SPRINGFIELD - Gov. Pat Quinn's decision to halt an early prisoner release program has led to woeful living conditions for inmates at the Vandalia Correctional Center, a new report concludes.
In a scathing review of the 90-year-old minimum-security lock-up, a prison watchdog group said the state's rapidly growing inmate population has forced prison personnel to house offenders in areas of the facility that periodically flood, causing mold and mildew and potential health problems for the prisoners.
"Vandalia's overcrowded conditions should serve as a warning to Illinois' governor and legislature that if they do not reduce the population, and provide the funding, resources, and staffing needed to meet the population's basic needs, a lawsuit cannot be far behind," the John Howard Association noted.
An Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Thursday acknowledged there was a mold problem at Vandalia several months ago, but adamantly denied it still exists.
"That is absolutely false. We had testing. I refute them on this," said Sharyn Elman. "There is no mold problem at this time."
Elman also said the recent spike in the inmate population does not mean the prison system is overcrowded.
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Quinn's 2010 cancellation of a controversial program designed to release prisoners early has pushed the overall state prison population past the 48,000-inmate mark, up from 45,000 before the program ended.
Elman said the facilities can hold up to 51,000 inmates -- a figure based on not the actual design capacity of each prison, but on how many beds the state believes it can fit into the facilities, whether those are located in cells, gymnasiums or classrooms.
"We're not in an overcrowding situation yet," she said.
At Vandalia, there are more than 1,700 inmates in a facility rated to hold about 1,100 prisoners.
Several hundred inmates are being housed in dormitory-style rooms in the basements of some of the buildings on the expansive grounds. During its visit, John Howard investigators found inmates working to get rid of stagnant, dirty water that was pooling on the floor of the living areas.
The report by the Chicago-based organization notes that prison officials explained the water was an isolated incident caused by recent heavy rains. After investigators visited the prison, officials moved some inmates out of the basement area and into a gymnasium.
In a separate, unsolicited letter to the Lee Enterprises Springfield Bureau, one Vandalia inmate described flooding as a significant problem in the basement dorms.
Shawn Pfister, who has been in and out of the prison system since 1997 for drugs and burglary convictions, outlined how prison administrators deal with the problem.
"Once the water gets high enough they move inmates into the gymnasium onto the floor," the 32-year-old inmate noted. "They vacuum the water up then move the inmates back into that contaminated, makeshift dormitory that was built in 1920."
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which represents thousands of prison workers, said Corrections officials aren't being honest with the public about overcrowding.
"Due to overcrowding, Vandalia housed inmates in a basement until it flooded, then moved them to a gym. At Stateville, inmates sleep in hallways and in common rooms. At Dixon, every cell has been doubled, leaving nowhere to place violent inmates in single cells. These conditions are unsafe and unacceptable for staff and inmates alike, but they are common throughout the prison system," the union said in a statement.
In addition to potential health problems from mold, the John Howard Association reported that spider bites were common among inmates at Vandalia.
The aging prison was eyed for closure by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who said the facility was in a crumbling condition. The John Howard Association said overcrowding within the entire prison system makes closing any prison facility impractical.
The group urged Corrections officials to restart some sort of early prisoner release system to lower the inmate count to more manageable levels.
"As it stands, warehousing low-level offenders in poor living conditions and releasing them, resentful and traumatized, back into the community without job skills, education or rehabilitative treatment can only compromise public safety and cost the state more money in the long run," the report noted.
Elman said Thursday there is no timetable for implementing a new early release program.
"It could be the end of the year. It could be next year," Elman said. "There really is nothing that I know of."
(Kurt Erickson can be reached at email@example.com or 217-782-4043)