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Watchdog Group Polices US Prisons

FILE - Inmates hang out on their bunks in the Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas.

There are more than two million people in jail here in the United States according to the most recent statistics.

Most people who study the issue say there are so many people in prison because the U.S. has criminalized a lot of behavior, mandated longer sentences, and also made jail a common punishment even for some non-violent crimes in the hope that the likelihood of incarceration would act as a deterrent.

Crime rates have dropped, but the result is a nation that makes up 4 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's prison population. And our prison system isn't set up to handle that many people.

Ricky spent almost 35 years of his life behind bars, convicted of murder. The 59-year-old is now free from prison, but not from the daunting memories of his incarcerated years.

“I’d say psychologically, trying to endure day after day, week after week and watching your loved ones pass as the years gone.”

He also had to deal with many challenges people in correctional facilities face every day.

“They would put you in a cell with someone who wasn’t compatible with you, not having a voice,” he recalled. “And also the prison conditions, you have over-crowdedness.”

Crowded, unsafe prisons

The problem is particularly bad in the U.S. state of Illinois. The prisons there are designed to hold about 32,000 people, but nearly 50,000 were crammed into the Illinois prisons in 2013.

This kind of overcrowding is the kind of statistic that worries Jennifer Vollen-Katz, the interim director of the prison watchdog group The John Howard Association.

“We’re somewhere in the neighborhood of 47,000 inmates within the State of Illinois Department of Correction,” she said. “Originally, this was a system built to house just over 32,000 inmates.”

JHA is a 113-year-old independent watchdog over Illinois’ correctional facilities. Its goal is to ensure humane and fair treatment of the incarcerated in the state.

Vollen-Katz says over-crowding often creates unsafe conditions for both inmates and the staff in these facilities and leads to a lack of programing.

“A lack of programing means that inmates are not able to use their time productively, to gain the skills, to do things that might increase their employment opportunities upon release, not to mention just sheer boredom and missing your family and all that being exasperated by the lack of productive activity and engagement, which is certainly a problem inside prisons right now,” said Vollen-Katz.

Still our citizens

Regular reporting on all facilities in Illinois adult and juvenile prison systems, she says, helps educate the public and policy makers about the consequences of the criminal justice policy.

“We believe that there is importance simply in showing up, and bearing witness and reporting our observations of what goes on inside the prison to the outside world so that the outside world remembers that our citizens that are in prison are still our citizens, they’re still people and that these are people that will eventually return to our communities.”

Many advocacy groups are working to improve prison conditions and promote inmates rights. JHA is one of them. The organization is named after John Howard, an 18th century humanitarian who championed the cause of prison reform, first in his homeland of England, before expanding his mission throughout Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and Ireland.

Changing policies

Over the years, JHA has been able to create important policy changes. A recent JHA report exposing deficits in medical treatment for adult inmate population led to public hearing on prison healthcare and an audit of the Department of Corrections healthcare system.

Vollen-Katz says JHA also examined a program designed to help young offenders after they completed their sentences.

“The Half-Way Back program is that when someone is having trouble being successful upon release, you bring them to some place more structured, typically something that looks like half way house, but they are allowed to leave to pursue their education or employment," she explained. "The way [the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice] were executing it was creating a separate wing inside one of the youth prisons and calling it ‘Half-Way Back,’ but the youth there were not half way back, they were all the way back. They were in prison and weren’t allowed to leave. So after publishing a report, the department decided to stop that program and relocate its funds in different ways that might be more successful for entry planning and support.”

In 2009, when a young prisoner committed suicide, JHA raised awareness about the importance of diagnosing mental illness and preventing suicide inside prisons. Changing the furniture in youth prisons was part of this campaign.

“They used to be metal beds, bunk beds. They posed a great danger to those experiencing suicide thoughts. In report after report, we pointed out how dangerous this kind of furniture was. Not 100 percent yet, but pretty close, of the furniture have been traded out to plastic molded bedding that doesn’t pose the same danger that the old furniture did.”

Recognition and support

The John Howard Association was one of nine non-profits honored this year with a MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. For an independent group, Vollen-Katz says, that is an encouraging recognition. And since it receives no government funds, the award also helps sustain the work they do.

“We received a $500,000 award, which is incredibly exciting for us in terms of our ability to build capacity, to increase our communications and outreach and to get more support and to do more work; all that is incredibly exciting and important for an organization of our size.”

With this recognition and support, Jennifer Vollen-Katz says, the JHA is determined to continue the important work of prison reform helping to ensure that Illinois’s justice systems are fair, effective and humane.

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