Poor conditions in county jails persist as state inspections go unenforced

You are currently viewing Poor conditions in county jails persist as state inspections go unenforcedDarrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org
A common area for inmates to gather during the day at the Champaign County jail in Downtown Urbana.

Trash litters the floors of the Edgar County jail, unknown liquid leaks from the ceilings, and broken locks make it impossible to secure internal doors.

The Sangamon County Jail is consistently overcrowded, making living quarters unfit for inmates.

The Greene County jail has been repeatedly cited for insufficient staff, thus endangering guards and inmates and putting the county at risk of costly lawsuits.

These are just a few of the shortcomings in the Illinois county jails revealed in a review of hundreds of state inspection reports from the past five years by CU-CitizenAccess.org. The reports cover the state’s more than 90 jails that house as many as 19,000 inmates on any given day. Jails typically are the first stop in the incarceration system, often imprisoning those charged with minor and major offenses who are awaiting hearings or trials.

The inspection reports show the state has little power to ensure that deficiencies, even serious ones, are corrected in a timely fashion – or corrected at all. Indeed, there is no evidence showing that problems found by the inspections have resulted in a jail’s operations being suspended or closed.

Inspectors refer the serious problems to the director of the Department of Corrections, who then notifies the state attorney general’s office if the violations are not corrected in six months.

Although the state inspection letters routinely warn a “failure to take affirmative action may result in referral to the Office of the Illinois Attorney General,” there was no documentation showing any enforcement by the attorney general’s office.

Natalie Bauer, Communications Director for the Office of the Attorney General, asked in an email exchange why there was an expectation that the attorney general office would take action on jails that did not correct problems.  In response to questions about the Edgar County jail situation she wrote:

“In terms of this particular issue, we’re aware of the concerns after DOC reached out to us, and it’s our understanding that DOC is continuing its discussions with the county as well. So we’re monitoring those developments at this point.”

Under the current system, a criminal justice specialist from the Illinois Department of Corrections’ Jail and Detention Standards Unitconducts the inspection of a county jail. These inspections occur annually, but may be more frequent if the jail asks for additional help.

The inspections make sure that the jail is in compliance with the standards, which are basic and minimal to account for the wide variety of facilities.

The jail inspection looks at staffing and administration, record keeping, the admission and release procedures, some medical and mental health care, classification and separation of inmates, housing, food services, training of staff, proper storage of equipment, general cleanliness of the facility, among some other miscellaneous areas like mail procedures and visitation.

The inspection is a long checklist, and the inspector marks “YES, NO or N/A” next to each item on the list. Non-compliances are noted in the inspector’s comments along with recommendations.

But sometimes, the standards for the inspections are so low that inspectors will not cite problems even if the county jail officials themselves have said a facility is beyond repair and should be closed.

For example, officials in Champaign County and a national inspection team have found that the county downtown jail is in “deplorable” condition and has infestations of cockroaches, a heating and cooling system that is failing, and a design that does not allow guards to properly separate male and female inmates.

But last year’s state jail inspection report did not address the condition of the facility, instead pointing out the need for additional space for inmates requiring special treatment. The report also said those inmates were beginning “to present a problem for your security staff.”

Lack of enforcement

Mike Funk is manager of the Jail and Detention Standards Unit at the Illinois Department of Corrections, which oversees jail inspections. He said inspectors have no way of specifying which non-compliances are more severe than others. He also said jails are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“We try to be as consistent as we can,” said Funk. “It’s extremely difficult to compare a new jail versus one that’s 100 years old.”

Illinois is not alone. Many states lack clear standards, said Alan Kalmanoff, the executive director of the Institute for Law and Policy Planning, a national consulting firm.

“Uniformly, from the worst to the best, there is a general failure of enforcement of those standards,” said Kalmanoff, who has been to an estimated 400 jurisdictions and is currently consulting for Champaign County.

Under current procedures in Illinois, the jail inspector’s inspection reports make note of any noncompliance and include a letter to the sheriff with notification. But the state county jail standards do not include a required amount of time in which the non-compliances must be fixed.

However, Funk said his unit, which has four inspectors for the entire state, communicates frequently with the jails outside of the annual inspections to provide technical assistance.

John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison reform group in Illinois, said that although any sort of oversight or inspections are beneficial, they seldom lead to change. The problem, he said, is that the inspection and remediation system is reactionary, not preventative.

“What’s disturbing about prisons and jails across the U.S. is that the only effective oversight we have in our society, whether it’s at the prison or jail level, is litigation,” Maki said. “What’s problematic about that is…it only works if a very grievous injury has already taken place.”

But when legal action against jails is not pursued, as in Illinois, very little can be fixed, he said.

“Ultimately, the teeth of oversight are very dull,” said Maki.

Jails in Illinois do vary greatly. The Carroll County jail in northern Illinois has a capacity of 24 inmates and was built in 1835 and renovated in 1979. In contrast, Champaign County has two jails; one built in 1980 and another built in 1995, with an overall capacity of 313. The Cook County jail system – by far the largest in the state – has seven different locations that hold a total capacity of more than 8,000 inmates.

The Illinois County Jail Standards were first written in 1980 and were revised in 1997 and 2004, mostly to account for changes in technology that is used in jails.

As Funk noted, the standards are broad and minimal to account for the wide range of county jails in the state.

“No two jail inspections receive a routine response,” said Funk, adding that it is a county’s job to fix the problem at a jail.

Lack of funds

But many jails with persistent problems simply do not have the county funds to implement changes to bring themselves into compliance with the standards. Renovations or rebuilding a jail can cost tens of thousands of dollars or run into the millions.

The 2012 and 2013 inspections of the Edgar County jail led the Department of Corrections to say it would seek to close the jail because of its deficiencies. In addition, the Illinois Attorney General is considering legal action.

But Edgar County Sheriff Edward Motley said lack of funds prevents him from making the necessary renovations and hiring more staff.

“I’m doing everything I possibly can,” Motley said about fixing non-compliances in the 121-year-old building.

In Sangamon County, the jail inspection unit wrote, “It should be noted that all of the non-compliances with Illinois County Jail Standards listed have been previously cited and will require extensive remodeling and expenditure of funds to assure compliance with the standards.”

But according to the latest inspection from December 2012, the jail held 311 detainees, although its capacity is 278. The non-compliances reflected that living quarters are unsuitable and there is not enough space for inmates.

In addition, the county jail has lost seven staff members due to retirement or attrition, according to Sheriff Neil Williamson.

“My goal is to replace them, but the county is once again strapped, like all counties are,” Williamson said. “The budget is razor thin. They’re not about to raise taxes.”

Williamson said his jail problems have not gone to the Illinois Attorney General, even though the Department of Corrections has made note of overcrowding.

“That’s a standard thing with them,” Williamson said. “As far as any action they take, it never happens, as far as population goes.”

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