Slavery at Statesville: How the Illinois Department of Corrections Recruits Non-Violent Inmates for Slave Labor at Statesville’s Maximum Security Prison Promising Work Release.
The Illinois Department of Corrections houses 40,200 inmates. Elected in November 2018, Democratic Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton has made criminal justice reform a centerpiece of her public policy focus, a Feb 11th executive order created the Justice, Equity and Opportunity Initiative. On May 10th Gov. Pritzker appointed Rob Jefferys, who had previously worked as a corrections administrator in Ohio, to head of the Illinois Department of Corrections. IDOC has a budget of $1.45 billion, with 4.2% for mental health, 1.8% for educational programming, and 1.5% for vocational programming. Approximately 12,500 staff work in IDOC facilities, and the average cost of incarcerating an individual in the Illinois Department of Corrections is over $26,300 dollars a year.
Statesville Correctional Center, the second largest jail in the Illinois Department of Corrections, housed 2,818 inmates in 2018, about 7% of the total population. A maximum security prison, there are 922 inmates jailed for murder there. There are approximately 200 inmates in Statesville’s minimum security unit of inmates awaiting release to Adult Transition Centers run by private non-profits, such as the Safer Foundation—which many refer to the work release program.
Statesville is a notorious prison. In a recent annual report, the Department of Corrections admitted that only a handful of the thousands of inmates were enrolled or graduated from a GED program. This report, based on documented conversations and correspondence with non-violent offenders in Statesville’s minimum security unit, describes the cruel and deplorable conditions that Statesville non-violent offenders suffer, working slave labor without appropriate rehabilitative services as they await work-release.
A new deal to revitalize the region’s economy, replenish local and state governments’ balance sheets, prevent crime, and rehabilitate offenders, and stabilize vulnerable communities, requires drastic reforms. Now is the time.
Statesville Minimum Security Unit, Re-entry Services, and Adult Transition Centers
Illinois Adult Transition Centers, cut downstate by Illinois by Democratic Governor Patt Quinn in the early 2010’s, and run now by private non-profits such as the Safer Foundation’s facility in North Lawndale, are a key model cited in the bipartisan federal prison reform legislation the First Step Act that Trump aide Jared Kushner and Hip-Hop star Kanye West helped cement in late 2018.
To get a chance for work release to this west side Chicago adult transition center, non-violent offenders volunteer for transfer to Statesville Correctional Center. What the Office of Transfer Coordinator doesn’t tell them, however, is that they will be forced to work for pennies an hour cleaning, cooking, and maintaining Statesville’s Maximum Security Prison for up to six months or more, while awaiting release.
A False Promise of Expedited Work Release
A series of phone interviews and correspondence with inmates sheds light on their condition, and the cruel and unusual plight of those incarcerated at Statesville Regional Corrections Center.
“They said it was a proper re-entry facility when we were actually just staffing their work camp. I have paperwork to show you on the lies they spin and how it didn’t match up,” inmate ‘R’, a prisoner at Statesville, explained in a mid-May phone call.
“There are forty seven of us in our area. IDOC received a $840,000 grant from the federal government by calling it a re-entry facility; IDOC was getting the funds, but it isn’t a reentry facility. [Your time in Statesville is] based on the time you have left, whether you are released to work release programs. People with more time on the books get stuck for longer periods. The longest period that I know of [waiting for work release] is six months.”
Another inmate, in a grievance sent to the John Howard association on October 11th, 2018, collaborated this claim, writing, “While at Taylorville Correctional Center I voluntarily submitted my application for work release on July 9, 2018… on August 15th 2018, I was transferred to Statesville…. I didn’t know nor was I ever made aware that I would be sitting in Statesville for now 58 days and counting with no certainty as to when I will actually be transferred to work release.” According to another, the grievant was finally released to North Lawndale ATC in February.
In his October letter, the grievant indicated the differences between the two prisons.
Up to the date I was transferred… I was enrolled in the GEO substance abuse program along with school and was in the middle of a good time contract…I have been a model inmate.. I have a perfect IDOC disciplinary record along with many accomplishments and classes I have completed such as Anger Management, Lifestyle Redirection, Dollars and Sense, Law Clerk Training program, Residential Construction vocational classes, and even made the Honor’s List through Lake Land College…. I now sit in Statesville NRC being treated as a maximum security offender, being forced to work 6 days a week performing duties such as scrubbing ovens with SOS pads, washing grease off walls, and scrubbing grime filled toilets… all without pay whereas Statesville permanent party offenders receive $43.00 a month for the same job…. Work release offenders waiting to be moved to their respective.. centers are being used as nothing more than a free labor pool.
Inmate R listed the lies he was told to convince him to volunteer.
They told me I could have visits whenever I want and hold my niece and nephew. NOPE. Weekends only, minimal contact visits, no holding children. They said I could work a job and get training, plus meet potential employers. Nope. Never happened. Slaved me, got no training, learned nothing in the shitty classes, never met a potential employer. They said it would be family oriented, that we were going to have family days with picnics, and family programing. It never happened. Statesville staff don’t want to even consider something so fraught with security risks, they say.
He continued to explain the conditions inside the prison, and the methods used to force prisoners to labor without pay.
We are running Statesville, a maximum security prison. We’re working the doors a week to a couple months. I make food for 1,700 people a day. The tunnel crew serves food, cleans, mops. We work thirty to thirty five hours a week. I have for the past 11 months. They don’t pay us, not anything real, really. It’s petty, but when you are dealing with it all, it’s just one more thing.
Dietary 2 is the 2nd shift of dietary line workers. They call for people it happens every two hours. Lights are on twenty four seven. All night they are calling out for people to go out and work. Tunnel crew lets go, Dietary 2, Dietary 3. Healthcare, NRC barbers, commissary, always yelling at us. 24/7 staff are shouting into the speakers in the dorm, blaring at us, to get people to work at all hours of the day and night.
I’m off today.
As Inmate R enunciated his complaints against the facility, a CO began to yell out to him that he should have been at work, while we spoke on the phone.
I’m a cook. If I were going into work, I would have already been at my shift. I’m off today. All it takes is one goofy CO. It’s ironic that while I’m talking to you about this stuff they are calling me in to work. Even off called off I get pulled in to work—I would have started my shift hours ago. I’m in a section that says cooks—id be at work three hours ago, on the line.
“There are numerous instances of abuse and shoddy treatment,” Inmate R quickly listed his complaints.
It’s Ramadhan right now, people getting are getting their trays of food messed with, when they get them late, a sundown. They shouldn’t be messing with their religious freedoms. People get attacked behind the doors. There is no advocacy for those hurt.
At Statesville, there is no rule of law. Those who object are retaliated; there is favoritism and retaliation. They hit you with tickets, and prevent you from work release… They threaten you with going behind the wall, to the maximum security side….They will send those with non-violent or drug offense to the maximum security side along with murders and rapists.
There is no consistency or regularity; it’s scatter shot, haphazard. They don’t follow their own rules. They threaten people with tickets, which are like demerits that can jack your work release options and good time. They give you tickets for doing something you aren’t supposed to, or when refusing work; it’s insolence, they say, failure to obey a direct order.
They deny you the ability to appeal up the chain of command. Written down grievances don’t go anywhere. Letters and communication, including grievances and legal related communications are confiscated.
There are threats and intimidation. If you don’t do class the assistant warden will mess with your mail. No letters for mail. Then they will cut off your access to phone. Finally, they’ll send you to segregated population—send you behind the wall.
You get “activated” to do work outside of your normal job or on your off day frequently.
Inmate R continued in a follow up letter that made it through the IDOC censors, and in a series of other phone calls in the late spring.
They’re tampering with the mail. The programming warden (Barnes) told us they would do this if we didn’t cooperate [with slave labor work schedules]. First, mess with our mail, then our phones, then our visits, then tickets, then segregation behind the wall (trumped up tickets they make stick) and then a disciplinary prison transfer. (I saw it happen in real time).
The mail room was incredibly inefficient this then provided an excuse if something was missing.
There is denial of essential items that are due to be provided to you, including toilet paper, soap, whites (t-shirts, boxers, socks, clean sheets, and pillow cases), as well as boots.
There are times when I am trying to get commissary. Guys leave from my wing. I ask, “can I get there?” They use group punishment. “Oh you think you are special?” They say I screwed it up—and won’t let anyone go.
There is no redress, and no grievances on anything. They don’t have to respond to grievances if they want to. Certain workers have no days off. I worked a month and a half straight in July, They got mad when you have visits, because it takes you away from your job.
There is retribution, they change your off day. Once the boss wouldn’t let me go to visit. I had family waiting. People were not letting me go visit my family.
While individuals are penalized severely for not working the schedules they are commanded, officers let other illegal activities behavior slip by.
There is drug use, people take psychotropic meds recreationally. People trade them to people working in the tunnel. There is nothing to do so people are taking pills. There is less of it now, but there is heroin in here, people are sniffing it. One kid had a cell phone; he got caught for that. They are lax on certain things, but not others.
There were issues with the commissary, people’s stuff in commissary getting stolen, but it’s gotten cleaned up. We are subject to the whim of correctional officers on the 1st shift, and you can only go [to the commissary] twice a month.
People working at the facility aren’t supposed to be friends/family with inmates. And yet, it happens a lot. Super shitty rules on what you could plan out for a visit.
There are no good time contracts. In Vienna we used to have signed papers you would at least saw what they promised you and be able to sign it. Here it is totally ad hoc. Constantly shifting and seemingly arbitrary changes in rules and procedures.
Correctional Officers in a maximum security prison with rapists and murderers, have the ability to place non-violent offenders complaining about working conditions in dangerous situations.
One guy I know was in Vienna went to Statesville for work release, and was a violator. They beat him up cuz he didn’t’ give up his ass. One guy I know had his finger broken off in chuck hole, which is a cell hole that the tunnel crew uses to serve people their food. It is always something.
In his letter, Inmate R described the living conditions inmates suffered.
Water and Sanitation
[There are] open sewer pipelines, damaged sinks, there was one urinal for 48 people then two urinals for fifty four people. Open/Exposed pipes to urinal/sewer. Broken showers, toilets, sinks (non-working or mal-functioning). Showers (Auto off- press button 45 sec timer) were stuck on for three months straight. No water fountains. Hot water for NRCC /h2/kitchen broken since Feb 6th until I left [in mid-June]. Boiling water in kitchen to make hot water for dish washing. Moved from h1 to h2 after a week of cold showers.
There has been no hot water in the kitchen for months. It is super fucked up. You only get to shower once a week. There has been no hot water since January. The water is cold, the dorm is hot.
There is no air conditioning, they say they are in the process of repairing the AC. A/C broken in NRCC /H2/kitchen repair due to complete in Oct.
The lack of hot water includes the kitchen where we work to feed over 3,000 inmates. We have been boiling water non-stop to have hot water to wash dishes. The dishwasher, the dish washer is broken, dish washing is by hand. The water in the cauldron is not sanitary. Pots breaking down eating four or five meals.
The kitchen is a hot mess. Four broken ovens, the remaining three barely work. Seven broken cauldron (50 gal) pots, sole remaining pot working overtime (due to break soon). One working fryer (of four). Dishwasher /tray washing machine broken.
Ventilation, Vermin, Overcrowding
Windows do not open. No fresh air/breeze possible.
Roaches, mice, other vermin rampant. Various other equipment malfunctioning, in disrepair. Mixer, can openers, shitty cleaning equipment.
There is extreme overcrowding. One dorm has a 196 capacity and 230 people in the dorm. People are sleeping in day rooms. In the dorm are seven or eight guys sleeping on bunks in the day room.
It’s super hard to get seen for medical issues.
We’re eating tamales, chicken breast, baking fish, other ad hoc crappy meals; spaghetti, sloppy joes. It’s very bad. Yesterday we had lunch meat again. A bean burrito the day before. A lot of stuff is donated and expires.
There is a real lack of options, nothing to do.
The yard is extremely small, fifty yards long, twelve or twenty yards wide, a trapezoid shape, two small, weight area four yard strip around round about, there’s a small grassy area, two benches to bunk work entrances around. Basketball courts end with little diamond of green grass. The weights are fucked up. Equipment all shoddy. We have yard 5 days a week – Saturday through Wednesday, and Night guard. Everyone from every joint says the yard is super small. We have yard 2 hours two times a week, two sessions, from eight am to noon, Night guard, Four or five in the afternoon. One and a half or two hours.
We had a Minimum Security Unit appreciation day with burgers and dogs last year, with volley a ball net. But it’s hard to play games in the yard . They do token things like that to make you feel not a piece of dirt every once in a while.
There are a lack of activities. There are a few classes, but they are classes in name only. People sit around and talk, women teach us these classes. There is inside out dads, a behavior oriented therapy class. People take them to get good time, so they can leave earlier, and have their sentences reduced. There are four or five classes. Some have five or six guys, sometimes it is ten to twelve. I think about 48 are enrolled of 200 in our area.
The classes are hard to take, and not really working that well. After the first few months, they [IDOC] realized it wasn’t working. There were better classes at other prisons. People have third shift work assignments, then class in the morning—how can you do that? You are falling asleep in class.
They force you to go to work during class time. They have some 10 week courses. “Thinking for a change” is two times a week, it’s a 26 week course. Also cognitive behavioral therapy. There are small groups, and a staff person. But the classes in other prisons are better than Statesville.
Besides these behavior modification classes there is nothing to do. There are no clubs. No college nor vocational training. No opportunities to create our own groups or activities. There is no library, and no TVs in HZ. H1 had day room with cable, but we don’t have that here. Inmates couldn’t get cable, even though we paid a fee for it; we had to use antennas.
There are arbitrary rules with visits. Like touching family. There is no hugging and kissing. They are arbitrary; you can’t talk to people; can’t stand up. They regulate how you meet with your loved ones. But it’s only on weekends- a total of six days a month. They said you can see and touch your children, to hold and hug relatives and visitors; to play with them, but it was all a lie, you can’t do that.
A New Deal for Illinois
Statements by newly elected officials such as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, and Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton raise hopes that Illinois’ economy of ever increasing investments in militarized policing, mass incarceration, violence, rape, slave labor, and prison recidivism will change.
Alternatives to incarceration, including expedited work release and transition centers, and an increase in mental health, substance abuse, and educational programming for both those in prison and in communities that have suffered disproportionately from the New Jim Crow can reduce the prison population, save money, and help pave the way for a New Deal for Chicago, and the State of Illinois.
Another state is possible, and we can make it real.