Like most states, Illinois struggles to cover the $1.2 billion cost of its over two dozen adult and juvenile prison facilities, which house 45,000 inmates. The prison I wrote about, Sheridan Correctional Center, is dedicated to offenders with drug problems and reflects an effort by the state to address substance abuse addiction - the root cause of many inmates landing in prison.
It wasn’t an easy story to report. It took several calls to people at various levels of the Department of Corrections to even gain permission to visit Sheridan. (The relationship between the media and IDOC is strained these days because of negative news coverage last year of a controversial early release program.)
Staff photographer Steve Smedley and I were taken on a 3-hour tour guided by the warden and given access to three inmates from our newspaper circulation area. We also met with treatment providers who work with inmates in a therapeutic setting on developing job and life skills.
Among the questions we wanted to answer for readers were: how do inmates spend their time? What is the cost and what are the results on the investment?
The decision to write about Sheridan follows other prison-related stories The Pantagraph has done, including stories on the former death row facility in Pontiac and the women's prison in Lincoln, Illinois. It's the paper's view that people sent to prison will one day return to and impact the community, and that, plus the large amount of taxpayer money involved, makes coverage of prison issues both relevant and important to our readers.
My research relied on studies and data compiled by academics and state agencies. Since Sheridan released its first inmates in 2004, it has been examined thoroughly to determine what is working and what isn't. The general consensus has been that Sheridan is succeeding in its goals--so much so, that it has served as a modal for a second drug-treatment prison in southern Illinois. Data and studies by both the state and outside entities indicate that Sheridan's treatment approach is having a positive impact on the lives significant numbers inmates once they leave the facility. This type of evidence-based approach is relatively new for the corrections business in Illinois.
Studies by Roosevelt University and Pew Center for the States were especially helpful in telling the story. Charts provided by a Roosevelt representative at CMCJ/Pew’s Chicago seminar in September, 2009 were featured in our Sheridan package of stories. Especially helpful in doing the story was information on how Illinois ranked in comparison with other states, in terms of admissions of drug offenders, and the costs associated with housing these inmates.
In addition to the main story, we included a sidebar that looked at the breakdown of the prison population in Illinois. IDOC estimates 69 percent of prisoners are locked up for crimes related to drugs. Illinois saw a slight drop in its prison population last year, a fact that IDOC addressed, and we included in the sidebar
I also spoke with a defense attorney who previously served as a prosecutor, about the need to modify drug laws, so that they don’t create thousands of new felons each year. The attorney is an insider with first-hand experience with sentencing laws through her work at local criminal courts. Her opinion that changes are needed added another layer to the perspective that the influx of drug offenders into Illinois prisons creates a burden on state resources and on a society that later has to deal with the lack of employment and other hardships faced by felons.
The examination of what goes on behind bars offered a fascinating look at how society handles punishment and what, if any, role rehabilitation plays in the process. Like inmate Joe Jumper said: it can be like looking in the mirror because the outcome of incarceration is a reflection of the value we place on the potential for change.
Photo by Steve Smedley of The Pantagraph.
The story can also be found in its entirety at www.pantagraph.com/sheridan.