How'd Illinois Prisons Lose $3.4m Of Stuff?

May 16, 2019

News Analysis — The Illinois Department of Corrections did not fare well in a recent state audit. Among the findings was that the agency could not account for 3,568 pieces of equipment.

Dig into the numbers and property records, and you’ll find a bigger story about the challenges of pursuing efficiency in state government.

When you look at the Department of Corrections’ property database, items that can’t be found are not declared “missing.” Rather, they’re “unlocated.”

Among the unlocated items at the end of the last budget year are an “Exercise Machine, 4 Station, Coronado,” two “Toaster(s), 4-slice,” and a “Heritage Salad Bar W/Sneeze Guard 1 Side.”

Some of the stuff seems clearly outdated and not likely to be of much use — who wants a Compaq computer from 1999, let alone an IBM Wheelwriter 6 typewriter, which first entered state service in 1986?

But there are also several projectors, dozens of radios, and scores of newer computers that might be useful, or at least should be accounted for.

Auditor General Frank Mautino, pictured when he was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

“Property control is important, and your vigilance at that is very telling at your own accountability,” Auditor General Frank Mautino said in an interview. This problem, he added, is not unique to the Department of Corrections — unlocated property is pretty common across state government.

“You find that with a lot of the bigger agencies — Human Services, you’ll find a lot of the same, where you have property that may move between buildings,” Mautino said, adding that just because property can’t be located during an audit, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been lost or stolen.

“Now some of those might be that they took this chair and they put it in the other room and nobody changed it over. So it’s not that they’re in all cases missing. Theft is a small part of it, but very rarely,“ Mautino said. “More times than not, it’s (that) they need better training (and) more people doing inventory and tracking.”

Ultimately, better control of state equipment is about making government more efficient, which is an idea both Democrats and Republicans like to talk about.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, on WTTW-TV’s Chicago Tonight: “The people that I’ve hired in my cabinet are looking within those agencies to find places in which we can bring some cost savings and efficiencies.”

State Rep. Grant Wehrli, a Republican from Naperville: “We need to see our expenses reduced before we can go to the taxpayers and ask for any more money. That’s where the hard work is.”

State Rep. Mark Batinick, also a Republican, from Plainfield: “We are very poor at delivering government services.”

When listing what he thinks is wrong with state government, Batinick specifically mentioned property management.

“I have a pillow at my office that is tagged — so we have administrative costs being spent when universities and institutions are begging for procurement reform,” Batinick said.

Getting back to the Department of Corrections’s audit — here we have a state agency that lost (or at least cannot account for) more than 3,500 pieces of equipment worth nearly $3.4 million.

That sounds pretty bad.

But I think it’s worth taking a step back to consider the broader context. That 3,500 pieces of missing equipment is out of a total inventory of 180,000 items — it represents about 2 percent.

Looking at the department’s current-year budget, the equipment is worth just one-quarter of one percent — 25 cents out of every hundred dollars.

Which is not to say its unimportant.

Department of Corrections Director John Baldwin speaks with reporters in this file photo.
Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois

“We should have a system that holds people accountable, and also allows them to do their job correctly," John Baldwin, the director of corrections for nearly four years. (Though not much longer — last week Pritzker named a successor who’s scheduled to take office June 1.)

When Baldwin talks about what it’ll take to fix the problem with inventory management, it doesn’t sound cheap.

“Virtually all the stuff we’re trying to do is paper-and-pencil based,” he said. “We do have a — supposedly — an inventory system that you can put stuff in, but you have to have somebody that has a computer to put the things in.”

Baldwin says in Corrections, people with a computer are in short supply.

“Out of our 13,000 employees, there’s 3,500 who have access to a computer,” he said. “I find that amazing in a negative sense.”

Amazing, perhaps, but potentially expensive to rectify.

And remember, unlocated property may not be a true cost, if the equipment is obsolete and the real issue is paperwork, rather than loss or theft.

But even if we could eliminate that cost, in terms of solving Illinois’ fiscal problems, it would be a teaspoon in a swimming pool.

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.