More answers sought on Stateville prison demolition plan after hearing

Labor leaders, elected officials want more answers on prison plan

Stateville Correctional Center

Jimmy Soto spent more than 42 years wrongfully imprisoned in Illinois Department of Corrections facilities.

In 2020, he was moved to the “F-House” at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, a condemned unit, not because he was being punished but because it was where the facility was housing individuals in custody who’d tested positive for COVID-19. Four years earlier, the F-House had closed due to health and safety concerns.

“Roaches galore,” Soto recalled. “I had only cold running water. There was no hot water.”

He said conditions inside Stateville’s active units were hardly better: mold, cold water and poorly functioning drains were all common. Eating food prepared at the prison or drinking water from its pipes is a risk every time, Soto said.

“In particular, the kitchen – maintenance of it wasn’t kept up. You would often have broken pots, grease would be allowed to build up, they had a really bad mice and roach infestation,” he told Capitol News Illinois.

He was one of the individuals to speak in favor of Gov. JB Pritzker’s plan to demolish the facility at a public hearing Tuesday night, while the union representing workers at the prison arrived in droves to seek more clarity on the governor’s proposal – which could close Stateville as soon as September.

The plan, announced by Pritzker in March, seeks to demolish and rebuild Stateville, along with the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, after a commissioned report that showed they were among several IDOC facilities in drastic disrepair. Stateville was built in 1925, and Logan was built in the 1870s as the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children before it was converted to a women’s prison in 1978.

The Tuesday night hearing was the first of two on the planned demolitions and closures that will be held by the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability this week before it gives a nonbinding recommendation to the governor Friday.

Pritzker’s plan

The budget for fiscal 2025, which begins July 1, includes $900 million for the rebuild plan. It comes almost a year after the governor’s office commissioned an infrastructure report by CGL Companies, an international consulting firm that exclusively evaluates correctional facilities.

The report – which the state paid CGL Companies about $1.3 million to conduct – found facilities housing Illinois’ estimated 30,000-person prison population have been in disarray for decades. A “master plan” in the report recommended about $260 million worth of projects across the state’s prisons, although it made no mention of rebuilding entire correctional centers. It also suggested addressing the agency’s $2.5 billion backlog of deferred maintenance – which it predicted could double in five years – but did not determine which ongoing capital development projects to prioritize.

CGL’s report recommended building out program space across IDOC, including mental health and treatment space, building a geriatric unit, reducing the capacity at Pontiac Correctional Center (which was built in 1871), and relocating women in custody from Logan.

Stateville and Logan were among five facilities categorized as “does not meet” operational standards, meaning they are “not conducive to a rehabilitative environment.”

IDOC acting Director Latoya Hughes said Tuesday that the Pritzker administration’s decision to demolish the facilities was spurred by ongoing litigation that seeks to declare Stateville’s conditions inhospitable and the state’s continued operation of it unconstitutional.

That echoed Pritzker’s April comments, when he said closing the facilities was “not an optional issue.”

“This should have been done, frankly, many years ago, and it’s been put off because of the lack of resources,” Pritzker said. “Now we have the resources to do it, but we shouldn’t have waited even this long.”

Although Pritzker laid out a plan in April to rebuild Logan – one of only two women’s prisons in Illinois – on the grounds of Stateville, some lawmakers Tuesday questioned Hughes on whether there is a real intention to rebuild Stateville or simply close two dilapidated prisons.

“We are certainly committed to rebuilding Stateville Correctional Center because it is extremely important for the ecosystem of the Department of Corrections,” Hughes said, without going into further specifics of the plan other than what already is publicly available.

Although the governor’s office has not announced an explicit plan for Logan’s rebuild, it has noted that it plans to keep the current facility open until a new one is built on the grounds at the Stateville site. It plans to raze Stateville and rebuild the prison on the same ground, although little information has been provided on whether the new center would include a geriatric, psychiatric or reentry unit.

Opposition to razing

Much of the criticism of the Pritzker announcement has focused on a lack of communication and detail with the plan.

Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville, who is co-chair of COGFA, said there still are unanswered questions about where individuals in custody and employees would be able to transfer to during the transition or if they’d have any say in the matter.

“I think we’re all looking for the same clarity. We all want to know what’s going on and what the plan is,” Davidsmeyer said. “I think we all have the same feeling that the plan either doesn’t exist or it’s just being held close by the department or the administration.”

Hughes told the commission that contingency plans for employees at Stateville have not yet been made.

“We have not begun those conversations fully because we are still engaging in the COGFA process,” Hughes said. “I think it’s important to also understand that the word ‘layoff’ does not necessarily mean without a job. It’s our process of how we move and transfer employees to other facilities.”

At a news conference before Tuesday’s hearing, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union that represents Stateville employees argued that the governor’s plan would “threaten the layoff of hundreds of employees, and undermine safety, education, health care, rehabilitative programming and visitation in the prison system.”

Pritzker in May urged local officials “to not rely upon a state-run facility that’s a prison” for economic development when asked about resistance to his plan for Logan Correctional Center.

Prison reform advocates, meanwhile, raised concerns about how the transfer might be handled, including the ability to rehouse women and effectively communicate plans to family members of those in prison.

Susan Lucci, an Oak Park resident, described how the decision will have the most influence for people inside prisons, not those who rely on employment from one.

“A significant voice is missing,” Lucci said. “I’d like to remind us of the purpose and mission of IDOC. It’s not an employer, right? It is in the business of taking care of folks impacted by our justice system. So where are their voices being heard?”

Without giving specifics, the governor’s office has said transition plans are in the works for the estimated 1,500 people inside Logan and Stateville, and Pritzker has noted similar closures have taken place in the past.

People have said, ‘Well, how on earth could you possibly do that?’” the governor said in March. “Well, you may know that we have about 10,000 fewer prisoners in our correction system today than we did five years ago. There is the ability for us to move people to other facilities. How that will take place? Obviously, there’s some complexity to it.”

Others oppose the governor’s plan to demolish Stateville without considering its historical context. The Historical Preservation Society of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party argues that some of the prison should be preserved for public record.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable for them to preserve the parts of that prison that we can all use – not just Black people, our society,” Leila Wills, a journalist and Illinois chapter Historical Preservation Society executive director, said in an interview. “This overcrowding, the conditions, how they’ve been cut off from the community, this is going on all the way until now.”

She said the organization wants the condemned F-House, one of the last remaining panopticon roundhouses in the U.S. – a design that has been deemed inhumane by countries across the world – to remain as a historical testament to “modern-day atrocities.” She also said announcing plans to raze the prison without first consulting those affected and historical experts shouldn’t have happened.

“You can’t justify the teardown without showing how it got to that point in the first place, as is the case with Stateville prison. [It] is a living example of Black torture in this country,” Wills said.

‘Lipstick on a pig’

Benard McKinley, who served more than 22 years in IDOC facilities before being released in January, said that aside from the F-House, nothing should be kept of the almost 100-year-old facility.

“I don’t believe Stateville can be salvaged,” McKinley said. “It’s beyond repair.”

He chose to stay in Stateville for an additional four years after a decision shortening his sentence from the Illinois Appellate Court in order to finish his bachelor’s degree with the Northwestern Prison Education Program. He became the first individual in Illinois to take the LSAT while incarcerated.

He said the other prison he was in, the downstate Menard Correctional Center south of St. Louis, was in better condition than Stateville despite being an older facility by almost 50 years.

“That’s like their breadwinner for that county. Then they’re going to make sure they manage something that’s their lifeline much better than how Stateville does. They managed to try to keep Menard up to code,” McKinley said.

Soto, who spent four decades wrongly incarcerated, told COGFA at Tuesday’s hearing that he recently discovered the drinking water at Stateville contaminated his blood with lead, causing him to be prediabetic.

He and his cousin, David Ayala, each spent more than 40 years in IDOC custody before they were exonerated of a double murder in December 2023 by a Cook County judge who found they both received improper legal defense in the early 1980s.

They are the two exonerees with the longest time wrongfully served in the history of a state that is home to the most exonerations in the country.

Soto said decades inside prison walls gave him time to study them up and down, fractures and all.

“There are cracks in the walls, and when it rains or there’s a plumbing issue high above you, the water trickles down and then accumulates,” Soto said.

The water then turns into a “white, chalky mold to then a green mold, and then it turns to black mold,” he said.

McKinley said the decision to use almost $1 billion of taxpayer money to rebuild prisons won’t help lower crime or recidivism. He said funding “could be allocated to more productive programs that can actually help individuals from having to experience incarceration.”

However, he stressed there is a need for clean water in every IDOC facility.

“At the end of the day, all you’re doing is putting lipstick on a pig,” McKinley said. “That’s exactly what’s going on.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.