Illinois Department of Corrections Director Rob Jeffreys appeared before the Senate Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday, March 1 to ask for approval of the department’s $1.6 billion budget, a 6 percent increase from the current fiscal year.
Although the prison population is the lowest it has been since 1989, Jeffreys told legislators that he is moving IDOC from a punitive position to a therapeutic and rehabilitative model.
IDOC aims to accomplish that by conducting reentry assessments for those leaving IDOC and offering resources, such as higher education opportunities, to current inmates. The department is also assisting discharged inmates in obtaining state identification and enrolling in Medicaid.
“We have been busy trying to reform this agency these past couple of years despite COVID and we want to continue to build on that process,” Jeffreys said, noting the prison population has been receptive to good behavior incentives.
That approach, coupled with decreasing admissions, has caused the IDOC population to shrink from 38,000 in 2019 to about 27,000 today.
Sen. Suzy Glowiak Hilton, D-Western Springs, asked Jeffreys whether fewer admissions were attributable to the agency’s decision to halt transfers from county jails. IDOC paused transfers from county jails during the COVID-19 omicron surge in January, but resumed intake about three weeks later.
Sheriffs around the state complained the move to pause transfers to IDOC put more strain on county jails that continued to house, feed, clothe and provide medical attention to offenders awaiting transfer to IDOC.
Before a transfer to IDOC, inmates are held in isolation for 14 days as a quarantine measure to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
IDOC quarantines inmates from county jails for 10 days after a negative test, Jeffreys said, even though county jails also should quarantine inmates before transferring to IDOC. The quarantine time is down from 14 days to 10 days, Jeffreys said, in line with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for congregate populations.
And that won’t be changing anytime soon, Jeffreys said.
“To open it up like it was before? That’s not going to happen,” Jeffreys said.
While inmate intake is down, Jeffreys said, it is not entirely due to COVID-19 protocols.
He also answered questions about staff vaccination rates, commissary shortages and the future of Vandalia and Pontiac prisons.
As of March 1, 71 percent of IDOC staff is vaccinated, Jeffreys said. In late December, an arbitrator found IDOC could require employees to be vaccinated.
IDOC continues to face commissary shortages due to procurement issues and supply chain problems, but Jeffreys said those issues are being addressed. In June 2021, Keefe Group was awarded the contract for the entire IDOC system. The contract award is being contested by another vendor that was not awarded the contract.
To maintain products in commissaries without a vendor contract in place, IDOC entered into five emergency contracts with vendors, but supply chain shortages obstructed those vendors’ ability to source some items.
Jared Brunk, chief of administration for IDOC, said he expects bids for a new contract to go out within the week, eventually leading to the first competitively procured vendor in more than three years.
Jacksonville Correctional Center had problems obtaining commissary items last week. Within days, Brunk said, $30,000 of product that was ordered from another vendor was delivered to the facility.
With a dwindling inmate population and mounting maintenance bills on prison buildings at correctional centers across the state, IDOC developed a plan which may include significant downsizing at the Vandalia and Pontiac correctional centers.
A copy of the proposed plan showed IDOC planned to close Pontiac’s medium security unit, dropping its population from 1,740 beds to 642 and reducing the beds at Vandalia Correctional Center from 1,001 to 401.
Both facilities face maintenance costs, including $3.8 million at Pontiac. The reduction of beds at Vandalia will save the state $12 million, according to plan estimates.
Last month, union leaders said they had not been apprised of the plan to reduce population at either facility. After reports of inmates being transferred from the facility, a union representative said they received notice of IDOC’s intent to reduce populations at Vandalia and Pontiac with a target date of March 16 for the first phase, with additional unit closures to be completed by the summer.
“We are meeting with the union next week to discuss those plans that somehow got out to everyone,” Jeffreys said. “We are in constant discussions about what the future is for the Pontiac and Vandalia facilities.”
IDOC has said the reduction in population will not lead to a reduction in staff at either facility.