prison. Parolees return to primarily four zip codes in the city, mostly on the West Side of Chicago. According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 1,200 individuals each year are released directly from prison to homeless shelters in the city.  

Inmates are counted in the Census as residents of prison counties rather than their home counties — a type of gerrymandering that also pulls resources away from cities, Ford pointed out.

When Winfrey, a community consultant running for alderman in the 28th Ward, and Tamera Fair of Reforming Prisons/Saving Lives asked if returning prisoners are advised they can register to vote, Warden Nicholson admitted that voting advice is not standard procedure. Winfrey noted that anyone may register to vote on-line at ova.elections.il.gov/.

Melody Woods of Joliet, representing Families with Loved Ones Incarcerated, asked if there is a limit on any individual prisoner’s time in solitary confinement. Hardy said that the number of prisoners in solitary confinement has decreased by 5 percent. 

Anthony Driver Jr., a candidate for the 20th Ward aldermanic seat vacated by Willie Cochran, urged the prison officials to get that number lower. Rep. Ford said he is negotiating on a bill to curb solitary confinement.  

Ford urged prisons to offer more vocational and technical career training. Warden Nicholson told the group that Stateville prison still does not have enough money for comprehensive training and preparation for release. 

In the prison’s parking lot, officials and community leaders agreed that recent cutbacks in Chicago mental health centers and reductions in funding mental health nonprofits have resulted in more people who need mental health services ending up in jails and prisons instead of getting treatment.

Candidates Driver, Robinson and Winfrey joined Ford, who is exploring a possible mayoral run, pushed for policies that invest in neglected urban communities and do not encourage more incarceration.

CONTACT: bonni@barrelhousebonni.com

"Barrelhouse Bonni" McKeown, the author of "West Side Blues Blog," has played piano and written about blues music for over 15 years. www.barrelhousebonni.com  She has led classes for young and old on...